Bharati Mukherjee, writer, by Linda Leith


In a series of acclaimed novels and short stories published over more than 40 years, Bharati Mukherjee, who died in Manhattan on Jan. 28, wrote about the radical changes experienced by immigrants from India.

Her long-time friend Margaret Atwood called Ms. Mukherjee a pioneer in North America in her exploration of this kind of culture shock.

Ms. Mukherjee was 22 when she enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1962. She already had a BA from the University of Calcutta and an MA from the University of Baroda, in Gujarat, India. She was beautiful, elegant and accomplished. The other students thought she was the daughter of a maharajah who had an army ready to attack any man who so much as looked at her.

“A maharajah’s daughter!” she laughed, when a fellow student, the Canadian-American writer Clark Blaise, told her this later on. “But that would be a lower caste!” She was a Brahmin from a traditional family. “Great privilege had been conferred upon me,” she wrote in 1981. “My struggle was to work hard enough to deserve it. And I did.”

Her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, was the wealthy owner of a pharmaceutical company who took the family abroad when she was eight. Her mother, Bina (née Banerjee) was a homemaker. Bharati attended private schools in London and Basel, Switzerland, and then the elite Loreto House on the family’s return to Calcutta, which she described as “that most Victorian and British of post-independence Indian cities.” She was driven to school by a chauffeur and accompanied by a bodyguard – the city being “blistered with revolutionary fervour” – and she had never been to a party with boys before she arrived in Iowa.

Mr. Blaise was what Ms. Atwood described as “a down home boy.” Born in North Dakota of Canadian parents, he had led a peripatetic life, mostly in Georgia and Florida.

As a Brahmin, Ms. Mukherjee was meant to marry within that caste, but a year after their first meeting, she and Mr. Blaise had a whirlwind two-week romance. “By the time you read this,” she cabled her father, “I will be Mrs. Clark Blaise.” They were married in September, 1963, in a five-minute ceremony in an office upstairs from the coffee shop where he worked as a busboy.

Ms. Mukherjee was born in Calcutta on July 27, 1940, and spoke only Bengali until she was three years old. She lived with her extended family, so there were 40 to 50 people living in the house at any one time.

“Every room felt crowded,” she told an interviewer for the Commonwealth studies journal Span. “In order to make privacy for myself, make a little emotional, physical space for myself, I had to read. I had to drop inside books as a way of escaping crowds. As a result, I became a very bookish child, I read and read and read all day.

“I used to read European novels, these massive books by Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in Bengali translation as a very small child – under a bed, behind chairs, and so on, find a little dark corner for myself where I could read. The country being described in the books, the people being described in the books, sometimes seemed more real to me than the real people around me.”

She wanted to become a writer, and there was no family opposition to her studying toward her MFA, which she got in 1963; her father considered what he called “scribbling” an acceptable accomplishment, “like origami,” as she put it. She then stayed on at the University of Iowa for a PhD in English literature. “An MA in English is considered refined,” she wrote with characteristic irony, “but a doctorate is far too serious a business, indicative more of brains than of beauty, and likely to lead to a quarrelsome nature.”

By the time she and her husband moved to Montreal in 1966, their first son had been born. Ms. Atwood recalls babysitting him and his brother when she was Mr. Blaise’s colleague in the creative-writing program at Sir George Williams, now Concordia University. Ms. Mukherjee had been hired by McGill as a lecturer and became a full professor and director of the graduate program in English. The writer Michael Ondaatje, an old friend, described them as “this remarkable pair of writers – full of talent, full of verve, fully aware of the great world around us. Even now, it is very difficult to speak of them separately.”

Ms. Mukherjee’s first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, was published in 1971, and her second, Wife, in 1975. “My many years in Montreal,” she said, “had a profound, joyous, permanent effect on me.” In 1977, however, they left Montreal for Toronto, where she was insulted as a “Paki,” taken for a shoplifter and harassed by house detectives in a hotel “in front of an elevator-load of leering, elbow-nudging women.” She was shocked, outraged and “shaken to the core” when three high-school boys on a subway station platform asked her, “Why don’t you go back to Africa?”

By the end of the decade, Mr. Blaise wanted to stay in Canada; Ms. Mukherjee did not. “The move from Toronto was the only test of our marriage,” he said. Ms. Atwood’s view was that “they should have stayed in Montreal.”

