Wife, Mukherjee’s second published novel, exemplifies the matter and manner of her early work. Unlike her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, which is wholly set in India, most of Wife takes place in the United States. With a gentle irony that serves to alleviate and distance an otherwise pathetic protagonist, Mukherjee depicts the mental breakdown of a weak-minded young woman who cannot cope with the traumatic experience of immigration from the structured society of India to the liberated society of New York City.
The opening sentences of the novel introduce the protagonist and set the playfully ironic tone:Dimple Dasgupta had set her heart on marrying a neurosurgeon, but her father was looking for engineers in the matrimonial ads. . . . She fantasized about young men with mustaches, dressed in spotless white, peering into opened skulls. Marriage would bring her freedom, cocktail parties on carpeted lawns, fund-raising dinners for noble charities. Marriage would bring her love.
The literary ancestry of this narrative tone is traceable to Austen, particularly to Pride and Prejudice (1813). The genre, a comedy of manners about marriage, is also reminiscent of Austen, though Mukherjee chooses to emphasize the woes of marriage rather than its joys (as Austen does). Also unlike Austen, Mukherjee’s focus is not upon an intricate character (such as Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet), but on a rather simple character.
The name of Mukherjee’s protagonist, Dimple, is perhaps a measure of her simplicity (and the author’s playfulness with Calcutta chic). In any case, Dimple’s mind is portrayed as entirely vacant of ideas other than those associated with securing a husband. To make herself more attractive to prospective husbands, Dimple wants to lighten her wheatish complexion with creams, increase her bust by isometrics, and finish herself with a bachelor of arts degree. She fails on all three fronts. Her father does manage a match for her, however, not with a neurosurgeon but with an engineer intent upon emigrating, preferably to the United States.
Through courtship and early marriage, Mukherjee’s comedy of manners continues, with complaining in-laws, unsatisfied romantic expectations, and Dimple’s predictable disillusion with her groom and the married state. The comic events, however, take on a darker tinge with two incidents that indicate Dimple’s naïve penchant toward violence as a quick solution to problems. One incident involves her chasing and braining a mouse. This image of violence is used as a leitmotif by Mukherjee; it stays with Dimple, and her consciousness flashes back to it several times during the...
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