Author Bharati Mukherjee, Who Explored The Indian-American Female Identity, Dead At 78


Bharati Mukherjee

Author Bharati Mukherjee, whose work reflected the Indian culture and the immigrant experience, died on Jan. 28. She was 78. In announcing her passing, the trustees of the Taraknath Das Foundation called Mukherjee “a wonderfully talented American writer of South Asian descent, teacher, friend, generous spirit.”

Kolkata-born Mukherjee was Professor Emerita in the department of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

She graduated from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and a Master’s from the University of Baroda. Mukherjee pursued additional graduate degrees in the United States, receiving a Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the same school.

There she met and fell in love with fellow student and Canadian-American author Clark Blaise.

Mukherjee was vocal; about the fact that she considered herself to be an American writer, and not an Indian expatriate writer. In a 1989 interview with Amana Meer of Bomb magazine , a quarterly publication edited by artists and writers, Mukherjee said: “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.”

She acknowledged that she was the first among Asian immigrants to be making a 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,” she told Bomb.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Mukherjee’s work features not only cultural clashes but undercurrents of violence. Her first novel“The “Tiger’s Daughter” (1972) tells of a sheltered Indian woman jolted by immersion in American culture, then again shocked by her return to a violent Calcutta, while “Wife” (1975) details the descent into madness of an Indian woman trapped in New York City by the fears and passivity resulting from her upbringing.

Mukherjee is perhaps best known for her 1898 novel, “Jasmine”, which explores the shifting identities of a young Indian woman as she seeks to find her place while growing up in America. Jasmine received widespread acclaim for its exploration of Asian American female identity — and specifically, Indian-American female identity, a blog post on said.

In a 1989 interview with Bomb magazine, Mukherjee spoke about the book’s protagonist. “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,” she said. “Traditionally, a good person accepts this, but Jasmine says, ‘I’m going to reposition the stars,” she continued.

Mukherjee is also known for her 1977 memoir, “Day and Nights in Calcutta”, which she co-wrote with her husband.

Mukherjee’s other works include novels “The Holder of the World” (1993), “Leave It To Me”(1997), Desirable Daughters” (2002), “The Tree Bride” (2004), “Miss New India” (2011); and short stories “Darkness” (1985), “The Middleman and Other Stories” (1988) for which she received the National Book Critics Award, “A Father” and “A Management of Grief”. Mukherjee also published some non-fiction work – “The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, that she co-write with Blaise; “political Culture and Leadership in India (1991); and “Regionalism in Indian Perspective (1992).