Much of Mukherjee’s fiction, like her nonfiction, has sprung from her personal background of growing up in South Asia interacting with her experience as an Asian woman immigrant in Canada and the United States. In developing the subject of the Indian diaspora to the West, Mukherjee has acknowledged the influence and example of the distinguished writer V. S. Naipaul, himself a Trinidadian of Indian descent who lives in England. Although Mukherjee admires Naipaul’s exploration of the experience of exile, expatriation, and immigration, or as she puts it, “unhousement,” “remaining unhoused,” and “rehousement,” there are wide differences in their outlooks and their sympathies. Typically, Mukherjee’s protagonists are immigrant women of color from developing nations trying to make their ways in an economically advantaged society with a deplorable history of sexism and racism. Such characters are frequently objects of prejudice, exploitation, and violence that tend to brutalize and dehumanize them.
Unlike Naipaul, whose character analysis is colder and more sardonic, Mukherjee’s sympathies lie, for the greater part, with such victims. Also unlike Naipaul’s unremittingly ironic stance, Mukherjee often permits her characters to recover their humanity through love, especially love between man and woman—as in her novel Jasmine (1989) and her stories “Orbiting” and “Buried Lives,” from The Middleman, and Other Stories (1988). Several of Mukherjee’s characters are also able to empower themselves and shape their own identities, as is the case in Jasmine and the Middleman story “A Wife’s Story.” Mukherjee’s treatment of the immigrant experience is therefore more optimistic than Naipaul’s.
Though the Asian immigrant in the New World is her distinctive sphere of depiction, Mukherjee’s earlier writing was greatly influenced by British authors such as Jane Austen and E. M. Forster. For example, the protagonist of her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter (1972), is a genteel and sensitive daughter of a wealthy Indian family—a character and a social milieu transposed into India from the mold of Austen. The descriptive style of Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) echoes in the opening of Mukherjee’s novel:The Catelli-Continental Hotel on Chowringhee Avenue, Calcutta, is the navel of the universe. . . . There is, of course, no escape from Calcutta. . . . Family after family moves from the provinces to its brutish center, and the center quivers a little, absorbs the bodies, digests them, and waits.
In the 1990’s and afterward, however, Mukherjee vastly extended her fictional repertoire beyond an urbane realism to include forays into science fiction and historical romance, as in The Holder of the World (1993), as well as into the mystery thriller, as in Desirable Daughters (2002).
Irony is a persistent trait of Mukherjee’s early work, an irony modeled consciously upon Naipaul’s. This irony, expressing itself in the distance between author and protagonist, and between protagonist and her observed world, is already evident in The Tiger’s Daughter, which records the impressions of a young and mainly passive Indian woman who has gone to the United States as a student, has married a white American, and is returning to her native Calcutta for a holiday visit. Through the subtle interplay between the protagonist’s Westernized perspective, her memories of her Asian youth, and her inactivity, Mukherjee provides an ironic critique of upper-class Indian society, whose mores and vitality are crumbling like those in Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908)—Chekhov being another of Mukherjee’s most admired authors.
The texture of Mukberjee’s narratives is often enriched by patterns of repeated imagery and rendered intricate by literary allusions. In Wife (1975), for example, a dead mouse becomes an imagistic leitmotif symbolic of violence. In Jasmine, the repeated image of a dead dog occurs with chilling effectiveness, while allusions to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) form a provocative subtext to the novel. Similarly, John Keats’s “On a Grecian Urn” is a significant leitmotif in The Holder of the World, and the snake is an effective recurrent image in Desirable Daughters.
The locales, persons, idiom, and themes of Mukherjee’s later work have increasingly taken on the traits of the American grain, especially traits along the lines of Jewish American writers about immigrant life such as Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud. As she stated in 1985, “The book I dream of updating is no longer A Passage to India—it’s Call It Sleep,” Henry Roth’s 1934 novel.
Certainly the narrative energy that infuses Mukherjee’s later works is less genteel Anglo-Indian than raw American. For example, the beginning of the story “Angela” (in the 1985 collection Darkness) is a far cry from Austen: “Edith was here [in the hospital] to have her baby last November. The baby, if a girl, was supposed to be named Darlene after Mother, but Edith changed her mind at the last minute . . . while she was being shaved by the nurse.”
Mukherjee unfalteringly captures the idiom and cadence of her protagonist-narrator as she speaks through the throat of an Atlanta sports fan and financial consultant in “Fighting for the Rebound” (from The Middleman):I’m in bed watching the Vanilla Gorilla stick it to the Abilene Christians on some really obscure cable channel when Blanquita comes through the door wearing lavender sweats, and over them a frilly see-through apron . . . Okay, so maybe . . . she isn’t a looker in the blondhair-smalltits-greatlegs way that Wendi was. Or Emilou, for that matter. But beautiful is how she makes me feel. Wendi was slow-growth. Emilou was strictly Chapter Eleven.
