||The Melting-Pot Lady
by Joel Yanofsky
EVERYTHING HAPPENS by accident. Some 30 years ago a UCLA drama professor passing through Calcutta was invited to the home of Bharati Mukherjee's prosperous and prominent father. Mukherjee's father, an unlikely combination of patriarchal and progressive attitudes, took the opportunity to ask for advice about his daughter's future. "I want her to be a writer. Where do I send her?" His American guest replied, "Send her to Iowa."
It's hard, now, to imagine anyone making decisions for the fiercely independent Bharati Mukherjee. Or anyone sending her anywhere, even if Iowa -- renowned for turning out writers -proved to be the ideal place to be sent. But that was lifetimes ago. Like the title character of her new novel, jasmine, Mukherjee, now 49, has lived through many reincarnations. All of them have left scars; all of them have been necessary.
"There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake our self," jasmine says, speaking as Much for her creator as herself "We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams."
For all her pride and toughness there's still something delicate, even fragile about Mukherjee's "elegant, Brahminical" features. She's a small woman who doesn't appear small, a pretty woman you'd never dare call pretty. Her meticulous manners and her finishing-school accent are remnants of an upbringing that was as sheltered as a cocoon.
Growing up as the daughter of a wealthy Calcutta businessman, at a time of political unrest in India, Mukherjee was sent to boarding school in England and Switzerland. When she was home she never went out unless she was accompanied by bodyguards. "I never even handled money," Mukherjee says over lunch at a Montreal restaurant. "So if, as a schoolgirl, I wanted to buy a pencil there was always a uniformed man behind me to make the purchase."
It was a tough cocoon to crack, even for a butterfly as fierce and determined as Mukherjee. Fragility turned out to be a luxury she couldn't afford -- not if she meant to be a writer, not after she left India for Iowa and then left Iowa for Canada. (Although she became an American citizen in 1988, Mukherjee lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980 and still retains dual citizenship.) Canadian society, in particular, had no use for outdated caste systems. Perhaps because we had our own outdated system in place here -- multiculturalism -- and our own rhetoric to justify it: the Canadian mosaic. It was a rhetoric that labelled Mukherjee an outsider, "a visible minority," and then expected her to be grateful for it. Instead of being judged on the basis of ancestral privilege, she was judged on the basis of race.
In Canada, I was frequently taken for a prostitute or shoplifter, frequently assumed to be a domestic.... The society itself, or
important elements in that society, routinely made crippling
assumptions about me and my "kind,"
Mukherjee wrote in her angry, cathartic introduction to the 1985 short-story collection Darkness.
Despite it all, though, despite the overprotection and the underestimation, Mukherjee has made every metamorphosis count: turning every racial slur -- and there's a long list of them -- every slight and setback into a fresh start.
Her latest incarnation is as a celebrated American author, respected for her talent and her unique literary perspective. She is in demand: appearing on U.S. television to comment on the death threat against Salman Rushdie; writing about the new direction in American immigrant literature for the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Then last year Mukherjee was the upset winner of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award for her short-story collection, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), beating out books with much larger U.S. print runs and promotion budgets.
Mukherjee followed that success with Jasmine, her first novel in 14 years, About a young Indian woman shrugging off the burden of fate, the novel offers a startlingly new slant on the age-old American pioneer tale.
"I'm doing something now that hasn't been done before," Mukherjee explains, "writing about mainstream America itself head on and the changes it's going through because of the influx of all these new people from the New World."
Her enthusiasm for her subject is unlimited. Her answers seem almost rehearsed -- they're not, of course, but they are answers she's been thinking about and forming for as long as she has been writing. "I'm dealing with characters who haven't been dealt with before. I'm writing about the fact of de-Europeanization."
If Mukherjee's characters are unfamiliar, their dreams of starting over in America -- of rags to riches -- are not. jasmine, whose adventures take her from a Punjabi village to Florida, from Manhattan to Iowa, keeps reinventing herself with one goal in mind: to fit into "the (life) of absolute ordinariness" all of America's newcomers ache for.
Compared to Horatio Alger, jasmine is not entirely successful, but she is successful enough. For all its violence -- there is a terrorist bombing, a rape, several murders and suicides, and an assassination attempt in the novel -- and despite its "ambiguous message" about America, Jasmine is an optimistic, celebratory, even jaunty book. Like its title character, it is a book "greedy with wants and reckless from hope" -- a book about belonging and becoming.
Jasmine also marks the final stage in Mukherjee's own transformation -- a transformation that began with The Middleman into a completely original story-teller. As narratives go, Mukberjee's is astonishingly self-assured. Similarly, her voice, here, is immediate, resonant, and unerring -- an example of a writer who has not only found the story that she was born to tell, hut who has found the best way to tell it. So at the same time that her subject has expanded to encompass the vast, changing landscape of America, Mukherjee's prose style has become increasingly spare and tight. The novel, finally, is a triumph of compression: jamming and squeezing a multitude of worlds, a kaleidoscope of its character's experiences into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence.
