Bengali Brahmin meets Berkeley

October 20, 1995

Bharati Mukherjee tells Ronald Warwick about her transformation from high-caste Indian into American writer.

I met Bharati Mukherjee in Holland where she was launching the Dutch translation of her fourth and latest novel, The Holder of the World. Even the Amsterdam station bookstall was stocked with copies of her previous novel, Jasmine. After a brief break in California, where she lives with her husband, Canadian novelist Clark Blaise, she was due to be in Madrid to launch the Spanish translation of The Holder of the World. Such an itinerary reflects the international acclaim that has greeted her work.

But despite a generally favourable reception, Mukherjee has received less academic critical attention than some other Indian-born writers of comparable stature; Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry . . . Although an academic herself, she is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Mukherjee shows no sign of being troubled by this. She is openly scornful of modish, post-Foucault critics for whom "the author is an irritant". She claims that a whole species of critic would "be out of business if they could not hold on to their post-colonial rage and victimology".

Challenging statements like this have provoked some into accusing Mukherjee of a kind of "race-treachery" (her own words), an accusation she sees as emanating principally from "some India-born, urban, upper middle class, Marxist 'greencard-holders' with lucrative chairs on United States campuses. These academics strategically position themselves as self-appointed spokespersons for their ethnic communities . . . At the same time, though they reside permanently in the US, and participate in the capitalist economy of this nation, they publicly denounce American ideals and institutions".

This impressive polemic was part of an unpublished lecture given in 1994 under the auspices of the Iowa Humanities Board, entitled "Beyond Multiculturism: Surviving the Nineties". Taken out of context it is easy to see how Mukherjee has achieved an (undeserved) reputation as a reactionary assimilationist. For example Aijaz Ahmad writes: "The vast majority of immigrants and visitors who go from the 'peripheries' to the 'western centre' in the US either take no part in politics and scholarly endeavour or turn out to be right-wing people, well represented in the field of literature by Bharati Mukherjee." And yet in Mukherjee's Iowa lecture, it is clear that, while rejecting notions of peripheries and centres, what she contests is the apprehension of an American identity constructed exclusively out of European expatriation.

She vigorously affirms an individual identity which is influenced by an Indian upbringing but which is as American as that of any US citizen. This re-imagining of self has developed out of experiences that began almost 55 years ago in circumstances very different from the world that Mukherjee the successful writer and academic now inhabits.

Born in Calcutta into a wealthy and traditional Bengali Brahmin household, Mukherjee claims an early awareness of discrimination, engendered by a sense of being both at the top of the Bengali hierarchy, by virtue of family, and at the bottom, by virtue of being a female. Her mother gave birth to four girls and no boys and was therefore subject to continual verbal abuse from the paternal grandmother.

It was only through the impassioned and persistent advocacy of her mother that the young Bharati was allowed to attend Loreto Convent, at that time the best English medium school in Calcutta. It was here that the cultural collisions that were to influence the shape of her writing began. The Irish nuns of Loreto inculcated their belief that anything written and published in Britain was automatically superior to Bengali literature. Despite being persuaded that this was true, Mukherjee relates how "my only area of competence, precocious reading" extended beyond the confines of the school curriculum. At home she was reading Gorki, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Bengali translation. The influence of the great modern writer of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore was felt less through direct contact with his writing than through family performances of the dance dramas and adaptations of the plays and poems given by cousins and younger aunts. In such recitations, the timbre of the voice in conveying emotional states was of supreme importance. "The fact that I write 'voice stories' goes back to childhood," claims Mukherjee.

In conversation, She is wryly humorous about her tertiary education in India. She went on to study English honours, French and education at Calcutta University and gained a masters degree in English and ancient Indian culture at Baroda University. The English curriculum at that time excluded most 20th century and virtually all non-English writers. She later discovered an "international community of common references" a result of people of her own age and background from all the erstwhile British colonies, having been exposed to the same texts.

If the first phase of Mukherjee's life was characterised by a growing sense of internal exile, the disjuncture between a western-oriented education and the values of an orthodox Brahminical home, an awareness of a personal destiny colliding with the inexorable role of wife and mother that lay ahead, the second phase was to involve a far more radical dislocation. She remains mystified to this day by her father consenting to her wish to pursue literary studies in the US. After all, up to this point she had been ceaselessly chaperoned by older relatives. She writes: "I first came to the US . . . nearly 33 years ago. I flew into a placid, and verdant airport in Iowa City . . . ready to fulfil the goals written out in a large, lined notebook for me by my guiltlessly patriarchal father. Those goals were unambiguous: I was to spend two years studying creative writing at Paul Engle's unique Writers' Workshop, then I was to marry the perfect Bengali bridegroom selected by him and live out the rest of a contented predictable life in the city of my birth, Calcutta."

