Bharati Mukherjee, A Writer of Incredible Stories


Bharati Mukherjee, born on July 27th, 1940, in Calcutta is considered the matriarch of diaspora fiction. Her book, The Middleman and Other Stories has been used as required reading for Freshmen at Drexel and many other universities. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, a first for a naturalized American. Mukherjee says, ‘I was the pioneer in discovering material on dislocation and relocation rather than nostalgia for the world I left behind.’ Mukherjee died in 2017, a Professor Emerita at University of California, Berkeley. She left behind a tremendous body of work filled with characters who are scrappy, hungry, and eager to make their mark. She presents them with insurmountable obstacles, failures, and trauma that most overcome and emerge triumphant, in their own eyes, the world be damned.
The Middleman and Other Stories is one of Bharati Mukherjee’s earlier works (1988) and her second collection of short stories. Mukherjee writes about the lives of people who have migrated to the US and are doing whatever it takes to survive. She writes not only about Indian immigrants but immigrants from various other countries, mostly brown people. Jasmine is from Trinidad, but of Indian origin. Eng is Vietnamese and Ro is from Kabul. However, as the collection progresses, the stories become more Indian in flavor – not a familiar Indian flavor or a coy, sweet, sari clad one but instead, an Indian pimp, an illegal migrant making his way to the US through human trafficking networks, a woman living alone in NYC, living the American life, getting a Master’s degree she’ll never use in India.Mukherjee closes the collection with a story based on a real life plane crash that devastated the Sikh community of Toronto in the mid-1980s, reverting back to the more familiar Indian with conservative parents, rebellious children, and grief like no other.Fortunate were the families who were all gone, on their way to Christmas holidays in India, but imagine the grief of the mother who sends her boys with her husband because she has to work. This story has a personal reach that touches so many people.
Mukherjee appears to have used this collection of short stories to develop a variety of characters; almost exploring which ones she wants to develop into a full-length novel.
Jasmine is one such character that Mukherjee is very clearly enamored by. It is a simple story about a girl from Trinidad who finds her way into the US with much difficulty, uses ingenuity and sheer grit to find work as a ‘mother’s helper’ with a professor at the University of Michigan and his wife, a performance artist.Jasmine falls in love with the professor and sleeps with him while his wife is out, which is where Mukherjee leaves this story.
Mukherjee then uses the nameJasmine for another girl, this time from North India, a girl who begins life as Jyoti, and puts her in an almost identical situation as Trinidadian Jasmine in a new novel titled Jasmine. Clearly, she likes the premise of a ‘servant’ falling in love with her ‘master’ enough to use it twice in fairly quick succession. But more than the servant-master premise, Mukherjee likes the gritty, adaptable, go-getter female character that goes to any lengths to improve her life.
The end of the short story summarizes how Mukherjee sees her protagonist, the Trinidadian Jasmine and possibly when she decides she wants to model another character after her. ‘She was a bright, pretty girl with no visa, no papers, and no birth certificate. No nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell. She was a girl rushing wildly into the future.’
Priya Hajela is the author of Ladies’ Tailor, published by Harper Collins India.