But we are refugees and mercenaries and guest workers; you see us sleeping in airport lounges, you watch us unwrapping the last of our native foods, unrolling our prayer rugs, reading our holy books, taking out for the hundredth time an aerogram promising a job or space to sleep, a newspaper in our language, a photo of happier times, a passport, a visa, a laissez-passer.
With Jasmine Mukherjee has become what she had always meant to be -- an unmistakably American writer in "the tradition of other American writers whose parents or grandparents had passed through Ellis Island." Like them, Mukherjee has something essential to add to the melting-pot:
"While pre-Vietnam Americans can write comfortably about personal relationships in a vacuum and not worry about the rest of the world, for those of us born in the Commonwealth, in countries like Canada or Australia or, in my case, preIndependence India, that's not possible. We have always known a them/us kind of division. We have always known there's a bigger world out there that we either have to sever ourselves from or appropriate."
Mukherjee chose appropriation. Although it was never really a choice as much as it was a hard, painful evolution. Nothing happens by accident.
IT CERTAINLY hasn't been the career Mukherjee's father planned for her. She doesn't laugh often, but Mukherjee laughs now, remembering her father's quaint notions about his daughter's literary ambitions.
"My wanting to be a writer was all right with him because I was a girl. If I'd been a son it would not have been allowed. To my father writing was a cultivated hobby, like embroidery -- an accomplishment that would make me even more marriageable. The idea was that I wouldn't take it too seriously."
What Mukherjee's father didn't know is that at the University of Iowa writing is taken very seriously: a fact that was not wasted on Mukherjee. "You have to remember that in India I hadn't read anything after the 19th century. The Writers' Workshop in Iowa introduced me to contemporary literature. It introduced me to an exciting new world I couldn't have even imagined."
It was just the first in a series of revelations for Mukherjee. Unlike her two sisters, who had also been sent to the U.S. to be educated, Mukherjee never felt homesick. "I knew as soon as I arrived in America that I wanted to stay."
Even now when she remembers those days she looks a little overwhelmed by the way her life changed overnight. Simple things made all the difference: "Staying up late, drinking coffee with friends, wearing sweatshirts and corduroys, talking about literature, my God, it was wonderful."
In Iowa, Mukherjee was free of family obligations and expectations for the first time. More important, she was free to make her own mistakes and take her own risks. One risk -- at least according to her family -- was her 1966 marriage to another Workshop graduate, Clark Blaise.
It was a two-week courtship, Mukherjee recalls, and a lunchhour wedding. As it turns out, it was probably the least risky thing Mukherjee ever did. In addition to collaborating on two books -- the travel memoir Days and Nights in Calcutta and The Sorrow and the Terror, a non-fiction account of the Air India bombing -- Mukherjee and Blaise have two grown sons. Their marriage has endured and so has their respect for each other as writers.
"I really learned more about fiction after I got married to Clark than I did from all my time in school. It was reading, talking, story-writing with Clark that has made me into the writer I am."
Blaise, born in North Dakota, raised in Florida and Montreal, the son of French- and English-Canadian parents, also provided Mukherjee with an indispensable view of the fluid, rootless nature of North American society. "I have access to the way Americans think and live because I married Clark. My work is as American as it is because of him."
If the idea of being an American writer appealed to Mukherjee from the beginning, she came to Canada in the late 1960s with the same desire to be accepted as a Canadian writer. There were practical reasons for choosing Canada, too: Blaise had roots in Montreal and Mukherjee got an offer to teach at McGill University.
When I first met Mukherjee in 1977 1 was a graduate student at McGill and she was an established part of the English department. Her life seemed firmly anchored. Mukherjee admits that it did look that way from the outside.
"In Montreal, everything was perfect in the ways that young academics expect things to be: Clark and I both had good jobs, a nice house, children in private school. I guess we were Yuppies before the word was thought up, multicultural yuppies at that."
But the nice house and the job security masked Mukherjee's growing concerns about her future in this country. Even after she had published two novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1971) and Wife (1975), she still felt like an outsider in the Canadian literary scene. In fact, she was told as much by a prominent CBC interviewer.
"He said to me, on television, that I couldn't be a Canadian writer because I hadn't played in snow as a child. That was 1972 and he was serious," Mukherjee says, withholding the name of the interviewer, adding only that he holds an even more prominent position today.
Mukherjee's efforts to join the Writers' Union of Canada also met resistance and some bizarre rationalizations. "The first time I was rejected they said it was because they'd invited my husband to join and had therefore taken care of the wife. When Clark and I objected we were then told it was because they didn't know how to spell my name."
Timing, Mukherjee recognizes now, was part of the problem. "In retrospect, I realize that as I was coming into my own as a writer, Canadian literary nationalism was also coming into its own and that was defined very narrowly and it excluded me." Of course, the real problem was much more straightforward and inescapable: racism.
In 1978, Blaise got a job at York University and Mukherjee reluctantly followed him to Toronto. It was then that "things just blew up in our faces." Mukherjee says she doesn't like to rehash the past litany of racial offences committed against her, but she does anyway. By now, telling stories about being thrown out of hotels, spat on, not served in stores, and called a Paki has become almost a reflex for her. If there was a time when Mukherjee could shrug these acts off as "isolated incidents," that time is long past.
