In an autobiographical account from Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), Bharati Mukherjee describes herself as a “’Third World Woman Writer’ living in North America.” She had been born into a middle-class Brahman family in Calcutta, educated at Catholic schools there, then in Europe, finally at a university in the United States where she married a Canadian. At the time, she was teaching at a Canadian university, and she had defined her place as an artist in such a limited manner; then, after living in Canada for fourteen years, she moved in 1980 to the United States. This change affected her attitude so sharply that in the introduction to Darkness she is able to say: “I see myself as an American writer in the tradition of other American writers whose parents or grandparents had passed through Ellis Island.” Explaining how she shed her role as an expatriate to take on the more gratifying one of immigrant, Mukherjee notes that she now possesses “a set of fluid identities to be celebrated” rather than the “mordant and self-protective irony” she had practiced previously.
Although the stories collected here are not autobiographical, they do reflect the disparity Mukherjee sees between the expatriate and the immigrant. The expatriate narratives set in Canada vibrate with bitterness, rejection, and defeat, whereas the immigrant stories taking place in the United States seem about to explode with awareness. Yet “about to explode” carries significance always, for the troubled immigrants find no easy solution for their disassociation. In fact, their struggle with “Indianness” becomes a metaphor to depict the gratuitous cruelty, the broken identities, and the conflict between sexes that dominate much contemporary writing. Thus the stories—the immigrant ones more so than the expatriate—transcend their inherent “Indianness” to embrace the metaphorical immigrants who seek stability in a world of shifting patterns. As Mukherjee points out in the introduction to Darkness: “Indianness is now a metaphor, a particular way of partially comprehending the world.”
The best of the expatriate stories, “The World According to Hsü,” follows the misadventures of a Canadian couple who stumble into a military coup when they are on an idyllic holiday on an island off the African coast. Yet the wife, an Indian by birth, feels safer surrounded by revolutionaries than amid Canadians whose violence against Asians she recounts to her disbelieving North American husband. Later, sitting alone in the barricaded hotel among a “collection of Indians and Europeans,” the expatriate from Canada decides that “no matter where she lived, she would never feel so at home again.” Such assurance fails to come to the characters in the other two Canadian stories, “Isolated Incidents” and “Tamurlane,” where both the Canadians and the expatriates suffer from violence and disillusionment. Only the woman in “Isolated Incidents,” who had escaped Canada and succeeded as a singer in the United States, finds happiness. The narrative rests on a meeting between the star and her childhood friend Ann, who stayed behind and with a now-shattered idealism had gone to work for a human-rights agency handling the discrimination complaints of Asians, Africans, Jamaicans, and others from warm climates who “found reasons for staying where Ann herself, on bad days, found few.” The despair she faces each day eventually seeps into her consciousness, and in a crowded restaurant she shouts at one of her clients: “Nothing is fair!. . . There isn’t any justice.” Her outburst describes aptly the events in “Tamurlane,” a brutal account of a Toronto police raid on an Indian restaurant whose crippled cook sinks a cleaver into a Mountie’s arm, then holds his passport in front of his face, only to be struck by a bullet.
These two stories point up Mukherjee’s belief that Canada has failed as a multiracial nation. Unlike “The World According to...
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