A Quest of Feminine Identity  in Bharati Mukherjee’s Novels

More on Portrayal of Women in Literary World

            With the coming of 19th century, a revolution of all sorts took place concerning feminism. Since long, rather to say ages, it is assumed that ‘male’ is the ‘first’, the referential point of human life, to whom, woman’s function is the ‘second’ or ‘the other’. Such an  indifference denotes a man’s hierarchical superiority over woman. Some woman novelists conscious about women, like Margaret Atwood, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandya, Shashi Despande, Shobha De, Bharathi Mukherjee, Kundanika Kapadia, Arundhati Roy etc. are working on the cultural set-backs that determines the woman’s life. Their works, analyzed much on woman’s alternative identities as wife, mother, daughter, beloved, nurse and what not.
 The earlier works by Indian women authors project the traditional image of woman with the thrust of her sense of frustration and alienation. The characters they created, like force of tradition and modernity. Their crisis of value adaptation and attachment with family and home pulled them asunder. The plight of the working woman was still worse, aggravated by her problems of marital adjustment and quest for assertion of her identity. The predicament of new Indian woman has been taken up for fuller treatment by many authors. These authors have generally concentrated on the plights and problems of educated women mostly with an urban base while many others have  portrayed the challenges faced by the educated ‘socialite’ woman.
The post-independence women writers living in a society where the independence had also inspired women who had decided to throw away their veil, which had covered all their mental abilities and accomplishments. They had decided to move out of the four walls and go into the world with a new confidence and determination. However they had to face a lot of hurdles, created not only by men but also by other women. There were a lot of actions and reactions. The women writers of this period have captured this situation in their works. This theme of feminism finds expression in so many fictions of post-independence women writers who have given voice to women’s feelings and problems in their fictions. They have expressed the feelings of women and their struggle   for existence in society.
Born and brought up in wealthy Hindu Brahmin family, Bharati Mukharjee, a voice of diaspora in North America is an established novelist of the post-modern era in the real of Indo- anglian fiction. She was born on July 27, 1940 to her parents Sudhir Lal and Bina Mukherjee in Calcutta, India. In 1947 she moved to Britain with her family at the age of eight and lived there for about three and a half years. She is a born writer as she had written numerous short stories by the age of ten. She got her B. A. degree from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and M. A. in English and  from M. S. University, Baroda (Gujarat). She had been awarded a scholarship from the University of Iowa, America  and her Ph. D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1969. While studying at the University of Iowa, she came into contact with Clark Blaise, a Canadian student from Harvard. The two writers met and they got married in 1963. In 1966, she followed her husband to his ancestral home of Canada, where they lived till 1980. She along with her family moved to  the US in 1981. She became a naturalized US citizen in 1988.  
            Bharati Mukherjee was awarded the "Prestigious Shastri Indo Canadian Institute Grant" during the year 1976-77. She was a recipient of "Guggenhein Foundation Award"  in 1978-79 and "Canadian Government Award in 1982." She also won the first prize from "Periodical Distrution Association in 1980" for her short story "Isolated Incidents". Mukherjee has also been honoured with the "National Book Critics Circle Award" for her short stories collection. "The Middleman and Other Stories in 1989". Her creative  novels are: The Tiger's Daughter (1972), Wife (1975), Jasmine (1989), The Holder of the world (1993),  Leave It to me (1997) The Desirable Daughters (2002), The Tree Bride (2004) and two collections of short stories : Darkness (1985) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988)".   
Mukherjee’s The Tiger’s Daughter (1971) is story about a young girl named Tara. She, the protagonist, was packed off by her father at early age of fifteen at America. She defended her family and her country vehemently. She prayed to kali for strength, so that she would not break down, before the Americans. Tara’s husband David was painfully Western, she was dutifully devious in her marriage. She felt completely insecure in an alien atmosphere.  After a gap of seven years Tara planned a trip to India, for years she had dreamed of this return. She believed that all  hesitations and  shadowy fears of the time abroad would be erased quite magically if she could return home to Calcutta. Mukherjee leads her heroine through a series of adventures and dis-adventures to a final self-realisation and reconciliation. Tara’s homesick eyes noticed may changes in the city of Calcutta. She was outraged, and could not respond to these changes. She feels loneliness in her own native land. She expected that her return to India would remove her displeasure of staying abroad. It seems that the alien land has become more of a home to her. She repents to have come to India. The Indian dream is shattered but the writer leads the heroine to a final reconciliation. In this way Tara’s journey to India proves as a quest for self identity and quest for immigrant psyche which proves frustrating slowly leading to her illusion, alienation, depression and finally her tragic end.        
In Wife (1975), Mukherjee writes about a woman named Dimple who has been suppressed by men, is desirous to be the idyllic Bengali wife, but out of foreboding fear and delicate volatility, she assassinates her husband and ultimately commits suicide. Bharati Mukherjee’s characterization of Dimple lends a divergent and an intricate perspective to the theme of immigration and subsequent alienation. Dimple is a middle–class married woman who wishes to migrate and finally migrates from Calcutta to New York with a hope that Marriage would bring her freedom, cocktail parties on carpeted lawns, and fund-  raising dinners for noble charities. Marriage would bring her love.
At last her father Mr. Das Gupta married her  with Amit Basu. She doesn’t likes Amit’s mother and sister also. Her mother-in-law dislikes her name ‘Dimple’ and wants to call her ‘Nandini’. Dimple has always lived in a fantastic world, a world which is created by herself. But when she confronts the hard realities of life the feathers of her imagination are clipped. Amit was not the man she has imagined for her husband. Pregnancy is a boon for Indian women, but Dimple is singular in that She thought of ways to get rid off. So she decides to terminate her pregnancy. Dimple in wife, is symbolized the predicament of a voice without articulation and without a vision.                      
Mukherjee’s The Jasmine (1989) can be read as a feminist novel where the protagonist rebels not only against age-old superstitions and traditions, but also effects a proper balance between tradition and modernity. The novel is a celebration of the strength of a woman, not her weakness. The novelist has articulated the many sided pathos and rebellion of contemporary Indian Woman, not only in India but also in New World. The present novel is a story of a young Hindu woman who leaves India for the US after her husband’s murder, the unity between the First and Third worlds is shown to be in the treatment of women as subordinate in both countries. We see the conflict between duty and desire inherent in Jasmine. Desire is the root of American fairy lands, desire for riches, desire for fame etc. Duty suppresses the desire. Jasmine, the Punjabi woman, debates if to act according to desire or duty. The Indian consciousness, embodied by her grandmother Dida, supports duty while the Western consciousness embodied by employers Taylor and Wylie encourages desire. She voluntarily undergoes transformation of the self from Jyoti to Jane to Jasmine. It is not the uncertainties of the new continent that challenge her but the uncertainties of her life in an unknown terra ferma. Mukherjee also shows her woman protagonist repudiating centuries – old ugly Indian tradition of checking the boys horoscope. The second archetypal image that  Mukherjee uses to bring out the protagonist’s feminist trait is that of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction. But since in Hindu mythology Kali is an incarnation of Durga, the Godess of Strength, the image here is more relevant to the strength of a woman like Jasmine who has embarked on a perilous journey to a new world of fulfill her husband’s dream.                                          
