Included in the UGC-CARE list (Group B Sr. No 172)
Transformation of Female Identity in Bharti Mukherji’s Desirable Daughters


The theme of transformation of the Immigrant is the prominent theme in the Indian Diasporic fictions. Many Indian Diaporic writers have written their fictions keeping in mind the theme of transformation of the Immigrant and the clash between the mother land and other land.

The aim of the paper is to study the immigrant woman protagonist’s experience in the U.S.A., her struggle for identity, her bitter experiences, and her final emergence as self-assertive individual, free from the bondages imposed by relationships in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Desirable Daughters (2002). The research attempts to explore the issues of patriarchy and other social conventions to be observed strictly in the family of the narrator and later on the situation leads to breaking of these traditions in the families of the narrator and her two sisters to adjust in the society as per the need of the time and circumstances of the individual. Tara has to face several problems during her transformation from typical Indian woman to a forward, divorcee woman living with her son and a Hungarian Buddhist lover. Her quest for the root of Christopher, who came into her life claming her nephew; portrays her as a woman, accepting the harsh realities of life at the same time being criticized by her own siblings about her divorce, and living with a son and a lover, alone in the alien land. Her transformation to accept western tradition has created many issues and troubles in her life and at the end she becomes self-confident in accepting a compromise between her ancestral tradition and the culture of the foreign land.

KEY WORDS: Transformation, Diaspora, Immigrant, Dislocation, and Alienation

Bharati Mukherjee, an American writer of Indian origin, is a prominent novelist of Indian Diaspora. From her childhood she was in touch with the western culture. Though, an Indian, she is brought up in western background. She is considered as an ethnic artist who looks beyond the immigrant’s sense of alienation and dislocation to trace ‘psychological transformation’ especially among women. Mukherji’s major works deal with this phenomenon of dislocation. It is rightly said, “female subjectivity forms the primary site of dislocation in Bharati Mukherjee's stories of the making and imagining of immigrant identities in America” (Koshy 69). In the same line, while analyzing the term captivity in connection with diaspora, Butler rightly posits, “This category, which includes enslavement, refers to an involuntary dislocation in which the receiving societies play an active role in preventing return to the homeland. The term captivity is preferred over enslavement because it encompasses all practices and policies that prevent the emigration of the diasporan group” (200). Mukherji’s main theme throughout her writing discusses the condition of Asian immigrants in North America, with particular attention to the changes taking place in South Asian Women in a new world. She said in an interview in the Massachusetts Review, “The immigrants in my stories go through extreme transformations in America and at the same time they alter the country’s appearance and psychological make-up.”(Carb)

The title of the novel Desirable Daughters has been taken in a rather ironical sense. In the Hindu societies, especially in the over protected patriarchal families daughters are not at all desirable for they forebode only trouble. In fact, a mother who brings forth only daughters is looked down upon and considered an unlucky woman. The plot of the novel is conceived in a tone of defiance to this belief. The novel begins with a female child narrator, Tara and encompasses a large span of time of 120 years with the tale of her two sisters. Tara divorces her multimillionaire husband. Later on sudden intrusion of the past into her and her sisters' lives disturbs their safe assumptions. In fact, all the major contemporary diasporic fictions, too, have postulated similar sentiment. It is mentioned that, “Insofar as the transnational circuits and border zones generated by the contemporary diaspora experience are, as George Lipsitz and Roger Rouse remind us, linked to wider historical forces” (Chin 534). Past and historical residues have always been essential in the studies of diasporic literature.

The narrative succeeds brilliantly in interweaving several themes of class, history and changing consciousness through reminiscences and direct narration. The protagonist and other women characters not only endure life’s hardships stoically but in the process emerge stronger providing sustenance and equilibrium to the entire community. Beneath the family drama and Tara's quest for her identity, Mukherjee tells a larger story about Indians in India and the U.S., painting a complex picture of vastly different cultures and ancient prejudices, yet kept together by strict rules of family behavior and spiritual rituals. Finally, there is a very real current of danger running through the narrative that explodes into violence and irrevocable change.

The novel Desirable Daughters begins with the quotation from Sanskrit verse saying that:
“No one behind, no one ahead. The path the ancients cleared has closed.
And the other path, everyone’s path,
Easy and wide, goes nowhere.
I am alone and find my way” (Mukherjee 1).

It gives hint that neither the old tradition nor the new tradition can really lead to happiness unless you find your own ways of living.

The opening is an imaginative reconstruction of a marriage of Tara Lata that took place in India during the nineteenth century. Mukherjee dwells on every detail of this highly traditional occurrence. The bride-to-be whispers the “Tush Tulsi Brata,” a hymn to the sacredness of marriage, a petition for a kind a generous husband.

