Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Bharati Mukherjee’s introduction to her collection of short stories Darkness (1985), she describes her work as an exploration in “state-of-the-art expatriation.” By seeking to isolate themselves from the physical violence of the island’s coup, the Claytons only intensify, in Graeme’s need for clarity and order and in Ratna’s aloofness, their emotional inability to understand themselves and each other. Their marriage is a metaphor for misunderstanding between local residents and expatriates; Graeme’s self-assured presumption of superiority contrasts with Ratna’s urgent need to belong to a society free of racial and nationalistic prejudices. He cannot participate in her emotional disorientation; she cannot desist from the “mordant and self-protective irony” in which she identifies most strongly with the French separatists in Quebec. Only when Ratna resigns herself to following Graeme on yet another path in her journey as an expatriate and finds solace among the mutual English of dining Europeans and Indians (the two halves of her heritage) does she enjoy a momentary sense of belonging somewhere. She does not, however, resolve the difference between immigrant and expatriate: Her fuzzy epiphany in translating for the American both compliments her aloof use of French and undermines the illusory self-protection that it offers. The American, an implicit metaphor for the immigrant, is free to belong to the multiplicity of many cultural heritages; Ratna, explicitly an expatriate, must wonder if she “would ever belong.” In her muddled search for “souvenirs of an ever-retreating past,” much like Hsü’s geological archaeology of unity, and in her aloof detachment, one must conclude that Ratna will “never belong, anywhere.”

The irony of telescoping symbols of the marriage, the island’s independence, and Hsü’s prehistorical world unity for divisive change and inconsequential stability is that however ordered Graeme’s worldview may be and however aloof Ratna may remain, they will both be physically and emotionally affected by change and instability. Only by recognizing cultural differences without creating stereotypes and by accepting change within their own lives can the Claytons ever come to terms with the changing circumstances around them, wherever they may be. This recognition and acceptance depends on the cultivated awareness of the immigrant, not the feigned superiority of the expatriate. Ratna fails to gain the immigrant’s awareness because she believes that it is an experience restricted to the island and dependent on her own aloofness.