In many of her novels and stories, a young woman — shaped, as she was, by a patriarchal culture — strikes out for the unknown, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. In the existential crisis that ensues, a new self emerges — or a series of selves, with multiple answers to the question “Who am I?”
In “The Middleman and Other Stories” (1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, Ms. Mukherjee served up the immigrant experience in all its rich variety, told through the voices of newcomers from the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, all of them both daunted and intoxicated by the strange possibilities of life in the United States.
The title character and narrator of “Jasmine” (1989), a novel that quickly won a place on high school and college reading lists, is a poor Punjabi who makes her way to Florida and undergoes a series of transformations. Taking on a new identity and a new name as she moves from one job to the next, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope,” she draws ever closer to the dream of shedding her old identity and achieving the American dream of self-definition.
“I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist, unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I’m on,” the narrator writes. “Down and down I go, where I’ll stop, God only knows.”
Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940, in Calcutta, where her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, ran a successful pharmaceutical company and supported, in a large compound, an extended family of nearly 50 relatives. Her mother, the former Bina Banerjee, was a homemaker.
Bharati attended an English-style school until she was 8, when her father, after a falling-out with his business partner, took the family abroad. She studied at private schools in London and Basel for the next three years. When the family returned to Calcutta, she was enrolled in Loreto House, an elite Roman Catholic school run by an order of Irish nuns.
The world of her childhood was tightly circumscribed. When she left the family compound, she was escorted by bodyguards. Until she left for the United States, she had never attended a party with boys. At the same time, she roamed freely through the vast storehouse of Indian folk tales and epics and made a close study of the endless family dramas around her.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and a master’s degree from the University of Baroda, in Gujarat, in 1961. After sending six handwritten stories to the University of Iowa, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied with Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily in her first year. She earned an M.F.A. in 1963 and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1969 at Iowa.
“I blossomed, because people didn’t have preconceived notions of who I was and what I could do,” Ms. Mukherjee told The Boston Globe in 1993. “It was an enormous transformation in my life.”
She added, “I really jumped the grooves.”
She married Mr. Blaise, a fellow student, in 1963. Besides her husband, she is survived by their son, Bernard; two sisters, Mira Bakhle and Ranu Vanikar; and two granddaughters. Another son, Bart, died in 2015.
“From those years I evolved a credo: Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic — the India of elephants and arranged marriages — familiar,” she wrote in Contemporary Authors.
In 1966 Ms. Mukherjee and her husband moved to Montreal, where she taught at McGill University. They moved to Toronto in the late 1970s, but, fed up with the racial tensions she encountered there, they moved again, in 1980, this time to the United States, with Ms. Mukherjee firing a parting shot in a blistering essay, “An Invisible Woman,” published in the magazine Saturday Night.
By then she had published her first two novels. “The Tiger’s Daughter” (1972), the most autobiographical of her works, told the story of an American-educated Indian woman who returns home to an India she no longer recognizes. She moved into less familiar territory with “Wife” (1975), taking as her main character a young Bengali woman who rebels against her arranged marriage after moving to New York.
With the story collection “Darkness” (1985), Ms. Mukherjee began to attract critical notice for her discerning portraits of immigrants struggling to cast off the bonds of tradition and remake their lives. In “Jasmine,” her breakthrough novel, she painted a portrait of a character dear to her heart.
“I think of Jasmine, and many of my characters, as being people who are pulling themselves out of the very traditional world in which their fate is predetermined, their destiny resigned to the stars,” she told the magazine Bomb in 1989. “Traditionally, a good person accepts this. But Jasmine says, ‘I’m going to reposition the stars.’”
After years of short-term academic appointments, Ms. Mukherjee was hired in 1989 to teach postcolonial and world literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She then embarked on a series of expansive novels, with multiple plots and generations, starting with “The Holder of the World” (1993), a novel within a novel based in part on Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
“Desirable Daughters” (2002), which traced the different fortunes of three sisters from Calcutta, was the first in a loosely joined trilogy of novels, the others being “The Tree Bride” (2004) and “Miss New India” (2011).
