Understanding Bharati Mukherjee
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Understanding Bharati Mukherjee

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102 pages
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Bharati Mukherjee was the first major South Asian American writer and the first naturalized American citizen to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. Born in Kolkata, India, she immigrated to the United States in 1961 and went on to publish eight novels, two short story collections, two long works of nonfiction, and numerous essays, book reviews, and newspaper articles. She was professor emerita in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, until her death in 2017.

In Understanding Bharati Mukherjee, Ruth Maxey discusses Mukherjee's influence on younger South Asian American women writers, such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni. Mukherjee's powerful writing also enjoyed popular appeal, with some novels achieving best-seller status and international acclaim; her 1989 novel Jasmine was translated into multiple languages. One of the earliest writers to feature South Asian Americans in literary form, Mukherjee reflected upon the influence of non-European immigrants to the United States, following passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system. Her vision of a globalized, interconnected world has been regarded as prophetic, and when Mukherjee died, diverse North American writers—Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, Ann Beattie, Amy Tan, and Richard Ford—came forward to praise her work and its importance.

Understanding Bharati Mukherjee is the first book to examine this pioneering author's complete oeuvre and to identify its legacy. Maxey offers new insights into widely discussed texts and recuperates overlooked works, such as Mukherjee's first and last published short stories, her neglected nonfiction, and her many essays. Critically situating both well-known and under-discussed texts, this study analyzes the aesthetic and ideological complexity of Mukherjee's writing, considering her sophisticated, erudite, multilayered use of intertextuality, especially her debt to cinema. Maxey argues that understanding the range of formal and stylistic strategies in play is crucial to grasping Mukherjee's work.


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Date de parution 06 septembre 2019
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781643360010
Langue English

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UNDERSTANDING BHARATI MUKHERJEE
UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE
Matthew J. Bruccoli, Founding Editor
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
Also of Interest
Understanding Martin Amis , by James Diedrick
Understanding John Edgar Wideman , by D. Quentin Miller
Understanding Louise Erdrich , by Seema Kurup
Understanding Diane Johnson , by Carolyn A. Durham
Understanding Edward P. Jones , by James W. Coleman
Understanding Vladimir Nabokov , by Stephen Jan Parker
Understanding Gloria Naylor , by Margaret Earley Whitt
Understanding Joyce Carol Oates , by Greg Johnson
Understanding Adrienne Rich , by Jeannette E. Riley
Understanding Susan Sontag , by Carl Rollyson
Understanding John Updike , by Frederic Svoboda
UNDERSTANDING
BHARATI MUKHERJEE
Ruth Maxey
2019 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press Columbia, South Carolina 29208
www.sc.edu/uscpress
28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at http://catalog.loc.gov/
ISBN 978-1-64336-000-3 (hardback) ISBN 978-1-64336-001-0 (ebook)
Front cover photograph Miriam Berkley www.miriamberkley.com
For Olly, one in 7.5 billion
CONTENTS
Series Editor s Preface
Acknowledgments
Chapter 1
Understanding Bharati Mukherjee
Chapter 2
India versus America: The Tiger s Daughter, Wife , and Days and Nights in Calcutta
Chapter 3
Canada in Mukherjee s 1980s Work: Darkness and The Sorrow and the Terror
Chapter 4
Immigration to the United States: The Middleman and Other Stories and Jasmine
Chapter 5
Mukherjee s 1990s Writing: The Holder of the World and Leave It to Me
Chapter 6
Novels for the Twenty-First Century: Desirable Daughters, The Tree Bride , and Miss New India
Notes
Bibliography
Index
SERIES EDITOR S PREFACE
The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931-2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to embrace a host of new writers only now making their marks on our literature.
As Professor Bruccoli explained in his preface to the volumes he edited, because much influential contemporary literature makes special demands, the word understanding in the titles was chosen deliberately. Many willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed. Aimed at fostering this understanding of good literature and good writers, the criticism and analysis in the series provide instruction in how to read certain contemporary writers-explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives-and facilitate a more profitable experience of the works under discussion.
In the twenty-first century Professor Bruccoli s prescience gives us an avenue to publish expert critiques of significant contemporary American writing. The series continues to map the literary landscape and to provide both instruction and enjoyment. Future volumes will seek to introduce new voices alongside canonized favorites, to chronicle the changing literature of our times, and to remain, as Professor Bruccoli conceived, contemporary in the best sense of the word.
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I could not have completed this book without the research leave granted me by the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at the University of Nottingham, U.K. I would also like to acknowledge the intellectual and emotional support given to me by several colleagues and friends: Celeste-Marie Bernier, Susan Billingham, Stephanie Lewthwaite, Paul McGarr, Judie Newman, Helen Oakley, Gillian Roberts, Maria Ryan, and Robin Vandome. I am grateful to Hugh Stevens for originally suggesting I write this book, and to Sin ad Moynihan for encouraging me to approach the University of South Carolina Press. In May 2016 I was privileged to speak at the History, Memory, Grief conference at McMaster University in Canada. This exceptional event, commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Air India Flight 182 bombing in June 1985, was organized by Chandrima Chakraborty; and it provided vital inspiration for chapter 3 .
I am very thankful to my mother, Carole, and to my sister, Margaret, for their love and moral support. I reserve particular gratitude for my father, Robert, who really went the extra mile to help me: reading the manuscript, making valuable editorial suggestions, helping with the bibliography, and offering crucial advice at difficult moments in the writing and research process. Finally, I wish to thank my beautiful children, Rebecca and Joe, for all the joy and love they have given me since I began writing this book; and my husband, Olly, a wonderful man whose love and belief in me over the past twenty years have made all the difference in the world.
CHAPTER 1
Understanding Bharati Mukherjee
Bharati Mukherjee was an important, bold, pioneering American writer. Born in Calcutta, India 1 on July 27, 1940 to Sudhir Lal Mukherjee and Bina (n e Chatterjee), a Bengali Brahmin couple, the young Bharati-the middle of three daughters-enjoyed a privileged early life. Mukherjee s father was a biochemist who ran a successful pharmaceutical company and supported a wide network of some fifty relatives all based within the same house in Ballygunge, south Calcutta. A precociously intelligent child, Mukherjee was always highly literate, stimulated by her parents to read and study. Consuming books in a quiet corner was often a refuge from the claustrophobic demands of traditional Indian joint family living, and she began writing stories as a young child. Mukherjee was inspired by the storytelling of her paternal grandmother and her mother. Indeed, she consistently paid tribute to Bina, who proudly defended and encouraged Mukherjee and her two sisters, Mira and Ranu, against a patriarchal backdrop of ridicule from Bina s older, female in-laws for having borne Sudhir no sons.
