Bharati Mukherjee Essay - Mukherjee, Bharati (Short Story Criticism)

Mukherjee, Bharati (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Bharati Mukherjee 1940-

Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and journalist. See also Bharati Mukherjee Contemporary Literary Criticism.

Mukherjee's short stories, which explore the struggles of immigrants living in the United States and Canada, have been compared to those of V. S. Naipaul and Bernard Malamud for their ironic and penetrating literary style. Mirroring her own life as an Indian immigrant to Canada and later the United States, many of Mukherjee's characters are Indian women who are victims of racism and sexism, often driven to desperate acts of violence after realizing they can fit into neither the culture of the West nor the Indian society they left behind. As Mukherjee's career has developed, her stories have expanded to include the narratives of refugees and immigrants from other Asian countries as well as the voices of long-settled European Americans and Canadians. Her later stories show increasing optimism at the possibility of successful integration as her characters learn that rebuilding their lives and identities allows them greater personal opportunities and a chance to participate in fostering a more inclusive society and culture.

Biographical Information

In 1940, Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, to wealthy Brahmin parents, and was brought up in a large extended household of over fifty family members. Mukherjee's parents and their three daughters moved to London in 1948 to escape the civil unrest brought on by India's independence and partition. There the girls attended school and became fluent in English. In 1951 the family returned to Calcutta, and Mukherjee continued her English-language instruction at the Loretto Convent School, a missionary institution run by Irish nuns. In 1959 she received a B.A. in English from the University of Calcutta; two years later she earned a Master's degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda.

In 1961 Mukherjee received a scholarship to study writing at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, where she first earned a Masters of Fine Arts and then a Ph.D. While at Iowa she met the Canadian writer Clark Blaise, whom she married in 1963 against the wishes of her Bengali family, who had arranged for her to be married to an Indian nuclear physicist. In 1966 the couple moved to Montreal, where Mukherjee taught English at McGill University. Three years later they moved to Toronto with their two small children where Mukherjee, now a Canadian citizen, began work on her first novel. The Tiger's Daughter is a loosely autobiographical story about an East Indian immigrant who is unable to adjust to North American culture, but who at the same time is painfully aware that she will never again belong in the culture she has left behind.

In 1972, a year after publication of The Tiger's Daughter, Mukherjee and Blaise went to live for a year in Calcutta, where they kept independent journals that were later published under the title Days and Nights in Calcutta. Mukherjee's entries reveal her to be, like the protagonist in The Tiger's Daughter, ambivalent about her return “home” after living in the West for ten years: the innocence of her childhood is shattered, and she decries the lack of opportunity offered to women in her native land. The return to Canada was not much better, however, and the personal hostility and racial prejudice Mukherjee experienced there became material for her 1975 novel, Wife. Citing Canadian hostility toward Asian immigrants, Mukherjee and her family moved in 1980 to the United States, a culture Mukherjee found to be less threatened by non-European newcomers.

Mukherjee's popularity as a writer increased dramatically with the publication of her first volume of short stories, Darkness, in 1985. A second collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1989 Mukherjee expanded one of the Middleman stories into the critically-acclaimed novel Jasmine, about an Indian refugee who is empowered by the trials of assimilation. A fourth novel dealing with issues of immigration and resulting identity crises, The Holder of the World, was published in 1993.

In addition to her fiction, Mukherjee has published several academic works on Indian politics and society. In 1987 she and Blaise co-authored a second book, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air Indian Tragedy, an examination of the horror and latent racism exposed by the 1985 airline crash that killed hundreds of Canadian citizens, most of whom were of Indian descent. Today Mukherjee teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley where she remains a vocal proponent of the rights of women and immigrants.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Mukherjee's first volume of short fiction, Darkness, is a collection of twelve short stories about the difficulties that Indian immigrants have in adjusting to life in Canada and the United States. Not only must these outsiders deal with language issues and other cultural differences, they often become the victims of racial prejudice and violence that limit their freedom and opportunity. Racism in Canada is depicted as severe and overt, but more subtle racial discrimination in the United States leaves immigrants with similarly broken dreams—in Mukherjee's words, with “broken identities and discarded languages.” As the title of the collection implies, the stories are bleak and offer an angry condemnation of the hospitality of the West.

In her second volume of short fiction, The Middleman and Other Stories, Mukherjee expands her narrative voice to explore not only the lives of immigrants but also those of European Americans who have been brought into contact with cultures about which they have little knowledge. The tone of the second collection is clearly lighter than that of Darkness. The characters in Middleman learn that it is an opportunity as well as a curse to have to remake their lives and their personal identities, but they see also that they can play an active part in the new culture that is slowly coming to accept them. The hopeful and often celebratory tone of these stories represents a marked development in the themes of Mukherjee's immigrant tales.

