Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, on July 27, 1940, the daughter of pharmaceutical chemist Sudhir Lal Mukherjee and his wife, Bina (née Barrerjee). Mukherjee’s was a comparatively wealthy Bengali Hindu Brahmin family, and during her early childhood they lived with their large extended family (numbering up to forty during wartime) in a flat in Ballygunge, a middle-class neighborhood of Calcutta. Life there was stable and somewhat insulated from the rough and tumble of Calcutta, but Mukherjee was aware of the homeless beggars roaming the streets, the funerals of freedom fighters during India’s struggle for independence from British imperial rule, and the Hindu-Muslim riots at the partition of India and Pakistan. She enjoyed the affection of a loving father (who was fond of his three daughters despite his society’s prevailing preference for sons), listened to the tales of her mother (“a powerful storyteller”), and feared the madness of an aunt.
When Mukherjee was eight, her father sent his three daughters to school in England and Switzerland. After three years of this experiment in European education, the sisters returned to Calcutta to live in a home set up within the compound of the pharmaceutical company partly owned by their father in suburban Cossipore. From there they attended a school staffed by Irish nuns; en route to school they sometimes had to run a gauntlet of strikers and picketers. When Mukherjee was eighteen, her...
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Mukherjee’s short stories and novels bring unique insight and profundity to the immigration, expatriation, and assimilation of South Asians, especially South Asian women, in North America. She explores the effects of racism, sexism, violence, and human exploitation with consummate skill, measured realism, and moving drama. There is an implacable resentment of racism in her works, but there is also an implicit hope in the redeeming possibilities of love and in the positive aspects of United States society, in which individuals of color, even women of color, may realize their full humanity and empower themselves. Mukherjee’s artistry is characterized by her frequent use of irony, imagistic leitmotifs that grow into meaningful...
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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,...
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