Jasmine

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

“America keeps sending these ambiguous messages,” and Jane Ripplemeyer—also known as Jasmine and Jyoti Prakash—keeps trying to decipher them. So, through her, does the reader. The narrator of Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee’s first book since The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is, like her author, a newcomer to the United States. Immigrants from India, both gaze at this country through the kinds of eyes not commonly found in American literature.

Jane, in fact, believes herself endowed with special ocular advantages. At the age of seven, in her native village of Hasnapur, Jyoti (whose name means “light” in Punjabi) slips and falls headfirst after hearing an astrologer prophesy widowhood and exile. She emerges with a permanent star-shaped wound engraved on her forehead.

“It’s not a scar,” she tells her sisters, “it’s my third eye.” With the aid of that third eye, the twenty-four-year-old narrator tells the reader how, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope,” she moves from the Punjab to Florida, New York, Iowa, and California. Jasmine recognizes intimations of a reality beyond physical vision. She describes her attraction to future husband Prakash Vijh as a case of “love before first sight.”

Born in a mud hut without water or electricity, the seventh of nine children, Jyoti is almost strangled by her mother to spare her daughter the anguish of nubility without a dowry. She chafes against a feudal patriarchal upbringing by insisting on an education. At the age of fifteen, she marries Prakash Vijh, a brilliant young electronics student who wants a modern, liberated spouse and renames her Jasmine. The couple’s dreams of business and marital partnership explode in the Sikh terrorist bomb that kills Prakash. Jasmine journeys to the United States, with the intentions of a traditional widow, to immolate herself on the campus of Florida International Institute of Technology, where, at the urging of his mentor Devinder Vadhera, Prakash had planned to study.

An undocumented alien raped by the repulsive sea captain who smuggles her ashore, Jasmine first sees an American landscape devoid of anything as inspiring as the Statue of Liberty; sneaking off the boat near a graceless nuclear power plant, she wades “through Eden’s waste: plastic bottles, floating oranges, boards, sodden boxes, white and green plastic sacks tied shut but picked open by birds and pulled apart by crabs.” Her first American food is from Dairy Queen, and her first American job, after fleeing a claustrophobic Hindu household in Queens, is as an au pair girl with an attractive faculty couple in Manhattan. She becomes an American, she tells us, in an enlightened household across the street from a Barnard College dormitory. When the husband, physicist Taylor Hayes, becomes attracted to her, she flees to Iowa.

Bud Ripplemeyer, a fifty-three-year-old banker in Elsa County, Iowa, abandons his wife Karin to live with the plucky Asian vagabond, whom he prefers to call Jane and would like to marry. Bud and Jane adopt a Vietnamese refugee, Du Thien, who, like his new mother, is part of that vast, motley, and otherwise invisible army of modern wanderers that Mukherjee is keen on making her reader see: “We are the outcasts and deportees,” says Jasmine, “strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at...

(The entire section is 1405 words.)