Bharati Mukherjee Mukherjee, Bharati (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bharati Mukherjee 1940–

Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Mukherjee's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 53.

Bharati Mukherjee has spent most of her career portraying the humiliation and pain often associated with Third World peoples adapting to North American culture. She has developed an understated prose style and tells her story from many different cultural perspectives. Her protagonists are usually sensitive, lack a stable sense of personal and cultural identity, and are victimized by racism, sexism, or other forms of social oppression. Several critics have compared her studies of cultural clashes to the works of V. S. Naipaul, while others have noted the influence of Bernard Malamud on her portrayal of minority individuals who have difficulty adapting to their new surroundings.

Biographical Information

Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, in 1940 to an up-per-middle-class Bengali Brahmin family. Her father was the head of a pharmaceutical firm. Her early childhood was spent in the few years before India's independence in August of 1947. She attended schools in both Britain and Switzerland, and then returned to India to attend the Loretto School run by Irish nuns. She was taught to devalue the Bengali culture, and it was not until later that she reconnected with her Hindu heritage. Mukherjee received a B.A. in English at the University of Calcutta in 1959 and an M.A. in English and ancient Indian culture from the University of Calcutta in 1961. Also in 1961 Mukherjee came to the United States to study at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There she met and married Canadian writer Clark Blaise, with whom she later collaborated on two nonfiction works. Mukherjee's marriage to someone outside her culture changed her life and writing dramatically. She moved with her husband to his native Canada and encountered racism and alienation. She quickly became a vocal civil rights activist and the nature of her fiction changed irrevocably. In 1980 she decided that she could not survive as an outsider in Canada and moved with her family to the United States. She became an American citizen in 1988. Mukherjee has been a professor of English and creative writing at various universities in both Canada and the United States, including Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1988 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Middleman and Other Stories.

Major Works

Mukherjee's fiction portrays the delicate place of Indian and other Third World immigrants in North American culture. The Tiger's Daughter (1972) provides a satiric look at Indian society from the point of view of a young expatriate, Tara Banerjee Cartwright. Cartwright is caught between an American culture to which she is not yet accustomed and the culture of her native land from whose morals and values she is estranged. Wife (1975) tells the story of, Dimple, who moves to the United States with her husband and becomes torn between Indian and American cultures. Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), written with her husband Clark Blaise, is a journal of the couple's 1973 visit to India. Mukherjee also collaborated with Blaise on The Sorrow and the Terror (1987) which tells the story of the bombing of an Air India flight that killed over 300 people. Mukherjee's short story collection The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) traces the lives of Third World immigrants and their adjustment to becoming Americans. The protagonists struggle to survive economically while facing alienation and racism. The stories celebrate "differentness" and express the value of maintaining distinction in the face of becoming American. In the novel Jasmine (1989) based on Mukherjee's short story by the same name, the title character is widowed, which in her native Punjab means a life of sorrow and loneliness. She rejects this fate and leaves for America, where she undergoes a series of transformations. Her travels eventually lead her to a new identity as Jane with a common-law husband and child in the farm country of Iowa. The novel ends with the protagonist abandoning her life again for a new existence in California. The novel is a celebration of the American freedom to develop an individual identity, a freedom characterized by both pain and excitement. The Holder of the World (1993) traces the story of two women, in two different time periods. A diamond called the Tear Drop connects Beigh Masters to a 19th-century Puritan, Hannah Easton. Most of the novel takes up Beigh's narration of Hannah's story, which includes growing up in Massachusetts and eventually ending up in India as the lover of the Raja. When she returns to New England pregnant with the Raja's child, the reader learns that Hannah is actually Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Leave It to Me (1997) traces the search of Debbie DiMartino to find her origins and identity.