Mukherjee and her immediate family moved to London in 1948, living there and also in Liverpool and Switzerland until 1951. When they returned to Calcutta they lived apart from the extended family; and Mukherjee attended the exclusive Loreto House convent school, receiving a traditional Anglophone education in which she was taught by Irish nuns to dismiss her Indian heritage in favor of European and specifically British cultural models. She attended the University of Calcutta, graduating with a B.A. in English in 1959, before getting an M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture from the University of Baroda in 1961. That same year Mukherjee arrived in the United States and studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop where she produced a thesis titled The Shattered Mirror, a collection of short stories about Calcutta inspired by James Joyce s Dubliners (1914) with each tale carefully arranged as to epiphanies. 2 In a career spanning more than forty years she went on to produce a total of eight novels, two short story collections, two long works of nonfiction, and numerous essays, book reviews, and articles.
Sudhir-often described by Mukherjee as a benign patriarch-believed his beautiful, talented daughter would return to marry a Bengali Brahmin groom of her father s choice and indulge in genteel scribbling from within a seemly traditional marriage. But Mukherjee dared to defy his expectations, marrying Clark Blaise (1940-) in 1963, following a whirlwind romance. Blaise was a fellow student at Iowa, a white Canadian of American upbringing who also went on to become a respected writer. Theirs was both a creative meeting of minds and a long and devoted union that produced two sons, Bart Anand (1964-2015) and Bernard Sudhir (1967-). The marriage ended with Mukherjee s death at the age of seventy-six in January 2017.
Mukherjee earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Iowa in 1969, having taken up an academic post at McGill University, Montreal, in 1966. Her doctoral dissertation concerned the use of Indian mythology in two novels: E. M. Forster s A Passage to India (1924) and Hermann Hesse s Siddhartha (1922). In the 1970s, the Blaises lived in India on two occasions: in Calcutta from 1972 to 1973 and in New Delhi from 1976 to 1977. During this decade Mukherjee produced two novels, The Tiger s Daughter (1971) and Wife (1975), as well as the memoir, Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), cowritten with Blaise. Mukherjee stayed in Canada, where she became a citizen, until 1980 when the strain of white Canadian racism toward its so-called visible minorities or communities of color became too great for Mukherjee. This racial discrimination impacted Mukherjee, especially after the family s move to Toronto where Blaise joined York University. Mukherjee explored these distressing experiences in her autobiographical essay, An Invisible Woman (1981). Happily settled in Canada by then, Mukherjee s uprooting her family and leaving behind the professional and financial security of her Canadian life was a brave and painful move. It was also richly formative for Mukherjee. Although it resulted in a precarious lifestyle of short-term teaching posts at a range of U.S. universities and colleges, and periods of separation from her husband and sons, it also liberated Mukherjee to pursue her true material creatively 3 : non-European immigration to the United States, following the historic moment in 1965 when immigration legislation was liberalized. In the United States, Mukherjee attempted to do justice to the drama and excitement of that wave of migration, publishing two short story collections, Darkness (1985), and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988)-for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the first naturalized American citizen to do so. Blaise and she also coauthored The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy , a nonfiction study published in 1987. In 1989, Mukherjee s third novel, Jasmine , was published. She became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, adopting San Francisco as her main American home and not retiring until 2013. New York City also became a long-term base.
Mukherjee published five more novels- The Holder of the World (1993), Leave It to Me (1997), Desirable Daughters (2002), The Tree Bride (2004), and Miss New India (2011)-and a range of nonfiction that often covered political and autobiographical material. Despite her ambitious and fearless imaginative vision, Mukherjee continued to rehearse the same themes across her essays: the details of her early life as they led to marriage, motherhood and her academic and literary career in North America; and the browning of America or what she called the steady de-Europeanization of the American population, post-1965. 4 She continually revisited the personal trajectory that took her from India to the United States to Canada and then back to the United States, along with its wider political implications. In her self-presentation as a writer, she proudly created a narrative for her life through the periodization of her life and work into discrete discursive and literary phases: her privileged Indian childhood and youth; her marriage to Blaise; her experiences as expatriate (in Canada) and immigrant (in the United States); her love affair with America; and her writing techniques.
But other areas were more private and sacrosanct: for instance, the lives of her two sons or the depression she most likely suffered in the years before and after her return to America in 1980. At times she was more open about the losses as well as the gains of migration and a consequent ambivalence she felt about her North American status. In 2011 she admitted: I still haven t accepted social demotion as a consequence of immigration. 5 She died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a stress-induced heart condition ; and it seems likely that the tragic loss of her elder son only two years earlier to myotonic muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease he inherited from Blaise s side of the family, was a major contributor. 6 But Mukherjee lived more than thirteen years longer than she was astrologically intended to do, according to traditional Hindu belief. 7 She may even have felt she was living on borrowed time. As she writes in the essay, Destiny s Child (2003), I ve always known that I would die at 63 The year of my death was foretold in my horoscope I would marry a blue-eyed foreigner totally outside the Brahmanic pale of civilization I would cross the oceans and settle far from home-and I would die between July 2003 and July 2004 I came to believe that all of my horoscope would come true. 8 For this reason, she always believed in the importance of treating every moment with reverence as part of a larger cosmic design. 9
Mukherjee is often regarded as the first major South Asian American writer. Her prestigious status can be linked to the rise of South Asian diasporic writing in the Anglophone world over the past four decades. Influenced by V. S. Naipaul early in her career, Mukherjee later openly admired Salman Rushdie. Despite the impact of such existing literary role models, she steadfastly contended that when she began writing, American literature lacked fiction about the nation s South Asians. Throughout her career, Mukherjee expressed views on India and the United States-often in a fervent, didactic, opinionated fashion-that frequently proved controversial, especially among commentators of Indian descent. Perhaps this was because in the 1980s and 1990s, Mukherjee s attitude toward the country of her birth could seem dismissive, while the love she professed for America verged on the zealous. Such ideas about South Asia shifted in her post-2000 fiction, where she drew crucial inspiration from India. In fact the rapid rise of India to global economic power in recent years invests Mukherjee s late writing with real contemporary relevance.