"I was in such distress that I could only think of ways of becoming a human rights activist instead of sitting down and writing. Writing often requires you to give the best lines to the bad guys and to be wise enough to see the villain's point of view. It requires you to step back. I just couldn't do that while I was in Canada."
Mukherjee believes now that if she'd stayed in Canada she might have ended up running for political office. She was approached about doing that and even considered it at one point. But she was also depressed by her experience of political life in Canada. "I really felt hopeless about being able to change the way people felt about race relations in the late 1970s." In the end, she chose literature over politics, and by 1980 she had left Canada.
"I don't regret the decision now," Mukherjee says, "but I certainly felt very guilty in the beginning about having uprooted my husband and children because of my refusal to deal any more with what I felt was a very racially hostile situation in Toronto."
What followed was a peripatetic existence -- "bouncing from one temporary teaching job to another" -- a commuter marriage, and almost a decade of "spectacular poverty" -- all of which put a strain on family life and personal relationships. Ironically, none of this affected Mukherjee's work. If anything, it made her more determined to write. She was back in America and, once again, she felt free.
"While I was writing The Middleman, for example, I was also teaching five courses a semester. It was only through snatching what time I could at three in the morning, or on weekends, that I could finish. But the project had so much momentum that it kept me going."
It's no coincidence that the turning point in Mukherjee's career came after she'd left Canada. "This country kept rejecting me in the areas where I needed support and acceptance most -- my writing." Although the novels Mukherjee had written, here, in the 1970s were intelligent, well-made fictions, they were also diminished by too much restraint and distance, by a narrowness of ambition and vision. They were, finally, expatriate novels written from the point of view of an outsider looking in. Which is exactly the way that Mukherjee felt here.
It wasn't until Darkness, the first book Mukherjee wrote after she moved to the U.S., that she began to question the value of expatriate fiction. In the introduction to Darkness, Mukherjee revealed that she was no longer interested in exile. Tired of "the aloofness of expatriation," she was ready for "the exuberance of immigration." What she needed now as a writer was to belong: "Instead of seeing my Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved (or worse, a 'visible' disfigurement to be hidden), I see it now as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated."
Not surprisingly, the introduction to Darkness angered and offended a lot of Canadians. It was, among other things, a direct attack on our own comfortable notion that the Canadian mosaic, despite its shortcomings, was superior and far more tolerant than the American model of the melting-pot. Mukherjee's own experiience revealed that the opposite was true. The message of her story was clear: she was never expected to become part of Canada; she was never welcome. If her revelations made us angry, perhaps it was because she was telling us things we should have already known.
"The fact that no one here wants to accept is that the mosaic is simply rhetoric," Mukherjee adds. "Instead what you're really talking about is a harmful model which says if you can't scrub down your ethnic peculiarities and remake yourself as a mini-Anglo then you'd better not come to this country."
Everything happens by accident and nothing does. Mukherjee had no intention of writing an introduction to Darkness. "The stories had already been submitted and accepted when an editor at Penguin called me up and said this particular fiction series required an introduction. I wouldn't have done it otherwise." Having to write it, though, made Mukherjee come to terms with her feelings about Canada once and for all. More important, it helped her understand what kind of writer she really wanted to become.
Now, Mukherjee sees Darkness as her "second birth" as a writer. "It was a breakthrough in material for me. Nostalgia is a very small part of the stories. Instead, it's about characters who know they are stranded or shored up on this continent and who respond to that fact with varying degrees of enthusiasm."
But the collection's title was also revealing. Darkness was, finally, a book about old wounds. Most of Mukherjee's characters were familiar ones -- Indian immigrants -- and most of them were "forever shuttling between the old and the new world." The theme was still exile.
Darkness was a transitional book; in The Middleman and now jasmine the transition has been made. Nothing in Mukherjee's previous work, not even the well-made stories of Darkness, could have prepared readers for the energy and sureness of Mukherjee's last two books. Where her previous writing was about limitations, her new work was bursting with possibilities.
In the summer of 1988, at the same time that Mukherjee was beginning to write Jasmine, she was also finishing her essay for the New York Times -- "Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!" The essay foreshadowed Mukherjee's final transformation and revealed her new priorities. It was her own declaration of independence: an announcement that she was turning her back on the expatriate tradition, that the haughty, world-weary fiction of expatriate masters like Nabokov and V. S. Naipaul -- writers who had been her masters, too -- was a dead end. "I've come to see expatriation as the great temptation, even the enemy, of the ex-colonial, once third- world author," she wrote.
Instead, Mukherjee's concern was "the epic washing up on America's shore" -- an epic that was consistently being ignored by American writers. Her intention was clear: she would make use of that material. In Jasmine, she has.
For Mukherjee, it has been a slow, difficult metamorphosis that may now, finally, be complete. Following in a tradition as old as Whitman, she has embraced America, descended into the melting- pot, undaunted by the consequences, in fact, welcoming them.
"After all," Mukherjee says, laughing her infrequent laugh, "I am the melting-pot lady."