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Worlds Apart
by Beverley Daurio

IN ONE of Bharati Mukherjee's earlier novels, Wife, the central character is a young woman, a recent emigrant from India, who is squeezed between memories of the traditions of her home and life in America, until she loses control, lashes out, and murders her husband in their nice New York apartment. jasmine is an evolution of that character; Jyoti, Jane, Jase, or Jasmine, as she is variously called, is an escape artist, a transcender, and a survivor.

Jyoti Vijh is born to a onceproud Lahori family on a poor farm in Hasnapur, Punjab. She shines intellectually, but this brilliance, in a girl, only confuses and irritates her relatives. Her early experiences include learning English from Masterji (who is later beaten to death by Sikh militants); being scarred and frightened by an astrologer who foretells her widowhood and exile; and killing a mad dog that has attacked a group of village women. Jyoti marries Prakash, a progressive man who is studying to be an engineer and planning to emigrate to the United States. He does not treat jasmine like a traditional wife (he insists, for instance, that she call him by his name; tradition allows only pronouns). Prakash is killed by a bomb, and Jasmine sets out, via the illegal immigration "underground railroad," for, the States.

The novel is told in flash ? back from Jasmine's comfortable present as the 24?year?old wife of a banker, Bud Ripplewmeyer, in Baden, Iowa. What is remarkable is Mukherjee's paralleling of the two parts of )asinine's life ? in India and in the States ? and the subtle comparison of the two cultures that results. Not long after her arrival in America, Jasmine confronts a rapist, in much the same way as she confronted the mad dog. Men in both countries are obsessed with electronic gadgets. In India, she had her family, in America, a series of adoptive families; there are deaths, by accident, murder, and suicide, and we see that they have similar effects on. those left behind, in both countries. Mukherjee suggests that ?the dark side, of Indian life ? the poverty and violence ? is mainly the ?result of the forces of nature or tradition; American violence seems in contrast to be senseless, irrational, and personal.

Mukherjee contrasts these outbursts of violence (Bud's shooting by an irate farmer, another farmer's suicide) with jasmine's philosophy:

Enlightenment meant seeing through the third eye and sensing designs in, history's muddles ... a whole life's mission might be to move a flowerpot from one table to another ... If the universe is one room known only to God, then God alone knows how to furnish it. . .

Mukherjee's writing is cool and engaged, and seems driven by a desire to present an honest, affectionate, but ironic view of jasmine's adopted country. We see only through the clear eyes of the young but experienced Jasmine, and the story has a tone of nonjudgemental exploration.

Jasmine is also the story of misunderstanding: of the chasm between hardened people like Du (a Vietnamese orphan adopted by Bud) and jasmine, who have both survived horrific. experiences in, camps and on refugee boats, and the softer people of North America, like Bud, who allows himself to be shot (and is left paralysed as a result); or pampered professional couples like Wylie and Taylor (whose daughter, Duff, jasmine looks after for two years in New York). jasmine admires these Americans, but marvels at their naivety at the same time.

She moves through people's lives, as Bud's ex?wife says, "like a tornado," yet Jasmine herself barely blinks at upheavals, she has been through so much. She expresses a kind of gratitude for the calm and safety that most North Americans take for granted; when Du decides to leave without Bud's knowledge or permission, she thinks, "How dare we want more?"

Which is also, in the end, the question the reader asks: ,is the competent novel jasmine the most? we can ask 'from Bharati ?Mukherjee, author of the sophisticated fictions in Darkness? And, if we cannot expect, in this story, a main character who is truly likeable, or who thinks in more complex resonances, could we not ask for one who is changed by her intense experiences?


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