Bharati Mukherjee 1940-
Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and journalist. See also Bharati Mukherjee Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Mukherjee's short stories, which explore the struggles of immigrants living in the United States and Canada, have been compared to those of V. S. Naipaul and Bernard Malamud for their ironic and penetrating literary style. Mirroring her own life as an Indian immigrant to Canada and later the United States, many of Mukherjee's characters are Indian women who are victims of racism and sexism, often driven to desperate acts of violence after realizing they can fit into neither the culture of the West nor the Indian society they left behind. As Mukherjee's career has developed, her stories have expanded to include the narratives of refugees and immigrants from other Asian countries as well as the voices of long-settled European Americans and Canadians. Her later stories show increasing optimism at the possibility of successful integration as her characters learn that rebuilding their lives and identities allows them greater personal opportunities and a chance to participate in fostering a more inclusive society and culture.
In 1940, Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, to wealthy Brahmin parents, and was brought up in a large extended household of over fifty family members. Mukherjee's parents and their three daughters moved to London in 1948 to escape the civil unrest brought on by India's independence and partition. There the girls attended school and became fluent in English. In 1951 the family returned to Calcutta, and Mukherjee continued her English-language instruction at the Loretto Convent School, a missionary institution run by Irish nuns. In 1959 she received a B.A. in English from the University of Calcutta; two years later she earned a Master's degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda.
In 1961 Mukherjee received a scholarship to study writing at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, where she first earned a Masters of Fine Arts and then a Ph.D. While at Iowa she met the Canadian writer Clark Blaise, whom she married in 1963 against the wishes of her Bengali family, who had arranged for her to be married to an Indian nuclear physicist. In 1966 the couple moved to Montreal, where Mukherjee taught English at McGill University. Three years later they moved to Toronto with their two small children where Mukherjee, now a Canadian citizen, began work on her first novel. The Tiger's Daughter is a loosely autobiographical story about an East Indian immigrant who is unable to adjust to North American culture, but who at the same time is painfully aware that she will never again belong in the culture she has left behind.
In 1972, a year after publication of The Tiger's Daughter, Mukherjee and Blaise went to live for a year in Calcutta, where they kept independent journals that were later published under the title Days and Nights in Calcutta. Mukherjee's entries reveal her to be, like the protagonist in The Tiger's Daughter, ambivalent about her return “home” after living in the West for ten years: the innocence of her childhood is shattered, and she decries the lack of opportunity offered to women in her native land. The return to Canada was not much better, however, and the personal hostility and racial prejudice Mukherjee experienced there became material for her 1975 novel, Wife. Citing Canadian hostility toward Asian immigrants, Mukherjee and her family moved in 1980 to the United States, a culture Mukherjee found to be less threatened by non-European newcomers.
Mukherjee's popularity as a writer increased dramatically with the publication of her first volume of short stories, Darkness, in 1985. A second collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1989 Mukherjee expanded one of the Middleman stories into the critically-acclaimed novel Jasmine, about an Indian refugee who is empowered by the trials of assimilation. A fourth novel dealing with issues of immigration and resulting identity crises, The Holder of the World, was published in 1993.
In addition to her fiction, Mukherjee has published several academic works on Indian politics and society. In 1987 she and Blaise co-authored a second book, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air Indian Tragedy, an examination of the horror and latent racism exposed by the 1985 airline crash that killed hundreds of Canadian citizens, most of whom were of Indian descent. Today Mukherjee teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley where she remains a vocal proponent of the rights of women and immigrants.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Mukherjee's first volume of short fiction, Darkness, is a collection of twelve short stories about the difficulties that Indian immigrants have in adjusting to life in Canada and the United States. Not only must these outsiders deal with language issues and other cultural differences, they often become the victims of racial prejudice and violence that limit their freedom and opportunity. Racism in Canada is depicted as severe and overt, but more subtle racial discrimination in the United States leaves immigrants with similarly broken dreams—in Mukherjee's words, with “broken identities and discarded languages.” As the title of the collection implies, the stories are bleak and offer an angry condemnation of the hospitality of the West.
In her second volume of short fiction, The Middleman and Other Stories, Mukherjee expands her narrative voice to explore not only the lives of immigrants but also those of European Americans who have been brought into contact with cultures about which they have little knowledge. The tone of the second collection is clearly lighter than that of Darkness. The characters in Middleman learn that it is an opportunity as well as a curse to have to remake their lives and their personal identities, but they see also that they can play an active part in the new culture that is slowly coming to accept them. The hopeful and often celebratory tone of these stories represents a marked development in the themes of Mukherjee's immigrant tales.
The publication of Darkness in 1985 earned Mukherjee far greater critical acclaim than had either of her first two novels. Critics applauded Mukherjee's vivid and realistic portrayals of Indian immigrant life. The portrayal of racial hatred and violence in Canada, combined with Mukherjee's introductory comment that Canadian xenophobia had caused her to immigrate to the United States, received fire from Canadian commentators, who declared that her optimistic portrayal of the United States was due more to her own personal sense of assimilation than any facts about the racial climates in the two countries. While some critics dismissed the stories in Darkness as vengeful attacks on Canada that were most suitable for magazine publication, the majority of critics hailed Darkness as a rich exploration of homelessness and loss of identity in the tradition of authors such as Naipaul and Malamud. Her focus on female protagonists was welcomed by women who recognized in Mukherjee's stories unusual empathy for the monumental struggles faced by immigrant women.
The Middleman and Other Stories won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction and cemented Mukherjee's position as an important literary figure in the United States. While some critics claimed that her privileged upbringing in India made her unable to understand the plight of impoverished immigrants, most critics applauded Mukherjee's narrative expansion to include Caribbean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and other minority voices from diverse social backgrounds. Several stories are narrated by European Americans who are forced for the first time to adjust their own lives and traditions because of relationships they form with foreigners. In all these stories Mukherjee displays a keen ear for American vernacular and presents subtle and often humorous descriptions of cultural barriers and misunderstandings. Critics were also enthusiastic about the sense of hope that make the stories of The Middleman and Other Stories distinct from those in Darkness, and these new stories have been called a “literary bridge of understanding” between North Americans and its newest Asian immigrants.