Critical Reception

Some critics insist that Mukherjee is exploiting a fad of postcolonial literature, but many reviewers find her work valuable. Critics often point out the violence in Mukherjee's fiction arising from the clashing of old and new worlds. However, most reviewers do not find Mukherjee's vision as without hope. Victoria Carchidi says, "Mukherjee insists that when such multiple worlds meet, the result can be a glorious freeing of the leaves of the kaleidoscope, that completely intermix and produce a new pattern." Though Mukherjee has never been noted for the plausibility of her plots, some critics had the most trouble with Leave It to Me. Michiko Kakutani says, "Certainly, plausibility has never been Ms. Mukherjee's strong suit, but in earlier books, her crazy-quilt plots not only possessed a fable-like power but also remained grounded in meticulously observed descriptions and edgy, pointillist prose." Mukherjee has been recognized for developing her own style and message that has relevance in American literature. As Gary Boire states, "Mukherjee's is a revisionary, appropriative technique, one that 'channels' deeply … into an existent literary landscape in order to excavate her own highly deserved space."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Tiger's Daughter (novel) 1972
Wife (novel) 1975
Days and Nights in Calcutta [with Clark Blaise] (nonfiction) 1977
Darkness (short stories) 1985
The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy [with Blaise] (nonfiction) 1987
The Middleman and Other Stories (short stories) 1988
Jasmine (novel) 1989
Political Culture and Leadership in India (nonfiction) 1991
Regionalism in Indian Perspective (nonfiction) 1992
The Holder of the World (novel) 1993
Leave It to Me (novel) 1997

Carol Ascher (review date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After the Raj," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 12, September, 1989, p. 17-19.

[In the following excerpt, Ascher praises Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories and states that "one of the great joys, for me, of reading The Middleman is experiencing a world that generally remains just at the edge of my consciousness."]

… In The Middleman and Other Stories Bharati Mukherjee leaves the zenana far behind as she writes with the rushed, rootless, naively cynical voices of Third World newcomers and those who get involved with them. The eleven stories in this swift-moving collection are about the immigrants filling US cities and...

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Michael Gorra (review date 10 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Call It Exile, Call It Immigration," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1989, p. 9.

[In the following review, Gorra discusses Mukherjee's expansion of her short story "Jasmine" into a novel and asserts "she's done so without losing a short story's virtues, above all its sense of speed and compression, its sense of a life distilled into its essence."]

Bharati Mukherjee's third novel carries the same title as one of the best stories in her prize-winning collection of last year, The Middleman and Other Stories. That earlier "Jasmine" told of an Indian girl from Trinidad who "came to Detroit … by way of Canada … [crossing] the border at...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Uma Parameswaran (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Middleman and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 363.

[In the following review, Parameswaran discusses the stories in Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories.]

Bharati Mukherjee's second volume of short fiction consists of eleven stories that are wide-ranging in both settings and themes. Following her self-proclaimed American identity stated in her first volume of stories, Darkness, she explores the American experience through various personae or protagonists, four of whom are white American males and six of whom are females (only three of the women are of Indian origin). The result is a...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Gary Boire (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eyre and Anglos," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 160-61.

[In the following review, Boire asserts that Mukherjee's "Jasmine is a tremendously interesting work, not simply because it foregrounds characters and situations and nationalities so often disguised or dismissed in the western/American tradition, but primarily because of Mukherjee's ironic nuance and sinewy revisionism."]

Jasmine is Bharati Mukherjee's first novel in fourteen years; like her stories, it is highly crafted, impeccably understated, and virtually seamless in its unfolding. It is also, like many of her public statements and much of her writing, controversial....

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K. Anthony Appiah (review date 10 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Giving Up the Perfect Diamond," in The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 7.

[In the following review, Appiah lauds Mukherjee's The Holder of the World stating, "Ms. Mukherjee draws us with vigor and scrupulous attention to detail across time … and space … into the footsteps of not one but two extraordinary women."]

We live in a time of bad news for relations among communities. From Sri Lanka to Bosnia, from South Africa to Kashmir (and, dare I add, from Paris to Los Angeles), men and women live and die within the shifting alliances and antagonisms of constantly reshaping identities. The passions of these conflicts seem to call for the...