Her vision of a globalized, interconnected world has been regarded as prophetic. Pico Iyer, a fellow Indian diasporic writer, has since Mukherjee s death stated that she was one of the first to intuit the new mongrel cultures that were forming across the world in the age of collapsing borders and cross-cultural unions She thus becomes more essential than ever, as a seminal, essential and ventriloqual 20th century voice for what has become our dominant 21st century reality. 10 Some of her fiction occupies a canonical position, especially Jasmine , which gained an unusually wide readership for South Asian diasporic writing in the United States and remains the most widely taught-at both high school and college level-and the most heavily researched of any of Mukherjee s works. Although some texts have gone out of print-for example, The Tiger s Daughter, Wife, Days and Nights in Calcutta, Darkness , and The Sorrow and the Terror -her work has also enjoyed popular appeal, with her fiction sometimes achieving bestseller status and international acclaim. Her novel Jasmine , for example, has been translated into multiple languages. 11 Mukherjee s short stories and essays have been anthologized in such key collections as The Best American Short Stories 1985, The Best American Short Stories 1989, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories , and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction , while her writing has been reviewed in a wide range of publications in the United States, Canada, India, and Britain. She was also interviewed on many occasions. Mukherjee received honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts award; and she was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 2002, she lectured abroad on behalf of the U.S. State Department; and in 2006, she was committee chair for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Whether or not one agrees with Mukherjee s beliefs about ethnic and identity politics, gender and religion, assimilation and acculturation, immigration and multiculturalism-and her position on all these subjects altered over the years-her writing broke new ground, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, it paved the way for the success experienced by later South Asian American writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni, who have spoken about her importance and especially the role of Jasmine . Divakaruni has recalled reading, re-reading and underlining passages in Jasmine I am grateful to her for giving me the confidence that stories about Indians in America were worth telling. 12 Lahiri s historic Pulitzer Prize win in 2000 for her literary d but, Interpreter of Maladies -the first such triumph by an Asian American in the fiction category-was arguably enabled by the literary breakthrough achieved by Mukherjee s writing, particularly in the late 1980s. Lahiri has noted that I was aware of writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Anita Desai. I think they were the only ones, really, who had written about the Indian immigrant experience, but from the perspective of having been born and brought up in India, and then coming here and having to negotiate it all. 13 Writing about the Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation exhibit that ran from February 2014 to August 2015 at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in Washington, D.C., Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan noted that Mukherjee is included in a section on Ground Breakers [which] profiles pioneers in different fields The individuals are firsts in their respective domains, which is why, for example, Mukherjee is listed and not the better-known writer Jhumpa Lahiri. 14 Srinivasan s matter-of-fact assessment of the two writers assumes-accurately, I believe-the now greater mainstream recognition of Lahiri. Mukherjee nevertheless remains the central figure in South Asian American letters from the early 1970s until the dawn of the twenty-first century: the writer who, early on, showed Indian Americans an image of themselves on the page and acted as a literary mother for aspiring young South Asian American women writers. 15
To focus simply on the effect of Mukherjee s writing on later South Asian American authors would, of course, be to underestimate its scope and ambition. Understanding Bharati Mukherjee therefore aims to extend beyond narrow ethno-racial definitions into a much broader discussion of Mukherjee s position within post-1960s North American letters where, as her obituary notices show, she was admired by a wide range of writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Ann Beattie, and Amy Tan. Russell Banks, Robert Olen Butler, and Richard Ford have also publicly expressed their admiration for her work. 16
Several monographs on Mukherjee have been published since the mid-1990s: Fakrul Alam s Bharati Mukherjee (1996); Andrea Dlaska s Ways of Belonging: The Making of New Americans in the Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee (1999); Nagendra Kumar s The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Cultural Perspective (2001); Sushma Tandon s Bharati Mukherjee s Fiction: A Perspective (2004); Stanley M. Stephen s Bharati Mukherjee: A Study in Immigrant Sensibility (2010); and Christine Kutschbach s The Literariness of Life: Undecidability in Bharati Mukherjee s Writing (2012). Prior to Alam s study, Emmanuel S. Nelson edited Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives (1993). Further edited volumes-R. K. Dhawan s The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium (1996) and Somdatta Mandal s Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives (2010)-have been published since 1993. Bradley C. Edwards s Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee (2009) collects many of Mukherjee s interviews over the past four decades.
These studies amply prove Mukherjee s significance both as a diasporic Indian writer and as an American author whose fictional and nonfictional work charts and examines changing narratives of Americanness and what it means to be Indian. Such academic research also reflects the enduring interest-both critical and popular-in Mukherjee s writing. The monographs by Alam and Dlaska, and Nelson s edited collection, are particularly ambitious. But they are now somewhat out-of-date in that in her later years, Mukherjee went on to publish a series of new novels and essays, espouse different positions, and broach fresh questions. She was, after all, an author who did not stay still. Critical attention has fallen on Mukherjee s fiction, especially in book-length studies of her work. But her protean output demands a wider, more inclusive treatment.
Understanding Bharati Mukherjee seeks to extend the critical commentary on her artistic career by addressing her complete published oeuvre in terms of her thematic variety, formal experimentation, and ideological reach. It is the first study to do so posthumously, and as well as offering new insights into widely discussed texts including Jasmine and The Holder of the World , it also situates and analyzes overlooked works: for instance, Mukherjee s first and last American short stories, Debate on a Rainy Afternoon (1966) and Homes (2008), and her neglected nonfiction from Love Me or Leave Me (1991) to She Said, He Said: The Romance of Food in Our Marriage (2009; cowritten with Blaise). These underdiscussed texts deserve recognition.
Fresh arguments also need to be made about her body of work as a whole. Many critics have considered Mukherjee s writing, often in a single essay, but too often they have focused on the same works- Jasmine in particular-and have posited similar arguments about immigration, expatriation, assimilation, and feminism. Many scholars, especially those of Indian descent, have berated Mukherjee for her perceived political and ideological failings, notably in the context of postcolonial theory vis- -vis her mid-career work. But this critique misses the aesthetic strategies and influences crucial to an understanding of Mukherjee s writing. The current study pays close attention to the formal and stylistic complexity of her work, not least because aesthetics mattered so much to her. 17 Understanding Bharati Mukherjee also aims to situate her oeuvre in relation to its complex, erudite, multi-layered use of intertextuality, especially including her debt to cinema. Where commentators have occasionally referred to her use of filmic intertexts, they have focused on Leave It to Me , her most obviously cinematic novel. Many individual filmic allusions-both explicit and hidden-significantly enrich Mukherjee s writing and deepen an interpretation of it. Yet those allusions have not been teased out or examined properly.
Mukherjee s 1970s work provides her representation of troubled Indian Americans fleeing from or returning to an India in crisis. The Tiger s Daughter and Wife depict Calcutta and New York City respectively. Yet these opposite poles and journeys in reverse are based frequently on issues of feminism, expatriation, and cultural identity. As a coauthored work, Days and Nights in Calcutta poses its own formal and generic questions but also shares thematic concerns-as well as unresolved tensions-with the earlier novels. Through close textual analyses, this discussion will show how the author s formative early fiction and nonfiction-now out of print-laid the foundations for her development as a writer.
The work Mukherjee produced in the 1980s immediately after she left Canada constitutes an impassioned expos of that nation s xenophobia and the limitations of its multicultural project. Through an interpretation of the stories collected in Darkness; the investigative reportage of The Sorrow and the Terror; and other texts including An Invisible Woman, the study shows that Mukherjee s lived experience of racism and her renunciation of Canada were a crucial catalyst in her writing career. While Mukherjee s self-conscious rebirth as an American undoubtedly conferred psychological and creative freedom, the technical skill and emotional power in her Canadian-themed writing-much of it still neglected by critics-renders it some of her finest, most memorable work.
