Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053
Bharati Mukherjee was born into a well-to-do, traditional Bengali Brahman family in the Calcutta suburb of Ballygunge on July 27, 1940. Her Hindu family’s affluence buffered them from the political crises of independence and partition that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in the 1940’s, and by the end of that troubled decade her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, a chemist and the proprietor of a successful pharmaceutical company, had moved the family first to London (1948-1950) and then to Switzerland (1951) before returning them to India. Accordingly, Mukherjee explains, she and her two sisters (one older, one younger) “were born both too late and not late enough to be real Indians.” Her educational experiences abroad had made her fluent in English at an early age, so that once back in India she began attending Calcutta’s Loreto Convent School, an elite institution for girls run by Irish Catholic nuns, where she occasionally glimpsed Mother Teresa early in her ministry to the city’s poor. At the time, Mukherjee herself followed the habits of her caste and preferred to turn away from the misery on the streets around her rather than question or reflect upon it.
Neither did she consciously plan to deviate very far from the traditional path of Indian womanhood expected of her; even her early interest in becoming a writer, fed by an ever-expanding fascination with the European novels to which her travels and education had exposed her, was tolerated because she was female—such impractical aspirations would have been quickly discouraged in a son, she believes. She has praised her mother for her courageous insistence that she receive a top-flight English education so that she “would not end up, she said, as chattel to a traditional Bengali husband.” Although her father intended to have his middle daughter marry a bridegroom of the family’s choosing from within their own strictly defined social class, he encouraged her intellectual aspirations in the meantime, and so Mukherjee earned an honors B.A. in English from Calcutta University in 1959 and a master’s degree in English and ancient Indian culture in 1961 from the University of Baroda. She then joined “the first generation of Indians who even thought of going to the United States rather than automatically to England” when she accepted a Philanthropic Educational Organization International Peace Scholarship to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, receiving an M.F.A. in 1963. During that time she also met Clark Blaise, an American writer of Canadian descent, whom she married on September 13, 1963, in an action that, she explains, “cut me off forever from the rules and ways of upper-middle-class life in Bengal, and hurled me into a New World life of scary improvisations and heady explorations.” The couple would have two sons, Bart and Bernard, and would, over the course of their long marriage, collaborate on a number of book projects, most strikingly Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), a travel journal of their respective observations during a trip together to India.
Having already taught at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in 1966 Mukherjee moved with Blaise to Montreal, Canada, where she assumed a teaching position at McGill University, which she held until 1978. She completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa in 1969 and published her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter (1972), soon thereafter. In 1972 Mukherjee became a Canadian citizen but quickly grew disenchanted with her new country as she experienced the persistent racial discrimination and harassment suffered by Indians and other immigrants of color; she registered her protest in a celebrated article entitled “An Invisible Woman” and in several short stories.
After fourteen years in Canada, a period during which she published a second novel, Wife, along with Days and Nights in Calcutta, Mukherjee and Blaise brought their family to the United States and became permanent residents in 1980. In 1976-1977 she served as director of the Shastri Institute in New Delhi, India. She became writer-in-residence and distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. In later years she and Blaise jointly published The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987), which pointedly documents what she regards as Canada’s refusal “to renovate its national self-image to include its changing complexion.” In 1987 Mukherjee became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Over the course of her career she has taught in numerous American universities, including Emory University, Skidmore College, Columbia University, Queens College, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since the 1980’s Mukherjee has regarded herself squarely as an “American” writer (categorically eschewing hyphenated Asian-or Indian-American labels) and describes her geographic relocation as the seminal moment in her artistic maturation. In Canada she had come to view herself, for the first time in her life, asa late-blooming colonial who writes in a borrowed language (English), lives permanently in an alien country, and is read, when read at all, in another alien country, the United States.
That multilayered dispossession ended in the United States as she found herself moving “away from the aloofness of expatriation to the exuberance of immigration.” The ideological legitimacy of the immigrant story in American culture has in fact become one of her central literary themes, one in which she explores “America” as “an idea” and “a stage for transformation.” Her impressive literary production since arriving in the United States has included a number of critically acclaimed novels centered on strong-willed American or Americanized heroines (Jasmine, The Holder of the World, and Leave It to Me) and several expansive short-story collections (Darkness in 1985 and The Middleman, and Other Stories in 1988, the latter the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award). Her enthusiasm has not blinded her to political backlash against America’s most recent newcomers; in 1997 she warned in Mother Jones magazine against a spreading “cultural crisis” wherein “questions such as who is an American and what is American culture are being posed with belligerence, and being answered with violence.” Because she sees such polarization as having “tragic” consequences not only for its victims but also for the unique “founding idea of ‘America’” itself, which rejected “easy homogeneity” for a “new version of utopia,” she urges instead, “We must think of American culture and nationhood as a constantly re-forming, transmogrifying ‘we’ that works in the direction of both the newcomer and the culture receiving her.”
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