 The Holder Of The World (1993), a feminist novel, is a story about the trauma of dislocation and joy of transformation arising out of the union of two cultures. It is a story of Hannah Easton, a abandoned child, came to India in the 17th century and imbided herself in its culture. She is an embodiment of courage, imagination and assertiveness which is part and parcel of the American spirit. A woman is a woman whether Indian or American, it is mental make up that counts. She travels to India and gets involved with a few Indian lovers. All through the narrative the novelist concentrates on the immigrant women and their efforts to gain freedom as individuals. The novel gains a broader perspective as the women characters are utilized now to explore the affinity between different cultures. Hannah’s journey to the East fraught with images of adventure, action and passion projects a sort of escape from the rigid claustrophobic Puritan world. She agrees to marry Gabriel Legge because she visualizes liberation from a constrictive society. After the death of Gabriel, she comes across Raja Jadav Singh  resulting in a rather passionate relationship. She relishes her new identity as Bibi. Like Jasmine, we find a strong element of adaptability in her character.                                                
Leave It to Me (1997) carries on with the theme of immigration thus completing the trilogy begun with Jasmine followed by The Holder of the World. Debby DiMartino, a Eurasian orphan, the protagonist of the novel, is a young sociopath seeking revenge on her American mother and Eurasian father who abandoned. She was adopted by a New York family but remains ungrateful to her surrogate parents and at the age of 23 embarks on a revengeful search for her biological parents. The narrative is the conflict between the Eastern and the Western worlds as well as the mother-daughter relationship. Debby or Devi according to Mukherjee is tough and vulnerable. Devi Dee-presumed missing or dead is saved by nuns and shipped abroad to America, where she is raised as the adopted child of the Di Martino family. Twenty three years later having graduated from Sunny, Albany, she sets out to seek her bio-mom California. This novel makes the predicament of the protagonist crystal-clear, Mukherjee deals with the reality of “Time-Travel”. In the present novel, Mukherjee reverts to her earlier obsession with an exile’s agony.                 
The Desirable Daughters (2003), scattered over twelve decades, follows the diverging paths taken by three Calcutta-born sisters as they come of age in a changing world. Tara, Padma and Parvati were born into a wealthy Brahmin family presided over by their father and their traditionalist mother. Intelligent and artistic, the girls are nevertheless constrained by a society with little regard for women. Their subsequent rebellion will lead them in different directions to different continents and through different circumstances that strain yet ultimately strengthen their relationship. The present novel that is both the portrait of a traditional Indian Brahmin family and a contemporary American story of a woman who is in many ways broken with tradition but still remains tied to her native country. The novel is about three Bengali sisters who grew up in Calcutta and eventually end up in three different corners of the globe leading three different lifestyles. One lives a comfortable life in a posh residential locality in Mumbai. Another of the sister ends up New Jersey among the elite class of migrant Indians. The third ends up in the West in California Leading a more pedestrian life after getting a divorce from her business tycoon husband. It’s an interesting tale about how life puts us in different circumstances. The novelist demonstrates the positive gigantic energy of her women characters.
The Tree Bride (2004) once again embarks on an in depth exploration of the life of Tara Lata Gangooly, an East Bengali ancestor who according to legend, married a tree at the age of five after the tragic death of her bridegroom. In the years that ensued Tara developed tree like characteristics herself. For instance, she was rooted in her father’s house. She was a silent like a tree. She learned how to commune with trees for the next sixty years of her life. Later on Tara become involved with the Indian freedom movement. All of a sudden there is a threat to her life. Since she cannot understand the reason she searches her roots and suspects the mystery has a link to some complication of her family history. The novelist propels Tara to go into re-examination of her life. Each time she comes to the conclusion that she cannot segregate herself from her roots, i.e. her essentially Indian upbringing. Through the life story of Tara, Mukherjee creates a palpable and personal history of British colonial rule in India.      
Mukherjee’s works focus on the phenomenon of migration, living far away from their native and being discriminated on grounds of race, colour or creed and the feeling of alienation often experienced by expatriates as well as on Indian women and their struggle. Her own struggle with identity first as an exile from India, then an Indian expatriate in Canada, and finally as an immigrant in the US has lead to her current contentment of being an immigrant in a country of immigrants. Therefore, her writings largely reflect her personal experiences in crossing cultural boundaries. Her novels chart the dramas of entrance into a new land, adapting to a new way of life, in personal, social and historical terms. On personal level, this adjustment acquires a magnitude that can only be understood in terms of cultural heritage and personal history. Major adjustments have to be made in the philosophy of life itself, which governs the protagonists’ considered behavior as well as the response to the most trivial situations. Though Mukherjee’s protagonists are keen to leave India due to various motivations and impulses, yet they find that the act of changing one’s country is not as simple as they imagined. Even changing a house in one’s own city requires major adjustments. These cross cultural concerns are projected in her creative writing.
            The protagonists of Mukherjee’s novels are neither typically Indian nor exotically Westernized. To them America is merely a land of opportunities, a place with financial gains, independence and freedom of movement. Whatsoever is there, the fact does not take away the diasporic experiences in any way. This process is traumatic and remains forever incomplete. The key ingredient in this process is the search for a voice remains mostly incomprehensive even to the protagonists. Mukherjee’s depiction of women and their different relationships portrays the dominance of patriarchal practices in traditional society, as well as the forms of liberation and empowerment which are available to women in their diasporic situation. Her female characters are real, modern lifelike. They are typical representatives of young woman particularly of The Third World countries who cherish the dream of emigrating to America for higher education and higher wages, and then after arrival there, aspire to settle there permanently. Their situations and the difficulties they face are also realistically portrayed.         