Mukherjee s thematic treatment of immigration to the United States in her late-1980s writing was influenced by her exhilaration at the new possibilities available to her as a U.S. citizen, which palpably enhanced the spatial and psychological range of her critically acclaimed collection, The Middleman and Other Stories and the widely discussed coming-to-America novel, Jasmine . Here I focus especially on their apparently exuberant-but also problematic and ambivalent-representation of the United States as well as that of Indian ghettoization and sectarian violence within America. Some of these themes recur in Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists! (1988), an important essay. The current project examines some of the scholarly orthodoxies surrounding this canonical, mid-career fiction and how it can be read-in literary and ideological terms-in relation to Mukherjee s earlier works.
In her 1990s writing, Mukherjee turned toward historical fiction, depicting colonial America and nascent U.S. imperialism in India in The Holder of the World -an intertextual reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne s The Scarlet Letter . That novel was followed by Leave It to Me , something of a critical and popular failure. This latter work recalls The Holder of the World in its ambitious bid to interject India into America and write America into India-part of a career-long project-against a backdrop of murder, intrigue, and racial mixing. During this decade, Mukherjee produced a series of essays about U.S. immigration and the culture wars that sometimes appeared, like the earlier essay Immigrant Writing, in the pages of national newspapers. Although they are often variations on the same theme, they were written with her customary passion and outspokenness. In this era of Mukherjee s work, her nonfiction arguments play out against the vivid, imagined worlds of her 1990s novels.
In her post-2000 fiction, Mukherjee returned to her Indian roots, reconnecting with her own Bengali culture and celebrating the rich achievements of South Asian Americans, ghettoized or not. This emphasis on India marks something of a volte-face , following her vigorous earlier assertion of her Americanness. It may be explained in part by Mukherjee s age. Writing novels in her sixties, she used the necessary distance from her early life to revisit India on a deeper level and to explore ethnic return, also tapping into the recent fashion for tracing family history. The autobiographical parallels in her novels Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride are striking. Indeed-apart from The Tiger s Daughter and such mid-career stories as Visitors ( Darkness ) and Hindus ( Darkness )- Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride seem to trace Mukherjee s own Bengali Brahmin coming-of-age in Calcutta. The first two installments of a trilogy that includes Miss New India , both novels explore Indian immigrant success in San Francisco, and like The Holder of the World , Indian history-this time in the colonial and post-Independence periods. In her last novel, Miss New India , Mukherjee produced a state-of-the-nation narrative about modern India in a bid to do justice to its unfolding story, rather than focusing on the story of America. Mukherjee s final short story and nonfiction signal a shift away from the politics of immigration toward more personal territory in her later writing.
CHAPTER 2
India versus America
The Tiger s Daughter, Wife , and Days and Nights in Calcutta
Mukherjee s first and second novels, The Tiger s Daughter (1971) and Wife (1975), depict India and the United States respectively; her first American short story, Debate on a Rainy Afternoon (1966), is set in India. More specifically, these nations are symbolized by two metropolitan centers: Calcutta and New York City. The works reflect upon these sites at a distance, since the first novel, set in India, was written in Canada; while Wife , which is about the United States, was produced during a sabbatical year in India. Despite Mukherjee s suggestion that Calcutta and New York are diametrically opposed, her fictive journeys in reverse are thematically underpinned by similar anxieties and violence in relation to issues of feminism, expatriation, and cultural identity. Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), a memoir Mukherjee coauthored with Clark Blaise, poses its own formal and generic questions, and compares Calcutta with Canada-especially Montreal. It shares thematic concerns and unresolved tensions much like those in its fictional predecessors.
This early fiction and life writing charts Mukherjee s bid to reject India even though her originary homeland exerts a powerful pull on expatriate characters. Such psychological import sets a precedent for her later books, since Mukherjee consistently returns to India throughout her oeuvre. 1 Tiger s Daughter and Days and Nights explore an elite culture s sense of its waning powers, whether this is through Calcutta s changing social and political landscape or through the de-privileging effects of migration to North America. These works focus on contagion and contamination, purity, and the threat of danger in the British anthropologist Mary Douglas s well-known opposition, whether that threat be cultural, ethnic, political, caste- or class-related. 2 An undercurrent of upper-middle-class guilt over social inequality also runs through both these texts, which attempt to interpret and sometimes justify India s social system. This unease may stem from the distance created by the author s years in North America, and it also suggests Mukherjee s career-long awareness of an imagined, and non-Indian, reader to whom a particular way of life must be explained. 3 The notion that Indian social inequity can never be fully justified may underpin the urge to emigrate, an urge experienced by Mukherjee herself in Days and Nights and by such characters as Tara Banerjee Cartwright in Tiger s Daughter and Dimple Basu in Wife. For all their awareness of social injustice, however, Mukherjee s Calcuttan haute bourgeoisie betray a deep discomfort toward other Indians agitation for social and political change, most obviously because the challenge to social injustice threatens their traditional way of life.
The works under discussion here share a largely pessimistic, even misanthropic, vision, as distinct from the apparent exuberance of much of Mukherjee s later writing. Their critical neglect may relate to their bleakness, and in the U.S. context, to their respective focus on India, Canada, and an unassimilated, expatriate, between worlds space within America. As such, they fit less easily into college courses on ethnic and multicultural American literature than the energetic, new immigrant, coming-to-America narratives Mukherjee wrote later in her career ( The Middleman and Other Stories [1988] and Jasmine [1989], for example). Yet Mukherjee s early fiction and life writing contain incisive observations and strong social critique, especially about North America. They are impressive, memorable for their fine, Chekhovian attention to small but important details. They also set the stage for Mukherjee s later work and lay the foundations for her later development as a writer by introducing metaphors and ideas that recur across her writing.