The novelist tells about the protagonist’s ancestor viz. Jai Krishna Gangooly, the father of the child bride Tara Lata, is a traditionalist even though he is a lawyer educated in English. Mukherjee mentions about the colonial India and the impact of English on the lives of Hindu Bengalis. The incidences of matching horoscope and the rituals to propitiate Goddess Manasha to protect the husband-to-be from poisonous snakebites are narrated. The novel contrasts the split of bhadra lok society between progressives and traditionalists. Indian past was a rubbish heap of shameful superstition. Satindranath Lahiri, the groom dies of snakebite and his family blames the bride as unlucky. The groom’s father says: “Your happiness-wrecking daughter is responsible.” (Mukherjee 11). Indian society considers woman responsible for any unlucky thing and blames them.

The greedy father of the groom demands for dowry. But the bride's father takes his daughter into the forest where he marries her to a tree. She becomes a woman noted for her courage and generosity. Tara Lata, the virgin, opened the house to beggars, then to the sick, then to the young soldiers fighting the British Raj.The narrator Tara says that Tara Lata of the nineteenth century is the daughter of her great grandfather. Her American granddaughter visits her home. She has the same name, Tara Lata, as the old woman and like her she has two sisters. Tara, the narrator is descended from the daughter of Jai Krishna’s ninth wife. She also mentions the importance of a birth to a son in patriarchy and how the importance of an heir led to polygamy.

In the succeeding chapters Mukherjee offers a striking portrait of three beautiful sisters Padma, Parvati and Tara from a privileged, wealthy Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta living in two worlds: the traditional Brahmin society of upper-class Calcutta, where they were born, and the secular world of the modern west they moved to as adults. The advantages and disadvantages of convent education are narrated. As it was girls’ school they had no idea of male until they reached the age of marital consent. The tradition of the family is that the three sisters are not allowed to go alone on the streets. Three sisters are bent upon breaking traditions and to live their own lives. Tara narrates the incident of her eldest sister Padma whom she calls Didi. Padma likes her friend Poppy’s brother Ronald Dey. There is no possibility of marriage of Padma with Ronald in a house where “Hindu virgin Protection” is strictly maintained and inter-caste marriage may not even be dreamt. Later on Padma selects career in theatre and marries Harish Mehta, a non-Bengali businessman previously married, and with grown children. Tara is the youngest. 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. Mukherjee weaves together fascinating stories of the sisters' ancestors, their childhood memories, and dramatic scenes from India's history.

Tara left Calcutta grows happily enough as a young woman and has rarely looked back. Well-educated, she was married to an Indian computer designer, Bishwapriya (Bishu- Bish in America), who moved her to California and got rich in Silicon Valley. Tara grown up under strict observance of tradition becomes a rebellion now and wants to live life according to her wishes in the USA. Tara becomes Americanized enough to divorce her husband after a few years and move to San Francisco with her son Rabi, a gay. Even worse, she works as a lowly teacher, a choice which would be unthinkable in the culture of her birth. Tara’s ex-husband was the traditionally pre-selected bridegroom. Tara, not knowing any other way, submitted: "I married a man I had never met” (Mukherjee 26). Tara narrates the story from her adopted San Francisco home, where she lives with Andy Karolyi, her lover, a strange sort of Hungarian Zen carpenter who earthquake-proofs houses. As Margaret Gunning writes in a review: “All this seems to imply a sort of free and easy hippie lifestyle, but nothing could be farther from the truth. All these rebellion-gestures are merely trappings, or reactions against the gagging restrictions of Tara's girlhood.” (Gunning)

Conflict arises in the life of Tara when her son, Rabi (Rabindranath) introduces a young man who claims kinship as the son of her oldest sister, Padma. When Christopher Dey (Chris) comes with Rabi and addresses Tara as: “How are you, Tara-mashi?’(Mukherjee 34) She considers it as a kind of impossibility. An impossibility since her sister never had a child and a possibility since the familial relationships are so convolutedly secretive as to make the existence of the young man as her nephew plausible. Chris produces a letter written by Ron Dey to Tara which creates doubt in her mind. It seems likely that the young man's claim is true and that Padma, Tara's sister, did bear an illegitimate child. This is a momentous event for Tara. She suffers the stress now of an immigrant with a child that belongs wholly to her new country. The discovery of Padma's child brings into focus all her inner disquiet and the need to find valid connections. Tara’s mental condition after hearing from Chris reveals the fact that the psychic violence left a stronger impact on the mind than physical violence on the body. Tara is desirous to know more about the boy which unintentionally leads her on a journey of self-discovery. As an Indo-American Tara in the moment of crisis is compelled to search her roots. While doing so she discovers a lot more about her family, her ancestral village and how it was betrayed by administrators of the British Raj. Through the life story of Tara, Mukherjee creates a palpable and personal history of British colonial rule in India. Mukherjee also tells about the tradition of honouring the elders and teachers followed in India. It is clearly understood that rootedness is something that the diasporic writers struggle to cope with. However, as many critics have claimed, “if we follow the claim of theories of diaspora that rootedness can be replaced by an emphasis on routes” (Goyal 396-97). Needless to say, it is a path filled with contradictions and dichotomies and it is not feasible to offer simple solutions to the historical problems.

