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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Bharati Mukherjee
(b. 1940)

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.”

One 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.”

Mukherjee’s 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, Berkeley.

Mukherjee’s 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.

“A 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 Eurocentric.

Roshni Rustomji-Kerns
Sonoma State University

In the Heath Anthology
A Wife's Story (1988)

Other Works
The Tiger's Daughter (1971)
Wife (1975)
Days and Nights in Calcutta (Co-authored with Clark Blaise) (1977)
Darkness (1985)
The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987)
The Middleman and Other Stories (1988)
Jasmine (1989)
Holder of the World (1993)

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American Dreamer
An article by Mukherjee discussing citizenship and ethnic identity.

Bharati Mukherjee
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.

Secondary Sources