Critical Reception

The publication of Darkness in 1985 earned Mukherjee far greater critical acclaim than had either of her first two novels. Critics applauded Mukherjee's vivid and realistic portrayals of Indian immigrant life. The portrayal of racial hatred and violence in Canada, combined with Mukherjee's introductory comment that Canadian xenophobia had caused her to immigrate to the United States, received fire from Canadian commentators, who declared that her optimistic portrayal of the United States was due more to her own personal sense of assimilation than any facts about the racial climates in the two countries. While some critics dismissed the stories in Darkness as vengeful attacks on Canada that were most suitable for magazine publication, the majority of critics hailed Darkness as a rich exploration of homelessness and loss of identity in the tradition of authors such as Naipaul and Malamud. Her focus on female protagonists was welcomed by women who recognized in Mukherjee's stories unusual empathy for the monumental struggles faced by immigrant women.

The Middleman and Other Stories won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction and cemented Mukherjee's position as an important literary figure in the United States. While some critics claimed that her privileged upbringing in India made her unable to understand the plight of impoverished immigrants, most critics applauded Mukherjee's narrative expansion to include Caribbean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and other minority voices from diverse social backgrounds. Several stories are narrated by European Americans who are forced for the first time to adjust their own lives and traditions because of relationships they form with foreigners. In all these stories Mukherjee displays a keen ear for American vernacular and presents subtle and often humorous descriptions of cultural barriers and misunderstandings. Critics were also enthusiastic about the sense of hope that make the stories of The Middleman and Other Stories distinct from those in Darkness, and these new stories have been called a “literary bridge of understanding” between North Americans and its newest Asian immigrants.

Principal Works

Darkness 1985

The Middleman and Other Stories 1988

Leave it to Me 1997

The Tiger's Daughter (novel) 1972

Wife (novel) 1975

Kaufilya's Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation (nonfiction) 1976

Days and Nights in Calcutta [with Clark Blaise] (journals) 1977

The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air-India Tragedy [with Blaise] (nonfiction) 1987

Jasmine (novel) 1989

Political Culture and Leadership in India (nonfiction) 1991

Regionalism in Indian Perspective (nonfiction) 1992

The Holder of the World (novel) 1993

Criticism

Arvindra Sant-Wade and Karen Marguerite Radell (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Refashioning the Self: Immigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee's New World,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 11-17.

[In the following essay, Sant-Wade and Radell discuss three short stories from Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories, particularly the issue of immigrant women reshaping their lives and identities in the New World.]

The female protagonist in one of Bharati Mukherjee's prize-winning short stories, from the collection titled The Middleman and Other Stories, is shocked when her landlord lover refers to the two of them as “two wounded people,” and thinks to herself that “She knows she is...

(The entire section is 2866 words.)

Mitali R. Pati (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Love and the Indian Immigrant in Bharati Mukherjee's Short Fiction,” in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, pp. 197-211.

[In the following discussion of themes common to the short stories in Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories, Pati illustrates how Mukherjee skillfully sheds light on the immigrant experience and the search for self-realization and integrated identities.]

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.

...

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Sherry Morton-Mollo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Cultural Collisions: Dislocation, Reinvention, and Resolution in Bharati Mukherjee,” in Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 35-8.

[In the following essay, Morton-Mollo discusses Mukherjee's depiction in The Middleman and Other Storiesand Jasmine of the cultural “process” and “reidentification” immigrants undergo as they adapt to and transform their new world.]

Bharati Mukherjee is a twice-transplanted immigrant—from her native India originally and then from her husband's home country, Canada, where she experienced excruciating and humiliating racism; her works (the novel Jasmine and the short story...

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Victoria Carchidi (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “‘Orbiting’: Bharati Mukherjee's Kaleidoscope Vision,” in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Carchidi asserts that in the story “Orbiting” Mukherjee reveals the manner in which American society itself is remade by the immigrant experience.]

“Orbiting,” the story I discuss here, is included in a collection entitled Braided Lives. This title evokes an image of the interweaving of diverse points of view to create a new perspective that is neither wholly like nor wholly different from the elements that make it...

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Ranee Kaur Banerjee (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘Singing in the Seams’: Bharati Mukherjee's Immigrants,” in No Small World: Visions and Revisions of World Literature, National Council of Teachers of English, 1996, pp. 189-201.

[In the following essay, Banerjee examines Mukherjee's short stories and concludes that the author is masterful at describing the difficulties faced by immigrants and the extraordinary ways in which they create new identities for themselves.]

