Bharti Mukherjee – the Matriarch of Multiculturalism

In her books, her character constantly reinvented their identities, but Bharti Mukherjee, never shed her Indian identity.

Bharati Mukherjee (Courtesy of twitter)

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a new series that highlights the personal stories of South Asian immigrant women. “The Immigrant Chronicles,” by the San Francisco-based writer Zenobia Khaleel, will depict the challenges, the perceptions and the achievements of those women who crossed the seas before the current generation.

The first person to be chronicled in this series is the late Bharati Mukherjee, a pioneer of Multicultural Literature, who died in New York at the beginning of the year. Her prolific prose includes novels, short story collections, powerful essays, and nonfiction books. Educated in England, India and the United States, Mukherjee received an MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa. She taught literature at universities in Canada and the United States, including McGill University and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1986, Mukherjee was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts grant, and her short story collection The Middleman and Other Stories, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1988.

Read more about the series here.

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Even as she flew into the tiny airport in Iowa surrounded by cornfields and pastures, Bharati Mukherjee was unequivocally committed to the two commandments her father had given her — spend two years studying the Iowa writer’s workshop; come back and marry the groom approved by the family.

A coeducational college was a far cry from the lifestyle she was accustomed to — an upscale Bengali Brahmin household with an extended family of more than 30 members (not including the domestic help and bodyguards).

Inevitably, Mukherjee found herself transformed by her new experience. A whirlwind romance with fellow student Clarke Blaise culminated in a rather nondescript wedding in a lawyer’s office during lunchbreak. She sent a cable to her father saying, “By the time you get this daddy I’ll already be Mrs Blaise!”

The couple moved to Canada, where they became an integral part of the emerging literary movement. Around this time, Mukherjee wrote her first two books.

In the 1970s, Toronto was growing intolerant to South Asians. Despite her academic and professional success, Mukherjee was increasingly subject to ugly racist taunts. Blaise had moved to the forefront of Canadian literature, whereas Mukherjee could not get her books reviewed by professionals. At one point, she was confronted by a punk who yelled “go back to Africa” because she was dressed in a saree.

Ultimately, the couple was faced with the choice — country, or marriage. Choosing their marriage over their life in Canada, Mukherjee and Blaise immigrated to America where they raised their family and furthered their two great passions: writing and teaching writing. After several teaching assignments at various colleges and universities, in 1989 she settled in at Berkeley, as a professor of English.

Mukherjee and Blaise remained married for more than 50 years till she died on Jan 28, 2017. Their literary collaboration produced over 30 books between them, two of which they co-authored. They always served as each other’s editor, critic and first reader.

When she first arrived, Mukherjee experienced an America that drastically lacked the cultural diversity we take for granted today.

“There were so few Indians that I would be tempted to say hello to a stranger, which I would never have done back in Kolkata,” she said in an interview.

“In Manhattan we’d smile at another Indian if they walked by us. I had also felt, for the first time in my life, an Indian, rather than a Bengali — a sense of national identity,” she told another interviewer.

“During the twenty years I’ve been in California, an immigrant fog of South Asians has crept into America,” she said.

And she designated herself to be the chronicler of that immigrant experience.

Isolation, lost identities, and cultural tensions are themes that constantly recur in Mukherjee’s books. Her fiction was gleaned by her encounters in the old world she left behind, and the insight her new life offered. She explored various facets of the immigrant experience and succeeded in evoking their plight through profound character portrayals.

In The Tiger’s Daughter, an American educated Tara returns to an India she does not recognize and cannot fit in.

In Jasmine, the protagonist undergoes a series of reincarnations as Jyoti/Jasmine/Jase/Jane each time she moves to a new city, in her quest to belong to the New World

In Wife, Dimple, the obedient middleclass daughter, lives in a dream, while her father looks for engineers in the matrimonial ads

Mukherjee’s characters strike a resonant chord for those who find themselves in the cusp of two diverse cultures, or in the writer’s on words — who flutter between two worlds. For her readers and the many who followed her into writing, it was the first time they found themselves and their stories represented in the pages of American fiction.

In her later books, Mukherjee chose to dissociate herself from the label of expatriate writer, for the broader scope of a multicultural writer.

“I’m the first among Asian immigrants to be making this distinction between immigrant writing and expatriate writing,” she told the Bomb magazine. Most Indian writers prior to this, have still thought of themselves as Indians, and their literary inspiration, has come from India. India has been the source, and home. Whereas I’m saying, those are wonderful roots, but now my roots are here and my emotions are here in North America.”

She elucidates “this is a movement away from the aloofness of expatriation, to the exuberance of immigration.”

Her books told stories of hyphenated lives, but she did not want to be in a special section of the bookshelf.

Having lived through and explored the modern realities of multiculturalism, she could write with panache about the diverse cultures in North America that included narratives of Italian, Latin American, Sri Lankan, Afghans, German and Caribbean immigrants.

Hers was a commanding voice in multicultural literature, and she declared that the term American melting pot was inadequate; “it assumed a one-way transformation — an assimilation where all the non-Anglos were expected to scrub down.” She preferred a symbiotic relationship where both cultures imbibed something from the other.

In her books, her character constantly reinvented their identities, but Bharti Mukherjee, never shed her Indian identity. Till her death, she remained the elegant aristocrat with nerves of steel under her convent school manners.

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