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Vivian Gornick (review date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Playing Games with History," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 3, December, 1993, p. 15.

[In the following review, Gornick complains (hat in Mukherjee's The Holder of the World, the "boisterous Hannah does in no way suggest the brooding Hester Prynne, and what Mukherjee has to say about repressed Westerners and sensual Indians is painfully familiar, not at all passionate or clarifying."]

When a writer of serious purpose chooses to make imaginative use of genre writing—the historical romance, the science fiction novel, the mystery story—the reader feels compelled to ask: why? What is going to get said here, in this way, that would not...

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Kristin Carter-Sanborn (essay date September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'We Murder Who We Were': Jasmine and the Violence of Identity," in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 573-93.

[In the following essay, Carter-Sanborn discusses the place of identity and violence in Mukherjee's Jasmine.]

The narrator of Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine implicitly positions herself early in her own text in terms of narratives already abandoned. At age seven, Jyoti is the star pupil of Masterji, "the oldest and sourest teacher in our school": "I was whiz in Punjabi and Urdu, and the first likely female candidate for English instruction he'd ever had. He had a pile of English books, some from the British Council...

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Suzanne Kehde (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Colonial Discourse and Female Identity: Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 70-7.

[In the following essay, Kehde analyzes Mukherjee's focus on the myth of America as Eden and Jasmine's identification first and foremost as a woman in Mukherjee's Jasmine.]

For Jasmine, Mukherjee's eponymous protagonist, the kind of liberty she enjoys is a consequence of, rather than the reason for, her coming to the New World. An illegal immigrant from Punjab, who "phantom[s her] way through three continents" on unscheduled flights landing on...

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Abha Prakash Leard (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mukherjee's Jasmine," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 114-17.

[In the following review, Leard states that, "With the connotations of both dislocation and progress within the tangled framework of the narrator's personal history, journey as metaphor in [Jasmine] stands for the ever-moving, regenerating process of life itself."]

Despite postcolonial readings of Bharati Mukherjee's novel Jasmine, Western critics have not placed in context the pivotal play of migrations, forced and voluntary, literal and figurative, found in the plural female subjectivity of the novel. With the connotations of both dislocation and progress...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 24 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Madcap Search for Bio-Mom," in The New York Times, June 24, 1997, p. C18.

[In the following review, Kakutani complains that Mukherjee's Leave It to Me is "a book in which her favorite themes have warped into didactic obsessions, and her stylistic idiosyncrasies have slipped perilously close to mannerism."]

Leave It to Me, Bharati Mukherjee's latest novel, has all her trademark preoccupations: exiles, émigrés and outsiders tirelessly reinventing themselves, as they shed old lives, old lovers, old selves; and an America reeling from violence and nonstop change, a country in which freedom has translated into rootlessness, possibility into...

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Lorna Sage (review date 20 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wrath of the Goddess," in The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 1997, p. 33.

[In the following review, Sage asserts that "Devi [from Leave It to Me] is a brilliant creation—hilarious, horribly knowing and even more horribly oblivious—through whom Bharati Mukherjee, with characteristic and shameless ingenuity, is laying claim to speak for an America that isn't 'other' at all."]

Bharati Mukherjee is a writer who likes to ventriloquize. She lives inside her characters' first-person voices, so they always seem driven, a touch paranoid, a little too creative in their dealings with the Brave New World. The heroine of Leave It to Me, Debby...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Birch, Dinah. "Other People." London Review of Books 11, No. 13 (6 July 1989): 18-9.

Lauds Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories as an "uncompromising collection [which] presents a razor-sharp reflection of a world which is disconnected, but not without hope."

Brandmark, Wendy. "Looking for Devi Dee." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4920 (18 July 1997): 22.

Complains that in Mukherjee's Leave It to Me, "The writing loses its vitality after the first few chapters and descends into a rather irritating mixture of computer jargon and West-Coast...

(The entire section is 628 words.)