Debate on a Rainy Afternoon (1966) and The Tiger s Daughter (1971)
Tiger s Daughter is often regarded as Mukherjee s American literary debut, but her first published work in the United States was actually a short story: Debate on a Rainy Afternoon, about a frustrated, spinsterly teacher, Miss Ghose, in an English-medium, Calcutta girls school. Debate warrants little mention and no analysis within Mukherjee scholarship, but the author reminded readers of its presence, saying in 1994 that it got an honorable mention in Best American Stories . 4 The story anticipates Tiger s Daughter in its Calcutta setting and use of British intertextuality through its references to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Christina Rossetti, and Mary Howitt. But Debate offers a distinctly lower-middle-class portrayal of genteel poverty-emotional, financial, imaginative-in contrast to the social privilege examined in Tiger s Daughter and Days and Nights in Calcutta; the story reflects Mukherjee s vision of a city that seethed with hypocrisy and suppressed misery. 5
As in Wife , Debate charts the conscious acquisition of American English phrases: the open [ Reader s ] Digest disgorged to her the phrase Urban Renewal It became one of her words, like syndrome. 6 The story contains its own examples of American English: for instance, grades (260), flunked (260), sidewalks (268), and bums (268). But the United States remains a site of fantasy as expressed in Miss Ghose s hopes of one day leaving the job, leaving the flat [apartment], leaving Calcutta, just plain leaving this spectacled-Miss-Ghose-life in a filing cabinet, and taking a Fulbright to the States-maybe to the Pennsylvania of the Reader s Digest (261). The story foreshadows Tiger s Daughter and Wife through its portrayal of Calcutta as a desperate, forgotten place: moist, mouldy pungent muddy damp [where] beggars, bums, pariahs stood in wet, shapeless groups [surrounded by] the thick gamey smell of rain, sweat and despair (257, 262, 268, 269). Here, as in her first two novels, Mukherjee uses a third-person limited narrator, although to different effect, since there is a greater sense of pity and condescension toward the story s protagonist. In a moment of pathetic fallacy, Miss Ghose s imagination is described as damp and mouldering (267). Her chewing of paan , which stains her teeth red, links to the fatalistic notion that, with a face pinched and schoolteacherish, [which] could never bring luck to anyone (269), she is tarnished and doomed. Unlike so many of Mukherjee s later characters, who are usually beautiful, exceptional young women, Miss Ghose is stuck in her Indian existence, condemned in a Thoreauvian sense, to a life of quiet desperation, much like some of the writer s actual schoolteacher relatives described in Days and Nights .
Tiger s Daughter is several things at once: social satire; autoethnography; political fiction seeking to reflect civil unrest, sociopolitical change, and the demagoguery of politicians in a transnational, post-1968 setting; 7 and an epistolary, intertextual novel with nods to Shakespeare, English poets, and novelists galore as well as Satyajit Ray, Doris Day, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ved Mehta. As a comedy of manners it relies upon specific set pieces to reflect the narrow parameters of Tara Cartwright s Calcutta world.
The novel opens by informing the reader that the Catelli-Continental Hotel on Chowringhee Avenue, Calcutta, is the navel of the universe. 8 Navel is an ambiguous, polysemic word, with its connotations of birth; the solipsism of navel-gazing; and holes, even suggesting a slippage with the infamous colonial-era Black Hole of Calcutta. And the novel begins ominously too by suggesting dangers to come. Tara is returning home after seven years in the United States, where she attended Vassar College and then moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and New York City. Calcutta is described as claustrophobic and overwhelming; once she has arrived, Tara does not leave again, however much she may wish to. Negative, personifying language consistently depicts both Calcutta and India at large in the novel.
Tara s lost world of 1950s Calcutta-well before the setting of Tiger s Daughter -is a particular touchstone within Mukherjee s work. It is nonnegotiable because this is the version of South Asia closest to her heart, her emotional and psychological desh , or the home from which she began. 9 In the essay, An Invisible Woman (1981), Mukherjee argues that her hometown was not the Calcutta of documentary films-not a hell where beggars fought off dying cattle for still-warm garbage. 10 Such correctives-probably to works like Louis Malle s Calcutta (1969) and other cinematic examples of a White person s genre 11 -reflect a chauvinistic pride about Calcutta s international importance, repeated insistently across her writing. 12 As early as Tiger s Daughter, Mukherjee s pride in Calcutta as a vibrant cultural center co-exists with fear, horror, and disgust, reflecting her broader attitude to India in her pre-2000 work. She thus reinscribed precisely the documentary film version of Calcutta that she contested. 13 Characterized by clear communal divisions between them and us (89), Tiger s Daughter is dismissive in its portrayal of Calcutta s poor, who remain an undifferentiated lumpenproletariat. The threat of violence lurks just below the surface of the early chapters; Tara experiences premonitions of death throughout the narrative. Although Mukherjee suggests that Tara is more afraid in New York than in Calcutta 14 -a point further explored via Dimple in Wife - Tiger s Daughter also firmly implies that Tara expects, and even invites, danger in her home city.
Unlike much of Mukherjee s later fiction, Tiger s Daughter deploys a third-person singular narrator, sometimes omniscient, sometimes limited, switching between different points of view. This tactic results in an ambiguous narrative voice, not least because the boundary between author and protagonist is blurred. Autobiographical parallels are difficult to ignore given the close connection between Mukherjee s own life, and Tara s experience. 15 The author also borrows from the experiences of Ranu, her younger sister, as a homesick student at Vassar in the early 1960s. 16 Mukherjee was thirty-one when she published Tiger s Daughter, while Tara is just twenty-two. Moreover, Tara enters the United States at fifteen: a huge step for a sheltered Bengali Brahmin girl in the days before changes in immigration legislation saw numerous South Asians emigrating to America. Despite the bold move of marrying David Cartwright, a white American, Tara-like Dimple in Wife -has limited life experience. She is presented as coddled and directionless: a lost soul who, like Dimple, possesses little sense of self, even if she has grown in self-awareness by the novel s conclusion.
Tiger s Daughter is divided into four parts. Its blend of long and very short chapters, making it both fast-paced and languorous, appropriately reflects the speed and unpredictability of political events in contrast with the leisurely lives of Calcutta s moneyed classes. The novel alternates between Tara s sense that nothing is happening and her notion that the world is patently changing all around her. The perception of Bengali Brahmin inertia (92) mirrors her own sense of immobility, literally embodied at the novel s circular denouement when she sits trapped in a car outside the Catelli-Continental Hotel among rioters, her future in doubt. 17
The novel s title highlights Tara s status in a patriarchal Calcuttan society: she is defined as the daughter of Bengal Tiger Banerjee (9), a prominent local businessman. The novel s emphasis on appearances and a reverence for seemliness suggests a community intent upon tradition and the past. Yet there are repeated references to the Bengal Tiger s belief in American, rather than Indian, exceptionalism. The United States is the place for his only child s education, it is a future retirement destination, and it is a key cultural site through, for example, allusions to the song, Que Sera, Sera (29, 127, 139), and thus to Doris Day. 18 Arati, Tara s mother, also complicates any simple binary of tradition versus modernity. Although she observes Hindu religious rituals and fully embodies the role of dutiful Bengali wife, she also challenges patriarchal convention by asserting that her daughter is equal to ten sons (52).