With her fast-paced, psychologically intriguing, and intellectually challenging narratives, Mukherjee provides valuable and moving insights into the too-often buried lives and unexpressed emotions of South Asians, especially South Asian women, who are making their way in a daunting New World of high technology, unruly mores, and random violence. Mukherjee is thus carving an important niche for herself and her primary subject matter, the South Asian diaspora to America, in the pluralist tradition of American letters.
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
A young wife from Calcutta, India, migrates to New York City, goes insane, and kills her husband.
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 course of the novel. The image also appears to be a teasing reference to the opening scene of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), in which his protagonist smashes a rat with a frying pan. Indeed, Dimple later in the novel asks an American friend to tell her Wright’s story (though the scene is transposed from Wright’s original Chicago to Harlem).
The other graphic episode occurs when Dimple has an unwanted pregnancy and, thinking of a baby as an impediment to immigration, induces an abortion by (ironically) skipping rope. The abortion episode connects imagistically to the mouse killing, because that animal was smashed in a pile of baby clothes, and its remains are described as looking pregnant. This interweaving of imagery, theme, allusion, and characterization is illustrative of Mukherjee’s complex and subtle artistry.
Soon afterward, the immigration papers come through for her husband, Amit Basu, and the couple departs India. Dimple’s entry into the New World is occasion for Mukherjee to depict the comedy of errors of émigrés unused to new mores; the clashes of culture are initially slight and amusing, but they accrue to become a considerable shock to Dimple’s fragile psychological balance.
Although Indian society had seemed overly structured and authoritarian (especially with parents controlling their children’s marriages so absolutely), it had, in actuality, provided Dimple with clear behavioral guidelines. In the United States, by contrast, there appears to be so much freedom that Dimple loses her bearings in a seeming ocean of permissiveness. That there are American structural taboos as fastidious as Hindu ones, but which are incomprehensible to Dimple, is illustrated by her attempt to buy cheesecake from a kosher butcher.
Migration to the United States also reduces the Indian status of her husband: No longer master of his house, he is suffered as a guest by his host and becomes just another job-seeking immigrant. Amit is consequently reduced in Dimple’s eyes. Dimple is also fascinated by liberated and Americanized Indian women such as Ina Mullick, whom she finds rather incomprehensible and repellent. Mainstream American foods, too, are problematic; she forces herself to eat hamburger (beef being taboo and odious for Hindus), then vomits it up privately. Dimple feels so defeated by American life that she likes nothing better than to stay in bed all day watching television—in fact, television becomes her version of life in America.
Meanwhile, the violence of American life bombards Dimple—talk of random shootings, cautionary tales of mugging in the streets, crime statistics in the news, murder on the television soap operas. These elements, many of them amusing in isolation, add up to a substantial cultural trauma for the susceptible Dimple. Furthermore, she begins an affair with a white American, while Amit becomes increasingly obtuse, antipathetic, and unmanly in her eyes. Mukherjee subtly builds up Dimple’s predisposition to bloodshed by describing Amit’s cutting a finger while changing a lightbulb and Dimple’s accidentally wounding his hand with a paring knife when he attempts romance in the kitchen. Finally Dimple goes completely insane, and she decapitates Amit—an act that shows her perversely and grossly taking the power she had desired at the beginning of the novel by wanting marriage to a neurosurgeon.
Wife is an accomplished psychological novel about a young Asian immigrant woman who goes violently insane. Mukherjee creates with insightful deftness the psyche of a weak-minded, unhappy, and perplexed wife undergoing the shock of transition from the highly structured but protective society of India to the apparently freer but infinitely more puzzling society of the United States. The controlling irony of Mukherjee’s narrative is the perfect medium for depicting this murderous but naïve woman whom the reader can understand but with whom the reader cannot fully empathize. In this novel, too, Mukherjee has defined a primary sphere of her artistic endeavor—the psychological world of the South Asian woman facing the challenge of immigration to the United States with its attendant traumata of culture shock, its rush of freedom, its responsibility of self-definition, and its access to power.
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
While emigrating from India to the United States, a young Asian woman struggles against destiny to create her own identity and resists racial and sexual stereotypes to assert her humanity.
Soon after garnering the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for her second collection of short stories, titled The Middleman, and Other Stories, Mukherjee published her exciting and accomplished novel Jasmine. In fact, the novel grew out of one of the Middleman stories, also titled “Jasmine,” whose protagonist persisted in the author’s imagination, demanding to be reincarnated or born again in a lengthier genre. Jasmine is a novel about survival; it is also an account of an immigrant minority woman’s metamorphosis, self-invention, and self-empowerment. Inasmuch as the protagonist is a woman, the novel holds great interest for feminists. Insofar as she is an Indian, and much of the book dwells upon her experience in the United States, the novel adds another episode to the epic of the Asian diaspora to America.
In this tightly crafted book, which uses...
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