Tara as an adventurous woman makes all the possible efforts to know the truth about Chris’ relation to her sister. She approaches Ronald- his father, her sisters Padma and Parvati and takes the help of the Police through personal contact, letters and telephone. Tara meets her sister Parvati, who lives in Bombay with her husband Aurobindo Banerjee and their teenage sons Bhupesh and Dinesh. Parvati also breaks the tradition of her family. Parvati’s adventurous step is that whiling studying at Boston; she found a boy and has fallen in love and married. Although she is in a protected apartment complex, is subject (as the plight of her neighbors proves) to criminal attentions. Tara complains her that she had given Christopher Dey, Padma's pretended son, her address. But Parvati knows nothing of Christopher and warns Tara that she is dealing with a confidence man, a possibly dangerous criminal. For Tara this plays out as a problem with Rabi, her son, so open and easily gulled and so ready to decide against her and her sisters, representatives of a culture that he treats as inexplicable and personally repugnant.

Tara as a woman with radical ideas loves Andy and there is a mention of physical love between them. Tara mentions the incidence of Indian tradition where she was supposed to pay respect to a bed-ridden uncle-in-law, and it is worthy “taking the dust off an elder’s feet.” (Mukherjee 83) Her mother-in-law said, “You are providing all of us married women a shining example of wifely service” (Mukherjee 83).

Tara mentions about her transformation in the new technology era. “Thanks to Bish; I’ve got to thinking of e-mail as the most natural way to communicate” (Mukherjee 86). Tara says about the cultural differences when she lives in a hotel in New York where her sister lives, “The idea that I should have a sister within a hundred miles from the city and be forced to stay in a hotel is unimaginable in our culture, but somehow I’ve never found it bizarre” (Mukherjee 94). Parvati’s letter to Tara again denying inquiring about Chris’s identity brings how Mukherjee contrasts the culture of India and America and how Tara settles herself in it, “Have you become so American that you don’t realize how absurd your request is? We don’t even mention your divorce to friends and relatives here” (Mukherjee 97). Tara herself says, “Divorce was not in our family vocabulary in the sixties” (Mukherjee 101). Parvati criticizes Tara for not remembering her parents in Rishikesh whom Padma remembers on special occasions. Tara desperate to know the root of Chris couriers a letter to Ronald Dey, his father.

There is a mention of Brahmo Samaj, a progressive wing of 19th century Bengali culture. American places like Jackson Heights, Queens, New Jersey, New York, Sanfrancisco, and various places of Mumbai, Rishikesh, Char Dham, etc. make the novel presentation of multiethnic society both in Indian and the USA.

Mukherjee shows tangled relationships and complex characters. Rabi continues to see Christopher and repudiates Parvati's rejection. Tara fails to deal with this successfully and her lover, Andy, attempts to bring her to a more balanced position. She recalls eavesdropping on an emotional scene between Padma and her parents regarding the possibility of Padma's marriage to Ronald Dey.

In a highly significant sequence of actions Christopher confronts Tara, is rescued by Andy in response to a prearranged signal and - by calling at an unexpected time - Tara at last talks to Padma. Behind the defensive chatter of her sister Tara is certain that she is lying and that Christopher is indeed her son. But she has already sent a letter of inquiry to Ronald Dey. Ronald's reply is curious. Beneath its formal surface there is a consciousness that is eager to provide Tara with clues. With these she is able to determine that Christopher is a fraud but a fraud of a very curious sort. He is not Christopher Dey but there is a Christopher Dey and Padma is very likely his mother. Tara goes to the police. She visits Rabi's school and receives favorable and comforting reports. She also discovers that Rabi is gay. When she returns home, she finds that Andy has learned of her visit to the police. He is angry and he leaves her.

Tara has come to Newark to see Padma. Since her actions have already cost her lover and she cannot expect to gain much from the self-centered and devious older sister. It is from this point that the book begins its slow but unremitting change from character to events, a change that damages the book.

