Historical Context

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The Partition Riots
Jasmine, the title character and narrator of Bharati Mukherjee's novel, was born 18 years after India's Partition Riots, or approximately 1965, in a rural village called Hasnpur. The time of her Indian birth would have been one of political and social upheaval. Two wars between Pakistan and India were fought that year.

The Partition Riots, which play such a key role in Jasmine's family's plight, were an attempt to create separate Muslim and Hindu States. More than 200,000 people died as Hindus fled their homes in Pakistan and Muslims theirs in India. The province of Punjab was divided between India and the newly-created Pakistan. It became the home to many Hindus.

Jasmine's family, like many Hindus at the time, left behind relative riches in exchange for squalor during the Partition Riots. It was a time of violence and upheaval. Families abandoned not only material wealth, but established roots. The Muslim-Hindu religious divide continues to be a source of tension in India. Nearly 80 percent of Indians are Hindu, and Muslims constitute 11.4 percent of the population.

The Sikhs are a religious group that made up about two percent of India's population in 1991. After India gained independence in 1947, virtually all Sikhs wound up on the India side of Punjab. They have a social identity separate from other Punjabis. The new Punjabi-speaking Punjab, established in 1966, had a Sikh majority. In Jasmine, there would have been natural tensions between Sukhwinder, the Sikh extremist, and Prakash Vijh.

The Green Revolution
Punjab, like many Indian states, cherishes its own subnational identity, including its own language. A Punjabi would possess a much different cultural identity and characteristics than, say, a Bengali. India has some 46 officially listed mother tongues, seventeen of which have achieved the status of recognized languages. Of these, Hindi is spoken by the largest number of people, though not by a majority. Jasmine spoke Punjabi, Hindi, and, of course, English. The first two were natural to her culture and the other made possible, in part, by pre-Independence British influence and rule.

Punjab is a largely agricultural province, much like Iowa is to the United States. The majority of India's wheat is grown in Punjab. During Jasmine's childhood, rapid technological advancement was being made in the agricultural sector. She says, ‘‘When I was a child, born in a mud hut without water or electricity, the Green Revolution had just struck Punjab. Bicycles were giving way to scooters and cars, radios to television. I was the last to be born to that kind of submission, that kind of ignorance.’’

The Green Revolution of the late 1960s brought in some gains in productivity and made the country self-sufficient in food grains. Poverty, however, remains a chronic problem in India. As of 1991, approximately forty percent of the nation's 800 million people were classified as poor. Life expectancy was 54 years and the annual per capita income approximately $300 U.S., ranking India among the very poor countries of the world. Paradoxically, India also possesses a sophisticated scientific, technical, and financial infrastructure.

This paradox is embodied in Jasmine's family. Though they lived in a mud hut with no electricity or plumbing, her brothers attended technical college and later repaired scooters. Television, which first came to India in 1959, was becoming a common household item in Jasmine's Hasnpur.

Women's Position in Indian Society
India, during Jasmine's childhood and today, is a male-dominated society. Men hold economic and political power. Dowries have been officially banned, but in reality the practice of giving them remains a prevalent practice. The debate over the wisdom of...

(This entire section contains 879 words.)

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dowries is discussed openly in newspapers and in government. A dowry is money or property brought by a bride to a husband at their wedding. Essentially, a dowry acts as an incentive package to entice prospective husbands. The better the dowry, the better the husband, at least in theory. Jasmine entered young womanhood in the late 1970s, when her family would have been expected to offer a dowry to her perspective husband. For somebody like Jasmine, whose little family money would go to the older four daughters, the future seemed grim.

A Hindu wife, indeed, saw her role as subservient to her husband. When her friend Vimla burns herself after her husband's death, she is following a now-illegal Hindu practice called sati, or suttee. The widow cremates herself on her husband's funeral pyre in order to fulfill her true role as wife. Jasmine intended to follow the same ritual after Prakash's death. She brought his suit to America in order to make a pyre.

She says, "I had not given even a day's survival in America a single thought. This was the place I had chosen to die, on the first day, if possible. I would land, find Tampa, walking there if necessary, find the college grounds and check it against the brochure photo. Under the very tree where two Indian boys and two Chinese girls were pictured, smiling, I had dreamed of arranging the suit and twigs. The vision of lying serenely on a bed of fire under palm trees in my white sari had motivated all the weeks of sleepless, half-starved passage, the numbed surrender to various men for reward of an orange, a blanket, a slice of cheese."

Divorce in India is becoming more common, but it is highly stigmatized.

Literary Style

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Setting
In Jasmine, the time, place, and culture of the action constantly shifts. The narrator tells of events that happened in the past (thus the use of the past tense), but not in chronological order. Some events happened in a distant past, some in a more recent past. The reader understands the order of events partly in relation to place. Events in Hasnpur, Punjab, happened during Jasmine's childhood, and references to Lahore indicate events that happened before her birth. When the setting shifts to Florida, the reader knows the action is set during Jasmine's first weeks in America. Scenes in Flushing, New York, precede scenes in Manhattan, just as scenes in Manhattan come before scenes in Iowa.

