The woman handing you your newspaper has a red bindi on her forehead and a cardigan over her sari. The cab driver speeding down Broadway is wearing a turban and arguing in Punjabi on his radio. In the drugstore the two boys behind the counter talk about Sridevi’s last film. “It’s the tyranny of the American dream that scares me. First, you don’t exist,” thinks the protagonist of A Wife’s Story. “Then, you’re invisible.”
South Asian (or Indo-Pak, as we seem to call ourselves) immigrants are becoming an increasingly large community in North America. Gujaratis and Keralites run real estate operations in Southern California. Punjabis in Yuba City, just north of Sacramento, don’t bother to learn English. In New York, every second restaurant is run by Bangladeshis. “Then you’re funny,” thinks Panna. “Then you’re disgusting.”
Their children ride skateboards, wear jeans or Sears and Roebuck dresses. They struggle with trips “home” to a place with no McDonalds. They protect themselves from dot-busters. “Insult, my American friends will tell me, is a kind of acceptance. No instant dignity here.”
Bharati Mukherjee is writing about these people, the latest wave of new Americans who are beginning to have a presence here. Her recent book, The Middlemen, a collection of short stories (which includes “A Wife’s Story”) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for short fiction. The stories are glimpses into the lives of illegal immigrants, students, motel clerks, and maids; a strange mixture of Orient and Occident. Jasmine, a novel, is a story of a woman from the Punjab who takes her life into her own hands and makes herself an American.
Like Jasmine, Mukherjee is an American. She’s been living here for 35 years, with her husband, Clark Blaise, a Canadian. In a tailored skirt and blouse, short brown hair, Mukherjee is simply a New Yorker of Mediterranean origin. Her Midwestern accent doesn’t give her away. Why, then, 35 years later, won’t the critics agree to call her an American writer?
Ameena Meer I heard that your latest novel, Jasmine, was going to be made into a film?
Bharati Mukherjee There seems to be a lot of interest in it, but one never knows with movies; it’s always so iffy. One of my stories from The Middle Man, about the Italian-American woman who falls in love with an Afghani man, “Orbiting,” is already being made by an LA company. And Days and Nights in Calcutta is very much on track. Even half an hour before I left to join you.
AM How do you find writing a screenplay after writing fiction?
BM Exciting. It’s a totally different way of looking at the same situation. The book is autobiographical. What my husband and I have done in the screenplay Days and Nights in Calcutta is to take our real lives, our real personalities and utterly fictionalized them; forced a story. Only the husk of our lives is left. It wasn’t until I changed the names and invented a lover for myself that I could have the distance necessary to force a narrative line and dramaturgy. However, the heart of the nonfiction book was the incredible turmoil I went through writing my half. It was in writing that book that I transformed myself from being an expatriate to realizing I’m an immigrant, whether I like it or not. And that I do like it. My roots are here. There is no going back. In the film, I have kept that in the center of my brain as the motivation for Leela, the main character.
AM In Jasmine, the character also gives up more and more being Punjabi, being Indian . . .
BM Yes, I think of Jasmine, and many of my characters, as being people who are pulling themselves out of the very traditional world in which their fate is predetermined, their destiny resigned to the stars. Traditionally, a good person accepts this. But Jasmine says, “I’m going to reposition the stars.”
AM She doesn’t believe her janampatri, her life as mapped out for her.
BM The story is really the making of an American mind. She’s an individual who makes a lot of mistakes, but who has the courage to choose and take risks. She happens to be uneducated and very young when she comes here as a widow—but she’s full of life. I fell in love with the character when I was writing the story, “Jasmine,” in The Middle Man. She stayed with me until I wrote her own novel. Jasmine falls in love with a number of men who change her life, and whose lives she changes substantially; sometimes destroys, inadvertently. It’s a novel of a woman with appetites that she is willing to indulge. She’s a torn angel.
AM She’s a very self-determined character—so much of what one reads by new writers seems to be about characters who are alienated, dragged along by their lives or the people around them. She makes herself.
BM She is not alienated, but she is someone who needs to put down roots. I feel that Jasmine—not that I set out to do this—became the summary of my own emotions, without any of the events or characters being in any way autobiographical. My fiction—no matter what kind of character I’m using—comes out of my personal obsessions. I listen to the voices in my head and find metaphors, the appropriate metaphor for getting it across, for embodying an obsession.
