Bharati Mukherjee explored cultural clashes of immigrant life

Bharati Mukherjee in a photo taken in 1988.
Bharati Mukherjee in a photo taken in 1988.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian-born American writer who explored the internal culture clashes of her immigrant characters in the award-winning collection, The Middleman And Other Stories (1988), and in novels such as Jasmine (1989), died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 76.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a stress-induced heart condition, said her husband, writer Clark Blaise.

Mukherjee attended schools in England, Switzerland and India, earned advanced degrees in creative writing in the United States and lived for more than a decade in Canada, affording her a wealth of experience in the modern realities of multiculturalism.

"The narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium," she wrote in an autobiographical statement for the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2005.

In many of her novels and stories, a young woman - shaped, as she was, by a patriarchal culture - strikes out for the unknown, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. In the existential crisis that ensues, a new self emerges - or a series of selves, with multiple answers to the question, "Who am I?"

In The Middleman And Other Stories, she served up the immigrant experience in all its rich variety, told through the voices of newcomers from the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, all of them both daunted and intoxicated by the strange possibilities of life in the US. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

The title character and narrator of Jasmine, a novel that quickly won a place on high school and college reading lists, is a poor Punjabi who makes her way to Florida and undergoes a series of transformations.

Taking on a new identity and a new name as she moves from one job to the next, "greedy with wants and reckless from hope", she draws ever closer to the dream of shedding her old identity and achieving the American dream of self-definition.

Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, where her father ran a successful pharmaceutical company and supported, in a large compound, an extended family of nearly 50 relatives.

When she was eight, her father took the family abroad.

She studied at private schools in London and Switzerland. In 1959, she earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calcutta and, in 1961, a master's degree from the University of Baroda in Gujarat.

After sending six handwritten stories to the University of Iowa, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she studied with Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily in her first year.

She earned a doctorate in comparative literature in 1969 at Iowa.

She married Blaise, a fellow student, in 1963. She is also survived by their son.

"From those years, I evolved a credo: Make the familiar exotic (Americans won't recognise their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic - the India of elephants and arranged marriages - familiar," she wrote in Contemporary Authors.

In 1966, she and her husband moved to Canada, but, fed up with the racial tensions she encountered there, they moved again in 1980 to the United States. By then, she had published her first two novels.

The Tiger's Daughter (1972), the most autobiographical of her works, told the story of an American-educated Indian woman who returns home to an India she no longer recognises.

In Wife (1975), she takes as her main character a young Bengali woman who rebels against her arranged marriage after moving to New York. With the story collection Darkness (1985), she began to attract critical notice for her discerning portraits of immigrants struggling to cast off the bonds of tradition and remake their lives.

In Jasmine, her breakthrough novel, she painted a portrait of a character dear to her heart.

After years of short-term academic appointments, Mukherjee was hired in 1989 to teach post-colonial and world literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

She then embarked on a series of expansive novels, with multiple plots and generations, starting with The Holder Of The World (1993), a novel within a novel based in part on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Desirable Daughters (2002), which traced the different fortunes of three sisters from Calcutta, was the first in a loosely joined trilogy of novels, the others being The Tree Bride (2004) and Miss New India (2011).

Throughout, the restless, hopeful surge of immigration, and the mutability of cultures, gripped her imagination.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'Bharati Mukherjee explored cultural clashes of immigrant life'. Print Edition | Subscribe