Primary Sources:

  1. Mukharjee, Bharati. The Tiger's Daughter, Houghton, 1972.
  2. _______________.  Wife, Houghton, 1975.
  3. _______________.  Jasmine, Grove, 1989.
  4. _______________. The Holder of the World, Knopf: New York City, 1993.
  5. _______________. Leave It to Me, A.A. Knopf: New York City, 1997.
  6. _______________. The Desirable Daughters, Hyperion, New City, 2003.
  7. _______________. The Tree Bride, Hyperion, New City, 2004.

Secondary  Sources:

  1. Bhat, Yashoda (ed.)- The Image of Woman in Indian Literature. New Delhi : B.R Publishing Corporation, 1993
  2. Dass, Veena Noble. Feminism and Literature. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1995.
  3. Myles, Anita. Feminism and the Post-Modern Indian Women Novelists in English. New Delhi, Sarup & Sons, 2006.
  4. Nityanandam, Indira. Three Great Indian Women Novelists. New Delhi : Creative Books, 2000.
  5. R. K. Dhawan (editor). The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium. New Delhi: Prestige. 1996.  
  6. Tandon Sushma. Bharati Mukherjee's Fiction: A Perspective. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons. 2004.

Prof. Rajesh R. Ladva,
Gardi Arts & Commerce College,
Maliya-Hatina, Dist: Junagadh,
Gujarat, Pin: 362245