To what purpose does the narrative timeline shift back and forth? There is a sense of urgency in the Iowa scenes because Jasmine's life is moving forward, possibly in the direction of monumental change. The past events are critical to the reader's understanding of Jasmine's dilemma, but they are not as urgent. The narrative strategy, then, is to maintain this sense of urgency through the Iowa story line, while working in all the important people, places and things from prior times.

Foreshadowing
This device, used in literature to create expectations or set up an explanation of later developments, is used frequently throughout Jasmine. The astrologer's forecast of Jasmine's widowhood and exile operates in this way. It alerts the reader to future events. Viewed in hindsight, Prakash's death seems linked to this forecast. Were it not for foreshadowing, however, the reader would not make the connection between the theme of fate and the death.

In other instances, foreshadowing is used to build tension. Jasmine says, "That day I found the biggest staff ever, stuck in a wreath of thorny bush. I had to crawl on stony ground, and of course thorns bloodied my arms, but the moment my fist closed over the head of the staff, I felt a buzz of power.’’ The strong imagery and language—the blood, the thorns, the fist—clue the reader into the importance of this scene. It insists that the reader wonder, ‘‘What's she going to do with that staff?’’ In due time, Jasmine kills the mad dog with the staff.

The knife Jasmine receives from Kingsland operates in the same way. There's an old adage that if a writer puts a gun into the story, then he or she better make the gun go off later. That's because a weapon, like the knife, signifies great danger and makes the reader expect future violence. In other words, it foreshadows danger. Jasmine's knife goes off, so to speak, when she kills Half-Face.

Symbolism
A symbol is something that suggests or stands for something else without losing its original identity. In literature, symbols combine their literal meaning with the suggestion of an abstract concept. Mukherjee uses symbols to help readers understand a complex fabric of ideas.

Jasmine grasps a drowned dog in a stench-filled river and as she does it breaks in two. The reader accepts the literal action, the breaking apart of the dog. Given Mukherjee's treatment of the theme of identity, the reader must also associate the broken body with the splitting apart of life. The dog becomes two parts from one, just as Jyoti splits into Jasmine and Jyoti.

One symbol repeats itself throughout the novel. The narrator explains that when a pitcher breaks, the air inside is the same as outside. The author returns to this symbol when Vimla sets herself on fire, and in a discussion of Jasmine's father. "Lahore visionaries, Lahore women, Lahore ghazals: my father lived in a bunker. Fact is, there was a difference. My father was right to notice it, and to let it set a standard. But that pitcher is broken. It is the same air this side as that. He'll never see Lahore again and I never have. Only a fool would let it rule his life."

Another, more subtle, symbol is the small crack in the television set at the Flamingo Court hotel room. A reader detects symbols due to their placement and importance in the context of a scene. The highly charged rape scene, on Jasmine's first day in America, shows an ugly, imperfect aspect of the country. The television represents a medium of Hollywood fantasies and fables. The crack in the television, then, can be read as a crack in the American dream. That Jasmine's head causes the crack lends even more power to the symbol.

Irony
Irony is the use of words to express something different than and often opposite to their literal meaning. Mukherjee uses irony to show Jasmine's confusion with American culture.

Jasmine finds irony in the revolving door. "How could something be always open and at the same time always closed?" Also in the escalator. "How could something be always moving and always still?"

Metaphors
A metaphor is a figure of speech that expresses an idea through the image of another object. Metaphors suggest the essence of the first object by identifying it with certain qualities of the second object.

Sukkhi's appearance in the Manhattan park terrifies Jasmine. The image of him behind the hot dog cart stays with her even after she moves to Iowa. She says, ‘‘Sukkhi, the New York vendor, pushes his hot dog cart through my head.’’ The reader does not think that there's an actual hot dog cart in Jasmine's head. Rather, the reader understands that Sukkhi, and all the violence and fear he represents, constantly invades Jasmine's thoughts.

A persistent metaphor derives from Taylor, "Just pull down the imaginary shade," he whispers, "that's all you need to do.’’ Again, Jasmine does not literally pull down a shade. Rather, she mentally blocks out all the outside influences that cause her fear.

Literary Heritage
Though not particularly interested in being known as an Indian writer, Mukherjee has placed herself in the long tradition of immigrant writers such as V. S. Naipaul and Bernard Malamud. She claims to have learned much from their fiction. She dedicated Darkness to her friend Malamud and even named one of her sons after him.

The predominant mode of American fiction in the 1980s was a minimalism exemplified by such writers as Raymond Carver. Minimalism used short sentences, understatement, and very little elaboration. Mukherjee positioned herself against this style, preferring instead a more elaborate one that allowed her to explore the layers of meaning and significance in the layered lives of her immigrant characters. She believes that a writer's status as immigrant gives her a great subject about which to write, and the subject deserves a great style.