Throughout, the restless, hopeful surge of immigration, and the mutability of cultures, gripped her imagination.
“While I have changed in my 30 years in this country, it has also had to change because of the hundreds of thousands of people like me, forcing the culture, moment by moment, into something new,” Ms. Mukherjee told The Globe. “I am looking for that new, constantly evolving thing.”Continue reading the main story
When India-native Bharati Mukherjee was 11 years old, an astrologer prophesied she would move across the ocean, marry a blue-eyed foreigner, and die between July 2003 and July 2004 at the age of 63, surpassing the average life expectancy for Indians in the early 1950s by more than 25 years. The extended length of her life was a joyous discovery, and she took it to heart. “I have always paced myself with the year of my own death in mind,” she wrote in 2003 in an essay entitled, “Destiny’s Child.”
Mukherjee need not have worried. In a writing career spanning five decades, she authored over a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, and outlived the astrologer’s prediction by 13 years. She died in New York on January 28, at the age of 76, her blue-eyed foreign husband, writer Clark Blaise, by her side.
Born and primarily raised in Kolkata (then Calcutta), Mukherjee is arguably the matriarch of Indian-American literature. She arrived in the United States to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1961, four years ahead of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished harsh quotas on Asian immigrants. In her new country, she set about penning stories about immigration, assimilation, and the challenges of straddling lands and cultures. Her first novel, Tiger’s Daughter, was published in 1972.
Mukherjee’s characters were as flawed as they come. They fail, spectacularly so, in their attempts to seamlessly blend their multiple identities. They are hellbent on escaping their destinies. Wives have multiple affairs and rebel against social norms both in India and in America. Husbands are killed or maimed. Her writing is raw, honest, and routinely critiques the ideals of the “American Dream.” Like Shirley Jackson, Mukerjee could pen brutality as effortlessly as serene domesticity.
In the short, tight sentences of her early work, she meticulously examines the nuances of displacement, revenge, grief and redemption. In Wife, published in 1975, Dimple Dasgupta enters an arranged marriage with a passive-aggressive engineer whose constant verbal abuse eventually leads to her undoing. “She wondered if minor irritations accumulated over decades could erupt in the kind of violence she read about in the papers.” In “The Management of Grief,” from the book The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction in 1988, a mother copes with losing her two sons in a terrorist attack. “We who stayed out of politics and came halfway around the world to avoid religious and political feuding have been the first in the New World to die from it. I know longer know what we started, nor how to complete it.”
Her seminal novel Jasmine opens with an astrologer’s prediction that then 7-year-old Jyoti will be a widow by age 17. When the prophesy is realized, Jyoti flees her small village in Punjab, reinvents herself in America as Jasmine, Jazzy, Jase, and eventually Jane, and comes to realize that the American dream is no more than a mirage. “We arrive so eager to learn, to adjust, to participate, only to find the monuments are plastic, agreements are annulled. Nothing is forever, nothing is so terrible, or so wonderful, that it won’t disintegrate.”
Later novels like Leave It to Me, Desirable Daughters, and its sequel, The Tree Bride, explore caste, class, and colonialism in its myriad forms. Tara Chatterjee in The Tree Bride, finds herself returning to the subcontinent in a reverse migration to solve a mystery involving one of her ancestors and to contemplate the link between the tragedies of the past and the choices she makes in the present. “At the center of consciousness is a zero; at the extremities, infinity. The universe collapses and expands in fifty-two billion-year cycles—which seems about right—and has been creating and destroying itself forever, life recomposing itself endlessly around the cores of collapsing stars.”
It is this kind of cycle, of collapsing and recomposing, that captures most acutely the immigrant experience Mukherjee so nimbly illuminated in her body of work. “I need to feel like a part of the community I have adopted,” she wrote in her seminal essay, “Two Ways to Belong in America.” “I need to put roots down.”