AM Was The Tiger’s Daughter, the story of the young Indian girl coming back to Calcutta after having been married to an American, more autobiographical than the others?
BM When I wrote it, I certainly didn’t think of it as autobiographical. But my father felt he recognized himself in the portrait, and there were other people who felt that as well. In The Tiger’s Daughter, I was writing about my class at a certain period in Calcutta’s history, about a class and a way of life that’s become extinct. Calcutta soon after changed: the government became a Communist government. I felt my world was very Chekhovian, that kind of 19th-century world that became outmoded in the 20th century, a class aware of enormous changes about to come and hoping those changes would not come. As a writer, with that first novel (which came to me very easily) I was very comfortable in both India and North America. I was a bridge between the two worlds at that time, both being fully poised in my perfect equilibrium: I could remember my Calcutta with distance, humor, affection—and I was functioning extremely well in North America, but I didn’t know America well enough to feel lopsided. That was, in a way, my wisest novel.
I had also hoped to have built into the title story parodies of British raj or Anglo-Indian fiction, especially A Passage to India—that was it for my generation of writers writing in English about India—the Mau tank has shrunk to a swimming pool. I had intended to turn A Passage to India on its side. As schoolgirls in post-colonial Calcutta, Jane Austen was handed to us as a model. It’s my most Jane Austenian book, presenting a closed, contained society, with irony and affection.
AM It’s interesting that you compare that book to Forester’s because at the end of A Passage to India, the huge festival for the birth of Krishna, the chaos and . . .
BM The “Not yet, not now,” that personal relationships can’t come together in Forester, that the East and West won’t yet meet. I guess my novels have changed. The sentence construction of what I think is the story, what story I want to tell, all these things have changed with my being in North America longer and changing as a person. In life, one sacrifices pureness, distance, wisdom for a lot of passion. Book by book, I see the changes within myself.
AM How did it happen that you came to America?
BM I came to the States to be at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. The fact that I landed in Iowa was totally accidental. A UCLA drama professor and a group of students were going through our town and came to our house for dinner. And my father said to the professor, “I want this daughter to be a writer. She writes stories that are published in local magazines. Where do I send her?” And he said, “To Paul Engle in Iowa”. And so Paul Engle was written to by my father. And Paul Engle said, “Send her.” And he sent me, and I arrived.
AM That was very forward thinking for an Indian father.
BM Yes. I think my father was a very extraordinary man. In some ways, he was very much the old-fashioned patriarch. The patriarch in him meant that he guarded his wife and his three daughters. We were always surrounded by bodyguards, never allowed to go out on our own. I had not gone to a party with boys before I left for the States.
AM How old were you then?
BM Twenty. I’d gone to school in Britain and Switzerland as a very small child, which meant that the whole family went. I had never really been on my own, made any decisions for myself. And I was a very good girl. I didn’t know how to be bad (laughter). In some ways, he seemed to want a very traditional life for us. He had a young man picked out for me to marry when I was in Iowa. But, at the same time, my parents knew that by sending us abroad, there were going to be changes. You let go a little bit and a lot starts to crumble. I think he anticipated, in some inarticulate way, that the lives he wanted for us would not be ours, could not possibly be ours, in India. If we had stayed in Calcutta, we would have had—as my former school friends have—lives that are predictable; very privileged, very comfortable, but dull, stagnant. I wouldn’t be the writer I am if my father hadn’t had the courage to suddenly fling us to a country he had never seen.
AM Your sisters were also sent abroad?
BM In one fell swoop he sent all three girls . . .
AM And your sisters, they’re still living here?
BM My older sister is a child psychologist in Detroit. And my younger sister is married to a business executive in Baroda and is a professor of English at the University of Baroda.
AM And is your older sister married to an Indian?
BM To a Maharashtrian. And my younger sister is married to a Marata. It’s a caste difference. So none of us fulfilled my father’s desire for marrying the perfect match. Well, I won’t say desire. He adjusted to Clark extremely well. I sent him a cable saying, “By the time you get this I’ll already have been married.”
AM How did your parents react to this telegram?
BM My father said, “Check out his family.” I didn’t tell my parents for many years that Clark’s father had been divorced and remarried several times.
AM How about the rest of your family?