Bibliography

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Boire, Gary. “Eyre and Anglos.” Review of Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee. Canadian Literature 132 (Spring, 1992): 160-161. In this highly suggestive review, Boire views Jasmine as “the paradigmatic postcolonial’ narrative.” He points out that young Jyoti’s abandonment of novels by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë because she found them too difficult to read, is significant because it symbolizes the author’s “own need to rewrite’ past literary and political wrongs” by rejecting well-known icons of the British Empire.

Chua, C. L. “Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction of V. S. Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee.” In Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Chua offers a perceptive analysis of Jasmine, stressing “survival and reincarnation” as the book’s integral themes. He also points out apparent similarities between Jasmine and Jane Eyre (1847). The concluding section traces Mukherjee’s evolution as an artist.

Faymonville, Carmen. “Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” The Explicator 56 (Fall, 1997): 53-54. Faymonville discusses the burden of the Old World responsibilities and cultural ties that represent the potential of American-style individualism and female liberation. The narrative depicts Jasmine as a pioneer who will eventually become a true American.

Kaye-Kantrowitz, Melanie. “In the New New World.” Review of Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee. The Women’s Review of Books 7 (April, 1990): 8-9. Calls the novel “a witty, dazzling fairy tale disguised by naturalism.” Kaye-Kantrowitz demonstrates, with textual evidence, the novel’s three themes: identity, hovering mortality, and “the contrast between the escapee/immigrant vision of America and the vision of the protected American.”

Koening, Rhoda. “Passage from India.” New York 22 (September 25, 1989): 132. Tracing the protagonist’s passage from her native village to the city and thence to America, Koening shows how “first with love, then with courage and cunning,” Jasmine “creates her destiny.”

Kristen, Carter-Sanborn. “ We Murder Who We Were:’ Jasmine and the Violence of Identity.” American Literature 66 (September, 1994): 573-593. Kristen explores the similarities between Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Mukherjee’s Jasmine. She concludes that Mukherjee’s novel is similar to those of Dickens and Brontë and that it offers a colonial perspective on gender and feminist issues.

Leard, Abha Prakash. “Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” The Explicator 55 (Winter, 1997): 114-117. Leard argues that Mukherjee gives Jyoti, the Hindu teenage widow, more than one name during the course of the story to portray the ability of a woman to experience multiple selves during her lifetime. She also asserts that the body merely serves as a vehicle for the inner self’s journey toward a higher plane.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 17, 1989, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, September 10, 1989, p.9.

Ruppel, F. Timothy. “ Reinventing Ourselves a Million Times’: Narrative, Desire, Identity, and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” College Literature 22 (February, 1995): 181-190. Ruppel explores the problems of enforced identity in Mukherjee’s novel. Ruppel argues that Mukherjee uses her novel to reinvent the Indian drama by portraying the emergence of an immigrant family’s success.

Schaumburger, Nancy Engbretsen. “Chaos and Miracles.” Review of Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee. Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 5 (Summer, 1989): 29. Gives a summary of the novel, highlighting the young heroine’s different identities, which “the various circumstances and men in her life have bestowed upon her.”

Time. CXXXIV, September 11, 1989, p.84.

The Wall Street Journal. October 10, 1989, p. A14 (W).

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 27, 1989, p.3.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Banerjee, Debjani, article, in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Garland Press.

Lesser, Wendy, ‘‘United States,’’ in The Oxford Guide To Contemporary Writing, edited by John Sturrock, Oxford University Press, 1996,406-31.

Mukherjee, Bharati, ‘‘American Dreamer,’’ in Mother Jones, Jan/Feb 1997.

Vignission, Runar, ‘‘Bharati Mukherjee: an interview,’’ in Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, edited by Vijay Mishra, Number 34-35, 1993.

Further Reading
Chua, C. L., ‘‘Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction of V.S. Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee." In her powerful depiction of clashing cultures and philosophies, Mukherjee has created an ambitious and impressively compact work. The writing is vivid and economical as the author moves easily between the Punjab and Iowa, Florida and New York City.’’

Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 51-61. Discusses Mukherjee and V. S. Naipaul's portrayal of Indian immigrants in North American, and their struggle to realize the American Dream.

Hofstede, Geert, Cultures and Organizations, McGraw-Hill, 1997. Provides a method for understanding cultural differences.

Kriefer, Joel, ed., The Oxford Companion To Politics of the World, Oxford University Press, 1993. Provides comprehensive coverage of international affairs and domestic politics throughout the world.

Lesser, Wendy, ‘‘United States,’’ in The Oxford Guide To Contemporary Writing, edited by John Sturrock, Oxford University Press, 1996,406-431. Explores the recent writing of various cultures, including the literary and cultural contexts for authorship in each area.

Mukherjee, Bharati, ‘‘American Dreamer,’’ in Mother Jones, Jan/Feb 1997. In this essay, Mukherjee clearly identifies herself as an American and rejects other, more limiting labels.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, Garland Press. Provides an assortment of critical essays on Mukherjee's work.

Vignission, Runar, ‘‘Bharati Mukherjee: an interview,’’ in Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, edited by Vijay Mishra, Number 34-35, 1993. Vignission's 1993 interview with Mukherjee where she explains her initial attraction to literature.

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