Despite Tara s trailblazing status as the Bengali young woman from the States (55), nobody expresses any real interest in her ideas when she returns to her familial world. Instead, she is expected to be meek and decorative. She also appears to believe in her father s power and ability to avert disasters, but he cannot prevent the lewd insults she receives from lower-class men in Darjeeling. This moment of foreshadowing-a technique used throughout Tiger s Daughter and Wife -presages the Bengal Tiger s later powerlessness to prevent P. K. Tuntunwala s sexual advances toward, and implied rape of, Tara. Although this sexual attack is not narrated explicitly-unlike such episodes in Mukherjee s later work-references to rape pepper the narrative (97, 110, 125). Nor was the Bengal Tiger able to stop Tara s marriage to a white American stranger. Indeed, her father is absent from much of the narrative, further suggesting that the strength of such men is waning, whether because of Communist activity in the city or through the impact of powerful outsiders such as Tuntunwala, an ambitious Marwari businessman and politician. Tara dares not acknowledg[e] the Tiger s power to protect her from the outside world as a childhood illusion. 19 The title of the novel is therefore loaded, complex, and contradictory. For all her ancestral advantages, a patrician daughter like Tara is essentially helpless in the India portrayed here.
Tuntunwala, many years older than Tara and depicted through arachnid imagery, is also one of two alternative father figures, the other being Joyonto Roy Chowdhury. Such misdirection seems appropriate for a novel whose protagonist is outwardly understood as a daughter. But Tuntunwala plays a subversive, predatory role, disrupting the image of Calcutta as divided by rigid caste, class and ethnic markers. In his status as an ethnic Other in the city, Tuntunwala represents the social invasion of an old-style Calcutta epitomizing Bengali purity and exceptionalism. 20 He upsets the special historical status of Bengalis in India and particularly of educated, middle-class Bengalis-that is, members of the bhadrasamaj-as an elite within colonial India. 21 In Tiger s Daughter, Bengali Brahmins are dismissive of Marwaris; by contrast, Mukherjee adopts a more positive position toward this ethnic group from Rajasthan in Days and Nights. The fictionalized Bengali haute bourgeoisie surrounding Tara also looks down upon the racially mixed Anglo-Indian community, regarding them as greasy (187) and not fully Indian, and views foreigners in India with suspicion.
As a Marwari and sinister man of action, symbolic of the new India, 22 Tuntunwala is clearly intended as a foil both to the Bengal Tiger and to Joyonto, who displays honorable, if eccentric, intentions toward Tara. In regarding her as the luminous girl (46)-for she has made the bold move of studying in the United States and forging her own interracial love match -Joyonto anticipates the emphasis on exceptional young women in such later Mukherjee novels as Jasmine and The Holder of the World (1993). He also bears witness to Tara and her friend, Reena, about a disappearing Calcutta; and he offers them-and the reader-a panoramic vision of the city. An apparently obsolete and moribund figure, he nonetheless survives the novel s final events.
Written mostly from the perspective of a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), Tiger s Daughter is also concerned with writing the United States into India. This strategy is chosen, no doubt, with a North American readership in mind. To this end, Mukherjee introduces several American characters: David Cartwright, Antonia Whitehead, and Washington McDowell, the latter two, caricatured figures. As her surname implies, Antonia is white-and also overbearing, patronizing, and neo-colonial. Washington, an African American student, is drawn as poorly educated and ingenuous. Both characters are comical rather than threatening. David, as Tara s husband, enjoys a different status and typifies Mukherjee s tendency to depict ethnic Indian women in the United States choosing white American men. 23 Yet the reader never meets him. He is even less present than the Bengal Tiger, and Tara s wifely status becomes increasingly irrelevant. The reader hears David s rather arrogant and condescending voice in letters, snippets of which are refracted through Tara s somewhat paranoid point of view. This broader epistolary theme includes references to the Bengal Tiger s letters to his daughter and the image of Tara trying to write to David. That image mirrors Mukherjee s own authorial work in the novel, interpreting and deciphering Calcutta as an NRI. Different forms of literary activity are validated and explored metatextually in Tiger s Daughter , from David s bid to produce a novel to Sanjay s journalism to the Bengal Tiger s youthful attempts at poetry. The intertextuality already noted is made explicit by Mukherjee so as to show the cultural contours, including the educational system, of this postcolonial, Anglophone, Anglophile society; the novel s rejection of that society through Tara s move to America rather than Britain; and the faint absurdity of the Calcuttans who slavishly cling to British cultural products and what Mukherjee called the bankruptcy of that material. 24
Where David remains remote, never entering India, Antonia and Washington are physically large, out-of-place, and politically destabilizing figures within a carefully controlled, strictly ordered world. Antonia and Tara nonetheless share common ground: Antonia has moved far from the home she left, like Tara, at fifteen. She too is an innocent abroad in both the United States and India. The portrayal of Washington reveals Mukherjee s discomfort with black characters, who do not reappear in her later writing; she underlines how thoroughly Washington and Tara fail to understand each other. Tara s fear of African Americans, shared by Dimple in Wife , suggests the traditional South Asian tendency toward colorism, but also that she has internalized white racist attitudes during her years in the United States. Here black and dark men really are what the mainstream fears them to be. 25 At the same time, Tara s anti-black attitude stems from her sense that Washington-and by extension, other black Americans-cannot see ethnic South Asians like her as fellow Americans. An interracial coalition of minorities is apparently impossible here and this may be why Washington conveniently disappears. Mukherjee appears uncertain about what to do with him.
Like other Asian Americans, Tara may only experience a provisional sense of national belonging in the United States. 26 Communities of Indian Americans were indeed at an early stage of formation and evolution in the 1970s, as Mukherjee goes on to show in Wife . Tara also accords with Mukherjee s expatriate versus immigrant paradigm, despite her American husband and passport (144). Yet she still needs Washington s approval, even if she betrays implicitly racist fears and assumptions: for instance, that McDowell s sympathies were probably with the goondahs [or thugs] one day at Berkeley perhaps he too would slash cars and riot (146). His hurtful failure to acknowledge her as a fellow citizen is made worse by what she regards as his own quintessential Americanness: his name recalls both the first U.S. president and the American capital. Indeed, as with Antonia Whitehead, nomenclature plays an almost Dickensian role here. 27
Related to the theme of America-in-India is the issue of language itself. Despite the novel s use of untranslated Hindi words like gherao (44) and bustee (119), translation is a key theme, revealed both by the conscious shifts between British and American English and by David s taking on the role of (white) ethnic outsider for whom translation is necessary. 28 In this sense he becomes a stand-in for the author s presumed reader. 29 Mukherjee also explores the limits of translation, citing ideas that resist easy explication, as well as the failure of language to capture reality, as when European (139) and African (138, 153) are deployed to describe Washington, who is neither. Tara s marital problems also assume a linguistic dimension when she realizes that in India she felt she was not married to a person but to a foreigner, and this foreignness was a burden (62). Tiger s Daughter , then, examines a wide range of themes: language, cultural dislocation and personal disorientation, ethno-national and expatriate identities, and Bengali exceptionalism.