They moved back to the United States in 1980, when Skidmore College, in upstate New York, offered Mr. Blaise a one-year contract. Ms. Mukherjee was unemployed for the first time in her adult life – “the price I was obliged to pay for immigration to the United States,” she wrote in an explosive Saturday Night magazine article, which bore the headline “An Invisible Woman.” The family’s total income was less than one-third what it had been. “Dark times are coming,” she predicted. “Next year, I can take the job Clark is filling now. Will Clark then stay here or return? He doesn’t know.”

“I remain a Canadian citizen,” she wrote. “This is the testament of a woman who came, like most immigrants, confident of her ability to do good work, in answer to a stated need.”

Exploring some of the themes also present in her fiction, she had interviewed dozens of Canadians, mostly of Indian or Pakistani origin, all part of what she called “the Canadian and Toronto underbelly.” Opening up “the sewers of resentment” that “polite, British-style forbearance had kept a lid on,” her article was uncompromising in its account of the “new up-front violence” against South Asian immigrants, “the physical assaults, the spitting, the name-calling, the bricks through the windows, the pushing and shoving on subways – it would be, by this time, a very isolated Indian who has not experienced one or more of those reactions.”

She described a 1975 Green Paper as a government move “to throw some bones (meaning immigrants) to the howling wolves.” 

“I cannot describe the agony and the betrayal one feels, hearing oneself spoken of by one’s own country as being somehow exotic to its nature – a burden, a cause for serious concern.” Most Indians would date the violence of the late 1970s “from the implied consent given to racism by the Green Paper.” Academic as it was in tone, she wrote, “in feeling it was Nuremberg, and it unleashed its own mild but continuing Kristallnacht.”

Her article provoked “indignation,” Mr. Blaise said. “Canada did not see itself as racist. There was absolutely no understanding that Canada had a racial problem. That was seen as an American problem.”

Writer and journalist Robert Fulford, then editor of Saturday Night, is proud of having commissioned and published the article: “It’s a fiercely outspoken attack on the smug and narrow-minded side of Canadian attitudes, written out of wounded pride and naked anger. And it reads well after several decades.”

A series of short-term academic positions followed, with Ms. Mukherjee and Mr. Blaise often living apart. Their marriage, which a Montreal friend, writer Ann Charney, considered “a great literary partnership,” survived. They co-wrote two works of literary non-fiction: Days and Nights in Calcutta, a memoir, and The Sorror and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, about the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, which killed 329 people.

It was with her fiction, though, that Ms. Mukherjee made her name in the United States. Her 1988 collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction – the first time the coveted prize had ever gone to a naturalized American.

Her next novel, Jasmine (1989) features an illegal immigrant from the Punjab who marries an American. The year it was published, Ms. Mukherjee was hired at the University of California, Berkeley, where she taught until her retirement in 2013.

Her protagonist, Jasmine, was close to Ms. Mukherjee herself, as was Tara Latta in The Tree Bride (2004), another character “who had confronted the kind of racism Bharati encountered,” Mr. Blaise said. “She was steadfast in not accommodating any authority figure, not even her father.”

Her last novel was Miss New India (2011), in which Anjali leaves her traditional family in Bihar and moves to Bangalore. “A woman determinedly pursuing personal happiness,” Ms. Mukherjee told this writer in 2011, “is a revolutionary – and threatening – concept for her traditional parents.”

Ms. Mukherjee died of complications of rheumatoid arthritis and takotsubo cardiomyopathy. She was 76. She leaves Mr. Blaise and their son Bernard and two granddaughters; she was predeceased by another son, Bart, in 2015.

© Linda Leith, 2017.


And one Comment, published online in The Globe and Mail on Feb 11, 2017:

I met Bharati Mukherjee when she was the Director of the Shastri Institute in New Delhi, and I was a graduate student from UBC, and then U of T, in the mid-70s. I'm not of South Asian descent, but can attest to the violent racism of Toronto in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as it shocked me to see South Asian academics shouted abuse in the streets, especially after spending a year and a half studying in India. The next generation of South Asian and Caribbean women writers, notably. Himani Bannerji and Dionne Brand fought back strongly, and Toronto gave a little at least. So sad to hear about their job paths in the US; Bharati Mukherjee was a lovely and very talented women who touched most people she met. -- globalcanuck

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