The Middleman, and Other Stories deals with the clash between Western and Third World cultures as technology and overpopulation join diverse peoples in tragicomic relationships. “A Wife’s Story” is a good example of Bharati Mukherjee’s storytelling technique. It is told in the present tense, begins abruptly, and has an interest, characteristic of literary minimalism, in brand names and consumerism. The narrator sees her Indian husband through American eyes when he visits her in New York City, where she is attending college. He is captivated by the meretricious glamour and abundance of consumer goods. The narrator realizes how Americanized she has become and how comically provincial her husband appears.
Alfred Judah in “The Middleman” is a man without a country, a Jew living in Central America and hoping to make his way to the United States. Some think he is an Arab and others think he is an Indian; he is despised by everyone. In “Orbiting,” an American woman is living with an Afghan lover who is another man without a country, unable to obtain legal entry into any of the developed countries being flooded with immigrants.
In “Buried Lives,” an Indian who is prospering in Sri Lanka abandons his responsibilities for a new life in America. After leading a terrifying underground existence, he finds himself engaged to be married in Germany. “Danny’s Girls” is about immigrants who come to the United States for a better life and who become prostitutes. “Jasmine” has a similar theme.
“The Management of Grief,” dealing with the 1985 bombing of an Air India jetliner, focuses on a specific incident but reveals a macrocosm. Through the eyes of one bereaved woman, the reader glimpses the diaspora that has scattered Indians across five continents, creating alienation and countless minor tragedies.
Mukherjee’s experience as an upper-caste woman losing her tradition-bound, privileged identity was the turning point in her life. As an immigrant she was sometimes mistaken for a prostitute, a shoplifter, or a domestic servant. Her stories reflect her sympathy for the psychological traumas suffered by the Third World immigrants who have lost their old identities and who are trying to create new ones. Mukherjee is an Old World intellectual who has adopted New World values. The blending of old and new is another striking characteristic of her fiction. She dramatizes the cataclysmic changes taking place in human consciousness as cultures collide.