Wife (1975)
Mukherjee s second novel begins with a dedication and an epigraph. The latter- Dimple: any slight surface depression. Oxford English Dictionary -contains a double meaning. 30 On the one hand, it alerts the reader to the leitmotif of depression within the novel. Dimple is a depressive protagonist even before her departure for the United States and she has no sense of identity beyond becoming a wife. The epigraph also anticipates a specific moment later in Wife , where Dimple entertains early thoughts of harming her husband, Amit: she had a sudden desire to examine the body trace all dents, depressions, scars, probe the weakened spots until she knew just where to strike or pierce and make him bleed in the dark (117). Reflecting a Bengali s typical love of adumbration, as she puts it in Days and Nights , 31 Mukherjee makes extensive use of foreshadowing in Wife: in this case, the moment when Dimple eventually stabs her husband to death.
Mukherjee s dedication is to her two sons, Bart and Bernie, and to Leonard Gordon, an American historian of South Asia discussed more fully in Days and Nights . Her dedication shows the interconnected nature of Mukherjee s 1970s work. Gordon reportedly asked Mukherjee what do you Bengali girls do between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five? 32 Wife is a bid to answer that question and a truer act of imagination than was Tiger s Daughter , since Mukherjee steps outside her own exogamous marriage and specific caste background to draw a very different union: that of the lower-middle-class Dimple Dasgupta to Amit Basu, her fellow Bengali and a would-be migrant. Despite some parallels with Tiger s Daughter through its use of Calcuttan topography, this thought-experiment evokes a very different world from that of the Bengal Tiger s luxurious residence on Camac Street.
As its title suggests, Wife is preoccupied with the theme of marriage. If Tara is the Tiger s daughter and Mrs. Cartwright, Dimple is similarly defined in patriarchal terms by her outward, generic status as a married person. Her marriage to Amit, which takes place early in the text, has been arranged. Mukherjee s critique of arranged marriage is developed through the Basus loveless and ultimately tragic match, a disastrous union both in India and after transplantation to the United States. Wife also questions the Indian joint family system, presented as a realm of claustrophobia and surveillance. The novel is not concerned with local political events in either Calcutta or New York. Rather, Mukherjee examines the role of Indian women at home and in the diaspora and interrogates Western feminism. Before Dimple s emigration, her letters to an Indian magazine are used to make political points about Indian women s lives, covering everything from marriage to infertility to suicide: issues as relevant today as they were in 1975. Bengali women s options are presented as severely limited, particularly professionally: only two women-Dimple s Calcutta friend, Pixie, and her boss, Ratna Das-work for a living. Mukherjee implies here, as in much of her later work, that characters have no future in India, yet she simultaneously questions this by highlighting Ratna s anti-emigration prejudice and Indian feminism. 33
When Dimple encounters Marsha Mookerji, a Jewish American academic, she is confused because Marsha was delicately built, with a face that Dimple thought of as intelligent before she could assess its beauty. Even this was troubling. Dimple had been brought up to think of women only as beautiful, pretty, or good mothers (80). It is worth noting that, like many of Mukherjee s later protagonists, Dimple is not a mother herself. Wife is in fact a distinctly anti-maternal novel. Among Dimple s fellow Bengali immigrant wives, Ina Mullick implies that having children is not her desired option, while Meena Sen, a mother of two small girls, is steeped in domestic drudgery and presented as conservative and uninteresting. The second of her daughters remains nameless, her sex a source of grief to Meena. 34 Most strikingly, Dimple actively rejects her pregnancy, bringing on a miscarriage while still in India, having skipped rope until her legs grew numb (43). She may appear passive, powerless, and ensconced in a fantasy world for much of the novel, but the early violence of this act indicates otherwise, showing her ability to take control of her life. 35 It is also expressive of the fact that Dimple herself is still a child because she has not been initiated into the mysteries of womanhood. 36
Wife examines Indian America at an emergent stage of its development. On arrival in the United States, the Basus stay first with Jyoti and Meena Sen-the embodiment of traditional Bengali culture within a distinct ethnic enclave in Queens-before living in Prodosh and Marsha Mookerji s sublet apartment near New York University. By contrast to the Sens, figures like Ina and Prodosh offer an alternative paradigm of Indian American life. Ina has transformed herself according to the doctrines of Western women s liberation, albeit to unhappy effect. 37 Prodosh represents the post-1965 Indian immigrants who became successful academics, moved out of little Indias in spatial terms (the Mookerjis apartment is in the midst of Manhattan), and like Mukherjee herself, forged interracial alliances.
Dimple s New York remains a little India, no matter that she attempts to make a new beginning by moving from Queens to Manhattan: an idea Mukherjee explores at greater length in Jasmine . Paranoid about the dangerous New York of the 1970s-a pre-Giuliani domain of sirens on the street, drunks in doorways, belligerent junkies (168)-Dimple ends up housebound, despite having traveled across the world. Later, she concludes that she had no state to represent and had failed to re-create a new one in the limits of her apartment as Meena or Ina or Mrs. Roy had done (198). Yet this is not Dimple s apartment. Borrowing terms from Clark Blaise s short fiction anthology, Resident Alien (1986), Mukherjee notes that unhousement is the breaking away from the culture into which one was born, and in which one s place in society was assured. Re-housement is the re-rooting of oneself in a new culture. 38
Dimple exemplifies this notion of unhousement. She does not even have the security of a home of her own. The Basus move from one apartment to another surrounded by other people s belongings. 39 This constant borrowing of alien homes, clothes, and identities is further proof that Dimple, as Mukherjee draws her, lacks a proper sense of self. In her increasingly confused and deluded state, she even begins to think of the Mookerjis apartment as her own. Indeed, the physicality of dwellings plays an important role in Mukherjee s work: they are not merely backdrops they are integral parts of the South Asian protagonists lives as they seek refuge from assaults by different cultures. 40 On the one hand, the four walls of a house or apartment serve as a haven in which a diasporic way of life may continue, functioning as a site of resistance to the dominant culture, as demonstrated by the Sens. On the other, home becomes imprisoning for Dimple and, in the sense that India is not presented as a viable alternative for her any more than it is for Mukherjee s other ethnic Indians in North America, she remains trapped in a provisional, unhoused state. The possibility of transformation into another, more assimilated life remains a fantasy, whether such a life takes the imagined form of passing as one of the Puerto Rican girls on Bleecker Street [who] looked devastatingly like Indians (163) or the real-life experience of her short-lived affair with Milt Glasser, Marsha s brother.
