| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Bharati Mukherjee is one of the best-known South
Asian American woman writers. She has stated that she wants to be viewed not as
a hyphenated South Asian–American writer but as an American writer. In a
televised interview with Bill Moyers (Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas II, New
York: Doubleday, 1990) she commented, “I feel very American...I knew the moment
I landed as a student in 1961...that this is where I belonged. It was an
instant kind of love.”
wonders, however, if one can really discard a part of one’s personal/political
history even in the process of transformation, especially since the past
displays a tenacious, trickster-like ability to appear at the oddest times and
in the most astonishing disguises. The insistence on being known as an American,
without acknowledging one’s Asian heritage, may grate on those who see the term
“American” as denoting the Euro-American socio-politically dominant group only.
For those of us who feel that it is absolutely necessary to continue
emphasizing our essentially non-European, American identities until we are
truly acknowledged as Americans with our own distinctive American presence,
Mukherjee’s stance may seem simplistic. Yet, as many of her stories show she is
neither ignorant of nor insensitive to racism and oppression in the United
States. In the interview with Moyers, she also said that “Multiculturalism, in
a sense, is well intentioned, but it ends up marginalizing the person.”
ease with discovering her identity as a mainstream American, her skill with the
dialogues and incidents familiar to the dominant society, her refusal to be
marginalized, and her absolute mastery of English are not surprising when one
looks at her biography. She was born in 1940 to an upper-middle-class Brahmin
family in Calcutta. Her education in India was at a convent school run by Irish
nuns. She was also educated in England and Switzerland. She came to the United
States in 1961 to attend the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where
she received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English and
Comparative Literature. She and her husband, the Canadian writer, Clark Blaise,
lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980. They emigrated to the United States in 1980.
Mukherjee teaches in the English Department at the University of California,
first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, portrays Tara Banerjee Cartwright, a
Western-educated, well-to-do Bengali woman married to an American. Her second
novel, Wife, begins in Bengal, with the following opening sentence, which would
do credit to Jane Austen: “Dimple Dasgupta had set her heart on marrying a
neuro-surgeon, but her father was looking for engineers in the matrimonial
ads.” Her novels Holder of the World, Jasmine, and Leave It to Me, and her
brilliantly written collections of short stories, Darkness and Middleman and
Other Stories, extend Mukherjee’s discussion into the more violent and
grotesque yet very real aspects of collisions between cultures at different
times in the histories of India and the United States.
Wife’s Story” is a carefully crafted narrative, with an interesting twist: the
wife comes to America to study, and the husband comes to visit her. The story
begins with Panna watching a play which insults Indian men and women. It ends
with Panna waiting for her husband, who is leaving for India the next morning
without her, to make love to her: “The water is running in the bathroom. In the
ten days he has been here he has learned American rites: deodorants,
fragrances.” As Panna
ends her narrative with “I am free, afloat, watching somebody else.” One hears
echoes of Mukherjee’s statement about America being a place where one can
choose “to discard...history...and invent a whole new history for myself.”
Panna glories in her beautiful body and her freedom, one is haunted by the
question of the price and texture of her freedom. “A Wife’s Story,” like many
of the other stories by Mukherjee, leaves the narrative unresolved and open for
discussion. It also raises important questions about the forging of cultural,
national, and sexual alliances in a United States that glorifies individual
freedom and urges the loss of a racial and ethnic memory that is not
Sonoma State University
In the Heath Anthology
A Wife's Story
The Tiger's Daughter
Days and Nights in Calcutta (Co-authored with Clark Blaise)
The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy
The Middleman and Other Stories
Holder of the World
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
An article by Mukherjee discussing citizenship and ethnic identity.
A substantive introduction to Mukherjee in terms of her life and the themes evident in her work.
Outsider Looking In, Insider Looking Beyond
Mukherjee interviewed by Ron Hogan for Beatrice.
Two ways to belong in America
Compares Mukherjee's feelings of identity with her sister's.
Voices from the Gaps
Offers a biography, criticism, bibliography, and some links.