It was at the Writers' Workshop however, that she, in rapid succession, met, fell in love with and married a fellow student, Clark Blaise. "The five-minute ceremony in the lawyer's office changed me into a permanent transient," she observes. It also gave her the personal freedom to complete a doctoral degree at Iowa University. This was followed by a move to Canada where she was an assistant professor at McGill University, Montreal. In 1978, Mukherjee left Canada for the US where she held teaching posts in New York and latterly at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mukherjee has characterised her early years in the US and Canada as a time of "scary improvisations and heady explorations". Her development as a writer and an academic was accompanied by a highly conscious and often painful process of "re-inventing" an identity, a relocation "from the aloofness of expatriation to the exuberance of immigration". She sees Canada as the location of the first, with its policy of "multiculturalism" designed to contain and ghettoise the non-white Canadian immigrant, and the US as the location of the second.

The catalyst for this change of consciousness and of self-understanding was her experience of belligerent racism in Canada, particularly following the influx of Asians who had been expelled from Idi Amin's Uganda. With all its drawbacks, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights at least held out the possibility of making a commitment to the country of her adoption. The tenacity with which Mukherjee has held on to this belief and the vehemence with which she has expressed it has earned her notoriety among those still driven by "the aloofness of expatriation".

The move to the US is marked by a perceptible change of direction in Mukherjee's fiction which she articulates in the introduction to her first collection of short stories, Darkness. She writes: "I see my 'immigrant' story replicated in a dozen American cities, and instead of seeing my Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration (or worse, a "visible" disfigurement to be hidden), I see it now as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated. I see myself as an American writer in the tradition of other American writers whose parents or grandparents had passed through Ellis Island. Indianness is now a metaphor, a particular way of partially comprehending the world."

The Holder of the World can be read as an ambitious attempt to understand the making of the American consciousness. Mukherjee also teasingly describes it as "my contribution to the current debate on multiculturism versus the canon". Inspiration came from a Mughal miniature painting she had seen at Sotheby's in New York. It was entitled "A European Woman in Aurangzeb's Court". This woman was fictionalised by Mukherjee as Hannah Easton, a puritan from Salem. Hannah marries a piratical trader and travels with him to India, where she becomes the lover of a Hindu prince. The uncovering of Hannah's story by Beigh Masters, a modern white, American woman, establishes a link between the multicultural nature of contemporary US society and the 17th century interface between the early US settlers and India.

Mukherjee spent 11 years researching this link and has concluded that American identity was, almost from its inception, multicultural and multi-racial. Her sources included Italian and French memoirs of the Mughal courts and documents of the English, French, Dutch, Danish and Portuguese East India companies. In all this detailed documentation, women are mentioned, but only in paren-theses. The novel therefore re-imagines the history, but from a woman's perspective. Mukherjee sees in the woman in the painting and in Hannah a reincarnation of herself. They reinvented themselves within an Indian context, Mukherjee sees herself as comparably reinvented in an American context.

On one level, The Holder of the World is a fictionalised apologia for its author's self-description as "an American writer, period!" and as "no longer the Bengali woman I was". Commentators like Aijaz Ahmad, who characterise this repositioning as "right-wing" overlook its more radical implications. Mukherjee views the debate about American identity as "monopolised by rabid Eurocentrists and ethnocentrists". She boldly asserts that, "I am here to launch a new discourse, to reconstitute the hostile biology-derived 'us' versus 'them' communities into a new consensual community of 'we'". While acknowledging the way America has transformed her as an individual and as a writer, she would argue that immigrants, like herself, are also helping to transform America. Like Salman Rushdie, she regards the resulting hybridity as a matter for celebration rather than regret. This is not a position likely to find much support among right wingers.

Unsurprisingly Mukherjee's position on the fatwas issued against Rushdie (a writer she greatly admires) and against the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, is unequivocal. The fatwas are about power and position rather than concern that a literary work offends any single reader. She reserves her deepest scorn for those white liberals who have colluded in the attempted suppression of free speech or who would recognise for example, wife battering as a "cultural pattern" "I don't see the point in white people appeasing their guilt in such easy and irrelevant ways," she affirms.

The human cost of self-transformation is the autobiographical thread that draws together Bharati Mukherjee's extremely varied novels and short stories to date. On a personal level, she has been sustained by a close working relationship with her husband and fellow writer, Clark Blaise. Although she admits that one of the reasons she came so late to the short story was Blaise's early successes in the genre, the two have collaborated as writers, on a film script, Days and Nights in Calcutta and in a documentary, The Sorrow and the Terror : The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. More important, perhaps, has been the understanding and valued criticism that could only be offered by another writer.

Speaking to Mukherjee one is most impressed by her passionate commitment to the craft of writing and her consciousness of the writer's role in building a new human community "the consensual we". It is the belief that makes sense of her immigrant experience and its message is summarised in her lecture, "Beyond Multiculturism": "Over the last three decades the important lesson that I have learned is that in this era of massive diasporic movements, honourable survival requires resilience, curiosity and compassion, a letting go of rigid ideals about the purity of inherited culture."

Ronald Warwick is a freelance writer and lecturer.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.