Dimple s secretly mutinous behavior is at odds with mainstream American feminism in the novel, whether practiced by Ina or Leni Anspach, a white American. Their personal emancipation takes a fundamentally self-absorbed and histrionic form. Such emancipation cannot help Dimple who experiences a sense of futility, emptiness, and hopelessness about the impossibility of new beginnings: like a shadow without feelings Whatever she did would be wrong (200). Mukherjee returns to this umbral imagery in such later works as the short story, The Lady from Lucknow ( Darkness [1985]), and Jasmine to illustrate ethnic minorities denied their full recognition in First World countries. 41
The inchoate, even endless, nature of depression is rendered formally through the absence of chapters in Wife . Instead, the novel is divided into three parts, its structure reminiscent of a three-act play. The sheer density of these individual sections replicates the claustrophobia of Dimple s experience; it can make the darkness of Mukherjee s subject matter even more harrowing. Deploying a third-person singular, limited narrator, Wife is a far more domestic and interior novel 42 than Tiger s Daughter , allowing the reader no escape from Dimple s increasingly disturbed perspective. 43 As with the handling of Tara s husband in the earlier novel, Amit s views are presented only through reported speech and he remains something of a caricature [a] one-dimensional character. 44 Mukherjee s choice of this particular narrative voice affords her the necessary distance to tell Dimple s story, while creating a space in which her thoughts-like Tara s-might be understood. Like Tara, then, Dimple is not permitted to narrate directly in her own I voice. The shift to first-person narrator did not occur until Mukherjee s short fiction collections, Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories , and Jasmine , whose very title suggests individual identity rather than an externally imposed role as a daughter or a wife.
Wife is a novel about simultaneously following and rejecting a script, as when Dimple is offered a weak alcoholic drink at a Bengali party in New York and visualizes the right answer, I do not need stimulants to feel happy in my husband s presence my obligation is to my husband as though it were printed on a card. All she had to do was read it (78). 45 She deviates from the script- maybe a very weak one, next time, she said (78)-even at this early point in her American life, thus setting the stage for her later rebellions, including her brief moment of adultery. The image of a script also recalls her father s boast, ironic in light of Dimple s propensity for violence and ultimately murder, that his daughter is so sweet and docile She will never give a moment s headache (15). In Days and Nights Mukherjee reports hearing these words, in slightly amended form, like a mantra as marriageable daughters are packaged in the most inoffensive manner so as to attract prospective grooms. Mr Dasgupta s reliance upon such a stock narrative betrays how little he knows-or perhaps wishes to know-his own daughter.
Dimple s inner life becomes increasingly macabre and morbid as the novel heads toward its gruesome denouement, an ending which anticipates the horror of some of Mukherjee s Darkness stories, such as the conclusions to Tamurlane and A Father. Dimple has been obsessed with death for much of the novel, fantasizing about suicide to the extent that the reader expects this to be her way out of an apparently unbearable situation. As well as killing small creatures and the fetus inside her own body and dreaming about Ina s corpse, Dimple also becomes associated with images of dismemberment, for example when the pink petals of plastic flowers are grotesque and stiff like detached ear lobes (105). Mukherjee deploys horror tropes, for instance when Dimple s anger and frustration are figured through images of possession: it was as if some force was impelling her towards disaster; some monster had overtaken her body, a creature that would erupt indiscreetly through one of Dimple s orifices, leaving her splattered like a bug on the living-room wall and rug (157). As with her bid to write back to Malle and other Western filmic interpreters of Calcutta, cinematic rather than literary intertextuality is at work here. In particular there is Roman Polanski s classic Apartment Trilogy, especially Repulsion (1965) in which an apartment-bound, phobic, migr woman (a Belgian in London) murders men who enter her living space; and Rosemary s Baby (1968) about the confinement-in multiple senses-of a pregnant woman in Manhattan. The Tenant (1976), a later thriller about an Eastern European occupying a rented apartment in Paris, is the final film in the trilogy; and Mukherjee may well have borrowed this title for her eponymous short story, anthologized in The Middleman .
Much like Polanski s oeuvre, Mukherjee suggests that violence-or the threat of it-is ever-present. Mirroring Tara in reverse, it surrounds Dimple in Calcutta and then follows her to New York, even as this fear of violence is both self-created and connected to a pervasive external presence. Thus Jyoti Sen is obsessed with the murders and violence widely reported in the U.S. media. For Susan Koshy, it is an ironic twist that the violence the immigrants insistently identify with the alienness of America provides the means for Dimple s self-assertion and becomes a symptom of her collapse. 46 American Dream ideologies are nightmarishly reversed when Dimple tells Amit in America, anything is possible you can be raped and killed on any floor (129). At the same time, the novel implies that for Dimple, America remains predominantly imaginary rather than real. U.S. culture cannot be separated from television, as images on the screen come to replace actual experience. Television, like Dimple s fantasies of America, shows the disparity between reality and a scripted narrative. 47 That disjuncture is reflected when the narrator explains that it was getting harder and harder to distinguish between what she had seen on TV and what she had imagined (157).
This inner conflict between illusion and reality is evidenced too, when Dimple dreams about death and is left questioning whether she is still alive, her mind increasingly turning in on itself. Just before she kills Amit, her conversations with him become more and more surreal. The narrative is, moreover, genuinely frightening when Dimple hallucinates images of mangled, bleeding faces on The Johnny Carson Show (210): a psychotic precursor to the moment where she saw [Amit s] head fall off-but of course it was her imagination because she was not sure anymore what she had seen on TV and what she had seen in the private screen of three A.M . (213). Earlier in the novel, Dimple has dreamed about her own decapitation and these oneiric metaphors can be linked to Mukherjee s recollection of how, following a dream, she conceived the ending to Wife: I thought that like a pliant, good, obedient Indian wife she would probably either give in to her depressions or commit suicide, which is a traditional and honorable way out for women like her. But instead, in my dream, she decided to kill her husband Therefore I wrote the novel in which the wife, in a misguided but very self-assertive act that was very important to me personally, actually does murder her husband while he s having his breakfast. 48
Mukherjee s account constitutes an intriguing set of statements. For one thing, it begs the question of why Dimple s murderous act should be very important to Mukherjee personally. Is this because it is an act of desperation brought on by a sense of being stranded in North America, a situation Mukherjee knew intimately? In Invisible Woman, she recalls that while in Canada, whenever I read articles about women committing suicide I knew I was looking into a mirror (39). She also writes here that Wife should be read in the following way: the nominal setting is Calcutta and New York. But in the mind of the heroine, it is always Toronto (39). This contention is both highly prescriptive and literally impossible, as Dimple has never been to Canada. Mukherjee is, of course, referring to a kind of authorial truth and logic: that Dimple s New York is conceived in part from the loneliness of her own expatriate life in Toronto.
Returning to Mukherjee s explanation of the ending of Wife , another issue is that the claim that Dimple actually does murder her husband might be read differently, even if the actual murder was the author s intentional meaning. Dimple s point of view has become so unreliable by this stage in the novel that the act of murder could also be a hallucination, as Andrea Dlaska has suggested. 49 The protagonist herself seems to acknowledge this notion: of course it was her imagination (213). As noted above, she has also imagined killing Amit much earlier in the narrative. Like Tiger s Daughter, Wife has an open ending.

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