Mukherjee, Bharati

Biography

Photo of Mukherjee speaking

Image by DGtal/Public Domain

Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940 to wealthy parents, Sudhir Lal and Bina Mukherjee in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. She learned how to read and write by the age of three. In 1947, she moved to Britain with her family at the age of eight and lived in Europe for about three and a half years. By the age of ten, Mukherjee knew that she wanted to become a writer, and had written numerous short stories.

After getting her B.A from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and her M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda in 1961, she came to the United States. Having been awarded a scholarship from the University of Iowa, she earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 1963 and her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1969. While studying at the University of Iowa, she met and married a Canadian student from Harvard, Clark Blaise, on September 19, 1963. The two writers met and, after a brief courtship, married within two weeks. Together, the two writers have produced two books along with their other independent works. Mukherjee’s career as professor and her marriage to Blaise Clark has given her opportunities to teach all over the United States and Canada. Currently she is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Major Themes

Mukherjee’s works focus on the “phenomenon of migration, the status of new immigrants, and the feeling of alienation often experienced by expatriates” as well as on Indian women and their struggle (Alam 7). Her own struggle with identity, first as an exile from India, then an Indian expatriate in Canada and finally as a immigrant in the United States has led to her current state of being an immigrant in a country of immigrants (Alam 10).

Biographer Fakrul Alam’s categorizes Mukherjee’s life into three phases, and her fiction can be interpreted with this schema as well. Her earlier works, such as the The Tiger’s Daughter and parts of Days and Nights in Calcutta, are her attempts to find her identity in her Indian heritage.

The Tiger’s Daughter is about a young girl named Tara who returns to India after many years of being away only to return to poverty and turmoil. This story parallels Mukherjee’s own return to India with Clark Blaise in 1973 and she was deeply affected by the chaos and poverty of Indian and mistreatment of women in the name of tradition. She writes that  “what is unforgivable is the lives that have been sacrificed to notions of propriety and obedience” (Days and Nights 217). However, her husband became very intrigued by the magic of the myth and culture that surrounded every part of Bengal. These differences of opinion, her shock and his awe, are seen in one of their joint publications, Days and Nights in Calcutta.

The second phase of her writing encompasses works such as Wife, the short stories in Darkness, an essay entitled “An Invisible Woman” and The Sorrow and the Terror, a joint effort with her husband. These works originate in Mukherjee’s own experience of racism in Canada, where despite being a tenured professor, she felt humiliated and on the edge of being a “housebound, fearful, aggrieved, obsessive, and unforgiving queen of bitterness”(Mukherjee, qtd. in Alam 10).

After moving back to the United States, she wrote about her personal experiences. One of her short stories entitled “Isolated Incidents” explores the biased Canadian view towards immigrants that she encountered, as well as how government agencies handled assaults on particular races. Another short story titled “The Tenant” continues to reflect on her focus on immigrant Indian women and their mistreatment. The story is about a divorced Indian woman studying in the States and her experiences with interracial relationships. One quotation from the story hints at Mukherjee’s views of Indian men as being too preoccupied to truly care for their wives and children: “‘All Indian men are wife beaters,’ Maya [the narrator] says. She means it and doesn’t mean it.” In Wife, Mukherjee writes about a woman named Dimple who has been oppressed by such men and attempts to be the ideal Bengali wife, but out of fear and personal instability, she murders her husband and eventually commits suicide. The stories in Darkness further endeavor to tell similar stories of immigrants and women.

In her third phase, Mukherjee is described as having accepted being “an immigrant, living in a continent of immigrants” (M. qtd in Alam 9). She claims an American identity and not a hyphenated Indian-American one:

I maintain that I am an American writer of Indian origin, not because I’m ashamed of my past, not because I’m betraying or distorting my past, but because my whole adult life has been lived here, and I write about the people who are immigrants going through the process of making a home here… I write in the tradition of immigrant experience rather than nostalgia and expatriation. That is very important. I am saying that the luxury of being a U.S. citizen for me is that can define myself in terms of things like my politics, my sexual orientation or my education. My affiliation with readers should be on the basis of what they want to read, not in terms of my ethnicity or my race.

(Mukherjee qtd. in Basbanes)

Mukherjee continues writing about the immigrant experience in her novel Jasmine and most of the stories in The Middle Man and Other Stories, a collection of short stories which won her the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction. Jasmine develops this idea of the mixing of the East and West by telling the story of a young Hindu woman who leaves India for the U.S. after her husband’s murder, only to be raped and eventually returned to the position of a caregiver through a series of jobs.

Mukherjee’s focus continues to be on immigrant women. She also uses the female characters to explore the spatio-temporal (Massachusetts to India) connections between different cultures. In Leave It to Me, Mukherjee tells the story of a young woman sociopath named Debby DiMartino, who seeks revenge on parents who abandoned her. The story reveals her ungrateful interaction with kind adoptive parents and a vengeful search for her real parents (described as a murderer and a flower child). The novel also looks at the conflict between Eastern and Western worlds and at mother-daughter relationships.

Works

  • Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Invisible Woman.” Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1981.
  • —. Kautilya’s Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation. Calcutta: Minerva, 1976.
  • —. Darkness. New York: Penguin, 1985.
  • —. Days and Nights in Calcutta. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
  • —. Desirable Daughters. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
  • —. The Holder of the World. New York: Knopf, 1993.
  • —. Jasmine. New York: Grove, 1989.
  • —. Leave It to Me. New York: Knopf, 1997.
  • —. The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove, 1988.
  • —. Political Culture and Leadership in India. Columbia: South Asia, 1991.
  • —. Regionalism in Indian Perspective. Columbia: South Asia, 1992.
  • —. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. New York: Viking, 1987.
  • —. The Tree Bride. New York: Hyperion, 2004.
  • —. The Tiger’s Daughter. Boston: Houghton, 1972.
  • —. Wife. Boston: Houghton, 1975.

Related Sites

Story hour with Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2zZ4VIWG0M

Works Cited

Author: Shilpi Pradhan, Spring 1998   Last edited: June 2012

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