I see myself in an article on a Trinidad-Indian hooker; I see myself in the successful executive who slides Hindi film music in his tape deck as he drives into Manhattan; I see myself in the shady accountant who's...

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Urbashi Barat (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Expatriate Indian or Immigrant American? A Study of ‘A Father’ and ‘A Wife's Story,’” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 116-24.

[In the following essay, Barat considers two of Mukherjee's short stories and concludes that Mukherjee, despite her own denials, writes in the tradition of Indian women authors.]

In an interview with Alison B. Carb five years ago, Bharati Mukherjee made it very clear that she regards herself as being part of the American tradition rather than the Indian one: ‘I view myself as an American author in the tradition of other American authors whose ancestors arrived at Ellis...

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Subhash Chandra (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Americanness of the Immigrants in The Middleman and Other Stories,” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 130-36.

[In the following essay, Chandra rejects Mukherjee's appraisal of The Middleman and Other Stories as being tales about the “transformation” of immigrants and United States citizens as the two cultures collide, and argues instead that the collection echoes post-World War II fiction in which violence and loveless sex become manifestations of American fear and isolation.]

Bharati Mukherjee, born in Calcutta in 1940, went to the USA in 1961, to Canada in 1968, became a Canadian...

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Christine Gomez (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The On-Going Quest of Bharati Mukherjee from Expatriation to Immigration,” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 25-38.

[In the following essay, Gomez claims that Mukherjee's two collections of short stories, both written after leaving Canada for the United States, reflect her new sense of integration into the New World, and that her personal sense of exile was portrayed in the earlier novels written while she was living in Canada.]

Bharati Mukherjee, born in 1940 in Calcutta, married a Canadian fellow-student, Clark Blaise, at the University of Iowa, in 1963. She lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980. She became...

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Bharathi Harishankar (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “See(k)ing Differences: Constructions of Gender and Culture in the Short Texts of Bharati Mukherjee,” in Intersexions: Issues of Race and Gender in Canadian Women's Writing, Creative Books, 1996, pp. 164-78.

[In the following analysis of Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories, Harishankar maintains that Mukherjee's writings act as a bridge of understanding “between the mainstream and minority, or man and woman, or centre and periphery … to effect a recognition of a common humanity.”]

INTRODUCTION

Arguably, the two processes (seeing and seeking) operate simultaneously in any immigrant situation. The...

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Shagufta Imtiaz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Place and Displacement in ‘The Tenant’,” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 125-29.

[In the following essay, Imtiaz uses Mukherjee's story “The Tenant” to explore themes of exile, displacement, and varieties of multicultural social relationships.]

An important concern of the post-colonial literature is related to place and displacement. The concern with identifying a relationship between self and place leads to a crisis of identity. The self may have eroded either because of “dislocation” or “cultural denigration.” “Beyond their historical and cultural differences, place, displacement, and...

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A. V. Krishna Rao (essay date (1996)

SOURCE: “From Expatriation to Immigration: The Case of Bharati Mukherjee,” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 105-15.

[In the following essay, Rao discusses eight stories from Mukherjee's Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories and shows why in Mukherjee's own view they represent her desire to be thought of as a mainstream American author.]

I

The point of departure for my paper is Elaine H. Kim's definition of Asian American Literature as the “Literature written in English, during the last hundred years by Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and Korean American writers...

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S. K. Tikoo (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The American Dream: Immigration and Transformation in The Middleman and Other Stories,” in The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium, Prestige Books, 1996, pp. 137-47.

[In the following essay, Tikoo examines several of the short stories of The Middleman and Other Stories, concluding that “Mukherjee's stories ultimately present a fascinating picture of what constitutes modern America and the modern experience.”]

Bharati Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories is a fascinating collection that depicts the problems of the people emigrating to America and the dream of new life which tempts them to go there. America...

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Deborah Bowen (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Spaces of Translation: Bharati Mukherjee's ‘The Management of Grief,’” in Ariel: A Review of International English, Vol. 28, No. 3, July 1997, pp. 47-60.

[In the following essay, Bowen explores how in “The Management of Grief” grief becomes a “complex force for change, cultural resistance, and moral choice.”]

The word “translation” comes, etymologically, from the Latin for “bearing across.” Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.

...

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Bharati Mukherjee with Beverley Byers-Pevitts (interview date 1997)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee,” in Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 189-98.

[In the following interview, Mukherjee discusses the writing process, violence, feminism, and how her stories help to understand the immigrant experience.]

Born in Calcutta, Bharati Mukherjee attended the University of Calcutta and Baroda where she received a master's degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture. In 1961 she came to America to attend the Writer's Workshop and receive both the M.F.A. and the Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa. Mukherjee represents and writes about the (in...

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