Last reviewed: June 2017
July 27, 1940
Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India
January 28, 2017
New York, New York
Bharati Mukherjee (MOO-kehr-jee) became one of the literary voices whose skillful depictions of the non-European immigrant experience in the United States she credited with “subverting the very notion of what the American novel is and of what American culture is.” Born in Calcutta to an affluent Bengali family, Mukherjee’s life early assumed an international flavor as her father’s pharmaceutical career took the family to England and Switzerland. Fluent in English at an early age, Mukherjee entered an English-language convent school upon her return to Calcutta, which maintained the insularity from the city’s poverty that also characterized her prosperous home life. She received a BA in English from the University of Calcutta in 1959, and two years later she earned an MA in English and ancient Indian culture from the University of Baroda. Mukherjee’s experience in the United States began with a scholarship to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed a master of fine arts and, in 1963, married the American writer Clark Blaise; the couple had two sons. Mukherjee’s subsequent teaching career took her to Canada in 1966; in 1969, she received a PhD from the University of Iowa. She taught at McGill University; Skidmore College; Emory University; Queens College, New York; Montclair State College, New Jersey; University of California, Berkeley; and City University of New York.
Mukherjee and Blaise emigrated to the United States in 1980, convinced that Canada’s multicultural “mosaic” contained a racist opposition to immigrant assimilation; The Sorrow and the Terror, a book coauthored by the couple, argues that the Canadian response to the Air India disaster, whose victims were predominantly Indo-Canadians, dramatized the nation’s pervasive hostility toward its Indian citizens. In the introduction to Darkness, she asserts that the move to the United States has encouraged her to embrace a healthier and more fluid cultural identity. In Canada, she considered herself an “expatriate” who kept her “Indianness” smugly intact despite a painful awareness of her postcolonial displacement in the West. In the United States, however, she not only found herself moving “away from the aloofness of expatriation, to the exuberance of immigration” but also identified freely with the highly varied immigrant “outcasts” she once pitied. Her Indianness then served her as “a metaphor, a particular way of partially comprehending the world.” The creative energy released by this new orientation toward ethnicity produced two critically acclaimed short-story collections, Darkness and The Middleman, and Other Stories, the latter earning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Mukherjee, and the novels Jasmine and The Holder of the World. Bharati Mukherjee, Professor Emerita of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Speaking at the residence of US Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Israel
Bharati Mukherjee, Professor Emerita of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Speaking at the residence of US Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Israel
Mukherjee’s fiction documents the process of her shifting imaginative identity quite directly. Her novels explore the effects of cultural transplantation upon educated young Indian women and demonstrate Mukherjee’s feminist sensitivity to the special tensions produced by the gender acculturation given non-Western women. The Tiger’s Daughter introduces an autobiographical protagonist named Tara who, after years of American education and marriage to an American writer, returns to India to discover herself deeply alienated from a Calcutta that has itself been radically transformed by the pressure to become a modern industrial society. In contrast to the independent and worldly Tara, the protagonist of Wife, Dimple Dasgupta, is an unambitious and sheltered woman whose life has acceded to the more traditional expectations of Indian women that persist even in the late twentieth century. Her parents successfully arrange her marriage to an aspiring young engineer eager to seek more lucrative opportunities in the United States. Dimple’s passive acquiescence to outside manipulation of her life disguises a pent-up rage that spills over into covert acts of rebellion and culminates in a self-induced abortion before she leaves India. Once in New York City, she becomes so paralyzed by the violence of urban America that she retreats into depression and agorophobia.
The claustrophobic alienation of the Indian immigrant in these works gives way to a decidedly more hopeful depiction of the new North American immigrant in the short pieces collected in Darkness. It is the non-Western frame of reference characterizing this new exodus that Mukherjee set out to chronicle in all of its variety, energy, and heartbreak. Its participants are prompted by a desire for economic betterment rather than amorphous ideals of freedom and enthusiastically fuse adaptive zeal with native ability. While they experience a bittersweet nostalgia for home, they are not in thrall to it: From the “broken identities and discarded languages” of their past lives, they heroically forge links with the “new community, against the ever-present fear of failure and betrayal.” They go about the distinctly American business of remaking themselves and do so with an alacrity and courage that the author clearly admires.
Darkness is itself a transitional work for Mukherjee in that several of its stories reveal a lingering bitterness about Canada. The Middleman and Other Stories is devoted entirely to the hustle of ethnic diversity in the United States and offers a range of settings; an equally varied mix of ethnicities populates the book. A consistent motif is the cross-cultural romance as locus for the societal frictions and emotional barriers that exemplify and exacerbate the problems of communication across culturally constructed differences. (Mukherjee gave this paradigm a personal configuration in a work coauthored with Blaise, Days and Nights in Calcutta, which presents the two writers’ perspectives on a joint trip to India.) The faith of the newest aspirants to the American Dream is frequently contrasted with the decadent malaise of “ugly Americans” who no longer have to leave home to betray or defile. The vigorous immediacy of the American vernacular penetrates the speech of Mukherjee’s characters and conveys the excitement of American possibility, at once intoxicating and volatile.
Mukherjee explores the world of American possibilities further in Jasmine, her third novel. Jyoti, a young woman, enters the United States illegally after her husband is killed by terrorists in India. As she moves from Florida to Manhattan, then to Iowa and next to California, Jyoti transforms herself into Jasmine and then into Jane as she struggles to make a place for herself. She personifies the indomitable spirit of the immigrants in the old tradition, fighting for survival, creating their own morality, and moving on to seek new territories for themselves. The Holder of the World, Mukherjee’s fourth novel, also deals with the collision of cultures but in a different setting. The complex narrative gallops over three centuries and three continents. The narrator, Beigh Masters, recreates the life of Hannah Easton Legge, born in 1670 in Brookfield, Massachusetts. Her marriage takes her to England and then to the Coromondel Coast in India. Mukherjee deftly weaves history and literature into the intriguing plot.
Leave It to Me is an exploration of the search for origins and of self-invention. Debbie, daughter of a hippie woman and her Eurasian serial-killer lover, abandoned in an Indian orphanage and raised by Italian American Catholics in Schenectady, New York, travels to San Francisco to connect with her “bio-mom.” Desirable Daughters returns to Indian subject matter. It is the story of three sisters, Tara, Padma, and Parvati Bhattacharjee, who have adopted to American and Western culture to varying degrees. The novel was initially conceived as a memoir, but Mukherjee found that fiction gave her more scope to express her themes of assimilation and otherness. The Tree Bride (2004) serves as a sequel to Desirable Daughters, focusing on Tara and her efforts to understand the story of one of her ancestors in order to come to terms with her present situation in America.
Mukherjee's final novel, Miss New India (2011), is set, unprecedentedly from her previous writings, in modern India following its economic boom. The story follows the protagonist, Anjali, as she leaves her small town to explore the "new India" represented by up-and-coming Bangalore.
After retiring from her teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2013, Mukherjee moved with her husband to New York. She died on January 28, 2017, at the age of seventy-six, at a hospital in Manhattan following complications from rheumatoid arthritis and cardiomyopathy. She is survived by her husband, a son, and two granddaughters.