The Middleman | Critical Review by Carol Ascher

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Middleman.
This section contains 932 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Ascher

Critical Review by Carol Ascher

SOURCE: "After the Raj," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 12, September, 1989, p. 17-19.

In the following excerpt, Ascher praises Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories and states that "one of the great joys, for me, of reading The Middleman is experiencing a world that generally remains just at the edge of my consciousness."

… In The Middleman and Other Stories Bharati Mukherjee leaves the zenana far behind as she writes with the rushed, rootless, naively cynical voices of Third World newcomers and those who get involved with them. The eleven stories in this swift-moving collection are about the immigrants filling US cities and campuses: they come from India, Iraq. Afghanistan, Trinidad, Uganda, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and they are all busy creating new ties and scrambling for a living, often in the shadier niches of the economy. As the narrator of "Danny's Girls," a Ugandan living in Flushing, says of his neighbor and idol, Danny, a northern Indian,

He started out with bets and scalping tickets for Lata Mangeshkar or Mithun Chakravorty concerts at Madison Square Garden. Later he fixed beauty contests and then discovered the marriage racket.

Danny took out ads in papers in India promising "guaranteed Permanent Resident status in the U.S." to grooms willing to proxy-marry American girls of Indian origin. He arranged quite a few. The brides and grooms didn't have to live with each other, or even meet or see each other. Sometimes the "brides" were smooth-skinned boys from the neighborhood.

Jasmine, in the story by her name, is a Trinidadian who's come over to Detroit from Canada hidden in the back of a truck. Without a Green Card, she finds a job at the Plantation Motel, run by a family of Trinidad Indians. "The Daboos were nobodies back home. They were lucky, that's all. They'd gotten here before the rush and bought up a motel and an ice-cream parlor." For her room and a few dollars, Jasmine does the book-keeping and cleaning up, as well as working on Mr. Daboo's match-up marriage service on Sundays.

It's "life in the procurement belt," as a white Vietnam vet says in "Loose Ends," his cold rage building at the fact that native Miami-ites like him are becoming "coolie labor" to foreigners.

So I keep two things in mind nowadays. First, Florida was built for your pappy and grammie. I remember them, I was a kid here…. The second is this: Florida is run by locusts and behind them are sharks and even pythons and they've pretty well chewed up your mom and pop and all the other lawn bowlers and blue-haired ladies.

As enraging as it may be to the "natives" that Mukherjee's immigrants are so adept at finding ways to stay afloat economically, their piecemeal assimilation is also a source of wonder. "I envy her her freedom, her Green Card politics. It's love, not justice, that powers her," says Jeff of his Filipino girlfriend, Blanquita, in "Fighting for the Rebound." Although these newcomers may insist that they're ignored, misunderstood, or even despised, and that "Here, everything mixed up. Is helluva confusion, no?" they rapidly get the local lingo, and they are voracious consumers of microwave ovens, sweatsuits, VCRs, Press-On Nails, Cuisinart machines. In fact, if Bobbie Ann Mason has made being a hick chic, as Diane Johnston once said, then Bharati Mukherjee may be at the forefront of immigrant chic. Her prose has the flat deadpan that is very much in style, and she has an unerring eye for the detritus of shopping malls that draws these lonely newcomers.

As if in a covert lesson on the power of rootlessness to sever the author's own loyalties to gender as much as to homeland, Mukherjee's collection contains as many stories with male as with female narrators. Yet I found two stories about Indian women particularly poignant. This may be because the two women are also academics, and more thoughtful and torn about their experiences than are the others whose dog-eat-dos world offers them little time for reflection.

In "A Wife's Story," Mrs. Bhatt has come to New York to take a two-year course in Special Ed at Teachers College. Freed from the strict roles of Indian society, she has even become friends with a Hungarian man with whom she goes to the theatre. When her husband comes for a short visit, he seems an unlikely stranger. Still, she puts on her sari, gets tickets for a depressing package tour of the city, and obligingly takes him shopping at the discount stores.

In "The Tenant," Maya Sanyal of Calcutta is in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where she has come to teach Comparative Literature. Afraid of her bachelor landlord, Maya answers the "India Abroad" personals from Indian men, and puts on her best sari to go to tea at the home of the other Indian professor on campus, a Dr. Chatterji. There everything remains traditional, the old "virtues made physical." Yet something has snapped for Dr. Chatterji—as it has for Maya. Both experience their loneliness and anomie as erotic craving.

Although Mukherjee's characters only participate in public life to advance their narrow private interests, in total they are the great social transformation affecting North America. Finishing the collection, one senses that the strategy of short stories has served her well. Whether or not one might add other characters to the mosaic to form a truer, more complete picture, there is no other writer documenting these largely unseen immigrants; one of the great joys, for me, of reading The Middleman is experiencing a world that generally remains just at the edge of my consciousness.

(read more)

This section contains 932 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Ascher