BM They’ve been very supportive. A lot of the reactions are in the Days and Nights in Calcutta. Even though there’s technically no more caste system in India—for some orthodox families it’s hard to accommodate, in rituals relating to weddings, births, deaths, a woman family member who has married out. But my family’s been very generous and tolerant to us, the joint family in Calcutta as well.
AM How did his family react?
BM I was exotic. If Clark had married someone from the wrong side of the tracks within Winnipeg, it may have been more difficult for them to accommodate. I think settling into a European family and settling into a North American family is still quite different. People in America are more accepting of a tossed salad in families. I suppose in Europe they’re a little more upfront about . . .
AM It’s considered quite normal to think that whatever you are is the best of all possible worlds. How did you feel going back to India—I mean, speaking of religion—if you’re a Hindu and you leave India, that’s crossing the Black Water.
BM The biggest journey out of a psychological-social ghetto was when I was eight years old, moving with my family across the Black Water to Britain and Switzerland. My mother took a lot of flak from the rest of the family, especially her mother, for sending us as small children to English medium schools. The refrain that I hear is, “I don’t want you girls to lead the kind of life of a dependent woman that I’ve had to.” She wasn’t allowed to go to college by her mother-in-law. So she wanted lives of independent women for us. And when we came back to Calcutta, we were sent to a fancy Catholic school. During the school day we had to learn acts of the apostles and the life of the Savior by heart. Out of school we observed the Hindu rituals. So even as a child growing up, I was aware of plurality in the world, and to negotiate between the two worlds, the modern, Christian, Western one—and the Hindu, which was stable—which went on forever.
AM When I go back and see the way religion is practiced in India, there are many things I find I can’t bear to deal with. In The Tiger’s Daughter, your character thinks, “Oh, God, I can’t do it again.” That happens, some things seem very absurd.
BM Remember that essay I wrote in the New York Times Book Review on maximalism in Indian fiction? For me, and perhaps for other immigrant writers, there’s a death and a series of rebirths. It’s very painful and traumatic letting go of the old self. The Tiger’s Daughter was written while I was still an expatriate. Then comes a reconstructing of oneself, which is very different. My Jasmine, or Mukherjee, have lived through hundreds of years within one generation, in the sense of coming out of a world with fixed destinies, fixed futures. And then taking on culture which, for us, is without rules. I’m making the rules up as I go along, because, in many ways, I and my characters are pioneers. I can’t adopt wholeheartedly the rules that a mainstream, fourth-generation American might have. What I’m feeling, experiencing, has not been gone through by the mainstream fourth-generation American. That is a very exciting, as well as frightening, time for me, making up the rules.
AM Who do you identify with as an American writer?
BM I don’t identify with anyone, but there are many American writers I admire. I was reading Bernard Malamud’s selected stories a few years ago that suddenly made everything come together for me. Darkness was written more or less in six weeks, as I finally had confidence that this is my material, this is what I want to write—that sense of people transforming themselves, the minority experience within the larger culture. I like Chekhov very much. Isaak Babel, his Odessa stories, especially—marvelous, ironic, raucous stories about hoodlums and con men. It was very much my world, only he’s writing about Jews in my generation of immigrants in another town. And I like books with large spirits, large visions, large passions: I’m moved by Stendahl and Dostoyevsky. I read and reread Madame Bovary all the time. And then, The Scarlet Letter. I see that as a novel about immigrants who are remaking their society, or coming to old ways. And I like Dreiser very much, and John Cheever. There’s a moral center in Cheever’s fiction—for me, locating a moral center is very, very important. My characters may do ghastly, offensive, crazy, misguided things, but the writer and the reader know what’s right and wrong, and that right and wrong is located in the stories.
AM You consider yourself an American writer.
BM I totally consider myself an American writer, and that has been my big battle: to get to realize that my roots as a writer are no longer, if they ever were, among Indian writers, but that I am writing about the territory about the feelings, of a new kind of pioneer here in America. I’m the first among Asian immigrants to be making this distinction between immigrant writing and expatriate writing. 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.
I’m not writing like a Richard Ford or a John Updike, that’s not the only America. It has many pluralities. I’m writing about an American immigrant group who are undergoing many transformations within themselves. And who, by their very presence, are changing the country. America is not the America that, until recently, has come through in contemporary popular fiction.
—Ameena Meer is writing a novel about a Bombay Pop Idol in Paris.