Padma and her husband Harish greet her in a careless manner. Tara calls the Sikh detective assigned to her case. This renews her link with the questions that surround the mysterious Christopher and also - by implication - Padma's relationship to him. It is revealed through the call of Jack, the detective that Chris is a criminal, member of an influential Indian mob and a murderer. Jack tells her that she, Rabi and Bish, Tara's ex-husband, are in danger, kidnapping being one of the most characteristic acts of the mob in question. Her efforts to reach Rabi and Bish, together on a vacation, fail. As Bob Williams finds, She and Padma reach a kind of understanding even after Tara learns that the party which Padma arranges is not really for her at all but is a promotional event for the sale of Padma's designs and merchandise. Padma is outrageous and ultimately unreachable. She can only see the difficulties of the genuine and false Christopher as an attempt to discredit her (Willams).

The short third part shows Tara and Rabi in India, first with Parvati and then with Tara's parents. She and Rabi make a pilgrimage to the home of the Tree-Bride, a scene hinted at in the opening pages. The tone is vaguely mystical and fatalistic and after the horrendous, inexplicable and unexplained events of part two provides an unexpectedly tranquil close. That Tara and Padma find satisfaction in each other is one more in a list of improbabilities. Mukherjee asks the reader willingly to suspend disbelief, a request that the very accomplished first part of the book tends to make acceptable but events become bolder and more dramatic and Mukherjee exhausts her credit with the reader. All of things that she describes as happening come from the headlines but her eyes are on the events and no longer on her characters.

In the current era of globalization, and multiculturalism, the novelist with a sense of history and a long-nurtured observation of the Indo- American community, has created the absorbing tale of two rapidly changing cultures and the flash points where they intersect. With remarkable dexterity, Mukherjee depicts tradition and myth colliding with the free will and dynamics of a one-world economy. Issues of culture, identity, and familial loyalty in its honest portrayal of the American immigrant experience, Desirable Daughters follows the diverging paths taken by three Calcutta-born sisters as they come of age in a changing world.

Though aggressive, Tara and other female characters reveal a fine equilibrium between the Indian traditionalism and the concept of Western freedom; hence these characters are not outwardly aggressive demanding freedom as a birthright. Sometimes Tara and other women characters proves themselves to be docile and submissive simultaneously exhibiting the courage and capability to wrestle with the problems of life for the survival yet they do not compromise with conventionality. As Anita writes:
“Through her writings she intends to ascertain the fact that “we are all individuals even though we are of various ethnic origins. She emphasizes on the way human nature works. She writes of psychic violence and its effect on the masses. One can observe steady progression and transformation in her women characters, especially protagonist here in Desirable Daughters” (Myles118-19).

Tara represents that in the age of migration, one’s biological identity (parentage, caste and creed) may not be one’s real identity as emigration brings changes, physical and psychological both. Tara is her mouthpiece who reconsiders the idea of split between desire and reason, dependent security and autonomy, social and psychic identity. She believes in present and not in past, for it will help shape her future. She realized that her transformation was a two-way process because it affected both the individual as well as the national cultural identity. Mukherjee herself, and here Tara too, considers her migration as a gain rather than loss as it is considered generally by the Diaspora writers. As Donna Seaman says, “Mukherjee’s graceful novel explores the continuum between tradition and change as it chips away at superficialities to reach the core of human experience” (Bookbrowse).

Mukherjee has focused here, on Tara, a Character who is adventurer and explorer, rather than refugee and outcaste and is part and parcel of a new changing America-the land of immigrants having an immigrant culture. The protagonist and other women characters not only endure life’s hardships stoically but in the process emerge stronger providing sustenance and equilibrium to the entire community.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Kim D. “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse”. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2001, pp. 189-219. PROJECT MUSE,
  2. Carb, Alison B. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee” The Massachusetts Review, Winter 1988-1989, pp.645-65.
  3. Chin, Timothy. “The Novels of Patricia Powell: Negotiating Gender and Sexuality Across the Disjunctures of the Caribbean Diaspora”. Callaloo, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2007, pp. 533-45. PROJECT MUSE,
  4. Goyal, Yogita. “The Gender of Diaspora in Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby". Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2006, pp. 393-414. JSTOR,
  5. Gunning, Margaret. “Suffocating Siblings”, Review of Desirable Daughters, by Bharati Mukherjee. January Magazine, 11 February 2020,
  6. Koshy, Susan. “The Geography of Female Subjectivity: Ethnicity, Gender, and Diaspora”. A Journal of Transnational Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1994, pp. 69-84. PROJECT MUSE,
  7. Mukherjee, Bharati Desirable Daughters. Rupa & Co., 2003.
  8. Myles, Anita. Feminism and the Post-Modern Indian Women Novelists in English. Sarup & Sons, 2006.
  9. Williams, Bob. Review of Desirable Daughters, by Bharati Mukherjee. Compulsive Reader, 02 February 2020,

Dr. Shaurya Brahmbhatt, Assistant Professor, Department of English, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara. E-mail:


Dr. Hitesh D. Raviya, Professor and Head, Department of English, Faculty of Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, Gujarat. E-mail: