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Critical Essay by Victoria Carchidi
SOURCE: "'Orbiting': Bharati Mukherjee's Kaleidoscope Vision," in MELUS, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 91-101.
In the following, essay, Carchidi asserts that Mukherjee's short story "'Orbiting' … evokes an image of the interweaving of diverse points of view to create a new perspective that is neither wholly like nor wholly different from the elements that make it up, an image well-suited to Bharati Mukherjee's vision of America."
"Orbiting," the story I discuss here, is included in a collection entitled Braided Lives. This title evokes an image of the interweaving of diverse points of view to create a new perspective that is neither wholly like nor wholly different from the elements that make it up, an image well-suited to Bharati Mukherjee's vision of America. Peter Nazareth writes that when Mukherjee claims to be a North American writer, she is affiliating herself with the "America that embraces all the peoples of the world both because America is involved with the whole world and because the whole world is in America." In this perspective, we—whoever we may be—are not outside the multitude of cultures in the United States, but are a part of the fabric that is being woven. An example of constantly changing, vibrant, and dynamic elements that come together is offered us by Bharati Mukherjee in "Orbiting."
The story's plot is quickly told and seems almost insignificant: a young woman's family comes over to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner and meets her new lover. The protagonist Renata herself acknowledges the mundanity of this situation in the story: "All over the country, I tell myself, women are towing new lovers home to meet their families." Such a story, one might think, offers mainstream America for our examination. One might even be disappointed; from an Asian writer, we encounter a family of Americans. Renata is not an immigrant, nor is her father; although proud of his North Italian heritage, he is the son of a man who was "a fifteenweek old fetus when his mother planted her feet on Ellis Island." They live in New Jersey; they talk about sports, a child listens to her Walkman; these certainly are American characters. But what it means to be American is precisely the focus of this story, as it has been of Mukherjee's life as well. "Orbiting" is the culmination of a journey that has taken a lifetime, in multiple ways: the time necessary for Mukherjee to mature into a writer able to express this vision and the experiences of her youth in India and her subsequent transformation into a North American that give depth to her characters' emotions.
Mukherjee was born, in 1940, into the most élite caste level of Indian society; she was a Bengali Brahmin. Along with the Indian heritage that gave her such privilege, however, came the colonized identity of all of India, subordinate to the British Raj. Mukherjee was educated as a proper Indian girl of good family: she spoke Bengali her first three years, then entered English schools in Britain and Switzerland and, when she returned to India, the Loretto School run by Irish nuns, at which she was taught to devalue all things Bengali. Not until she was in graduate school did Mukherjee recover knowledge of the Hindu culture she had known as a child.
In 1961, Mukherjee found herself at the University of Iowa Writing Workshop, where she met and married Clark Blaise, instead of accepting the Indian nuclear physicist her family was arranging for her. Mukherjee notes that had she chosen otherwise, she would still have written—but "elegant, ironic, wise stories … marked by detachment." Marriage outside her culture took Mukherjee beyond the safe enclave of certainty in which she had been raised, offered new possibilities for her to explore.
That awareness of different cultures was further developed when Blaise decided to embrace his Canadian heritage. For Mukherjee, Canada "was like going to England, a step backward to an old world, a hierarchical society." While her husband was regaining a sense of his ancestral identity, Mukherjee had already decided she "wanted to get away from that sense of belonging. I didn't want anyone to know where I fit in, so I could be whoever I wanted to be." Canada was a step backward, in terms of this flexible identity. She was labeled a "dirty Paki" there and over the next fourteen years saw and experienced tremendous racism that colored her writing and can still be sensed in Mukherjee's sharp memories; "if one hadn't played in snow and grown up eating oatmeal one didn't have anything relevant to say to Canadian readers."
Feeling beleaguered in Canada, Mukherjee became, as she described herself, a "shrill" civil rights activist. Despite her affection for the West, Mukherjee clearly felt the need to claim her identity as different in a powerful way as a means of warding off the racial slurs to which she was subjected. These tensions emerge in The Tiger's Daughter, a novel about a woman's claustrophobic entanglement with family and friends, and in Wife, in which the main character kills her husband after the couple have emigrated to the United States and the wife has been so torn between cultures that she begins to lose her sanity. The writing of this period shows characters defining their identity only with violent difficulty.
In 1973 Mukherjee and her husband went to India for a year; Days and Nights in Calcutta details their different responses to the country. This trip helped Mukherjee see that despite "all the trouble I was going through in Canada, it was still the new world that I wanted to live in, and that the old world was dead for me." She had cast her lot with the West and needed to remake her identity in a way that no longer clung to an outmoded vision from her past.
In 1980 Mukherjee resigned her post at McGill University and brought her family back to the United States. She felt, she says, terrible about so disrupting their lives, but "it was a question of self-preservation." Since that time, Mukherjee and Blaise have produced an investigative report on the bombing of an Air India plane that killed over 300 people, The Sorrow and the Terror; and Mukherjee has written Darkness; The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and from which "Orbiting" is taken, in 1988; and most recently, Jasmine. This last novel illustrates how far Mukherjee has come from her early pessimistic vision: although violence still plagues the protagonist's world, she is less controlled by it. Jasmine's husband is killed by a terrorist bomb which his wife feels is intended for her; she vows to commit suttee, to kill herself in honor of his death, in Florida, where they had been planning to move. Instead, she kills the man who takes advantage of her illegal alien status and youth to rape her. With the help of several strong women, she finds a new life for herself, and at end of the novel has acquired a family whose connections are nontraditional in the extreme; pregnant by the man she has decided to leave, she heads west for California to find his adopted Vietnamese son; she is accompanied by the man whom she met and loved while working as his illegal au-pair and his adopted daughter.
The novel Jasmine is a culmination of Mukherjee's characters: although a young Asian woman is the protagonist, she has changed from being a victim or passive agent to someone willing to make hard choices in pursuit of an identity not offered by the easy, pre-existing patterns from which she can choose: to be the burnt widow of her first husband; to be the victim of the man who raped her; to settle into a "Little India" enclave, isolated from America; or to be the caregiver of an older man. Instead, she and the motley recipients of her love have remade themselves into an atypical—and therefore more truly American—family unit.
This summary illustrates how far and through how much turmoil Mukherjee herself had to come to find herself able to write as an American. A major concern she had to negotiate was her own identity: in her introduction to Darkness, Mukherjee described immigrants as "pathetic lost souls," in contrast to the expatriate, who with irony and detachment drifts aloof from his or her new world. Undergoing a metamorphosis from her early work and experiences in Canada, Mukherjee has rejected elitist detachment and joined herself to "the underclass of semi-assimilated Indians": "instead of seeing my Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration … I see it now as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated. Indianness is now a metaphor, a particular way of partially comprehending the world." Couple this statement with her claim, after the writing of The Middleman and Other Stories, that to be American "is a quality of mind and desire. It means that you can be yourself, not what you were fated to be … you can try to shape your fate yourself," and one begins to see the braiding of perspectives that renders "Orbiting" so rich.
"Orbiting" shows how powerful this emotional development has been for Mukherjee as a writer, and how it has broadened her vision. In The Middleman and Other Stories, Mukherjee speaks for those not recognizably tied to her own history. Renata's family is Italian-American; other characters in this collection are Vietnamese, Filipino, Afghan. Mukherjee feels free to speak for other nationalities and backgrounds because they are her natural subject as an American writer, and these many colored strands of people's lives are the quintessentially American experience. We are not Indian, Italian, Jewish, fighting to retain our identity against a monolithically other America; America is made up of all our strands.
Despite its seemingly trivial plot and setting, "Orbiting" encapsulates the breadth of Mukherjee's vision of and for America. Tightly crafted, the story opens with an exposition, setting the stereotypically American scene and family relationships. Then it broadens a bit to allow entry of the immigrant figure, Roashan, referred to elsewhere by Mukherjee as the "unhoused"; his reception by the "housed" DeMarcos launches a comedy of manners worthy of Jane Austen, whom Mukherjee has acknowledged as an influence on her work. We see misunderstandings, and correct understandings, where least expected as the characters enact in miniature the ballet of complementary moves that is America.
Let me pause here for a moment and consider what it means to be American. All people living in the United States, with the possible exception of Native Americans, came to this country—willingly or not—at some point; and without exception we have been shaped by the intermingling of cultures that makes up what has been called the United States's melting pot. This admixture or melange, in contrast to the Canadian metaphor of a mosaic with its invocation of flat, discrete units in juxtaposition, is what fascinates Mukherjee. She encourages her readers to look more closely at the layers that have been compressed to make this country's texture. Despite the distance from their ethnic homeland, being Italian is part of the DeMarcos's cultural inheritance. And more recent immigrants do figure in the story: Renata's mother grew up in Calabria, and "Before Mom began to find herself," she would recount tales of privation from her girlhood. Even more centrally, Renata's new lover, Ro, is a very recent immigrant, from Afghanistan; his clothing is an odd mixture of his old world's elegance and a recent discount store purchase. He holds himself differently from the other men in the room; Renata thinks in exasperation, "even his headshake is foreign." But this amalgam, for Mukherjee, is America.
As the story opens, Mukherjee details with precision the ways people who are familiar interact: as Renata's father brings over the turkey for dinner, he and his daughter communicate less through language than through expected attitudes and preconceptions. When her father tells Renata that her mother thawed the turkey, saying "You wouldn't have room in your Frigidaire," Renata interprets the statement otherwise: "You mean Mom said [I] shouldn't be living in a dump, right?" When her father explains why he brought the turkey over instead of letting Renata pick it up, again Renata interprets: "I know what he's saying. He saying he's retired and he should be able to stay in bed till noon if he wants to, but he can't…." This running commentary of what is being meant, counterpoised against what is being said, is inescapable in the first several pages. Renata explains, "Let's talk about me means: What do you think of Mom? I'll take over the turkey means: When will Rindy settle down?" Yet against these "comfortingly rigid" expectations of family are Renata's memories in the story's first paragraph of Vic, the lover who had been with her through last Thanksgiving. Vic had made cranberry sauce, "which Dad had interpreted as a sign of permanence in my life…. Dad cannot imagine cooking as self-expression…. Vic's sauce was a sign of his permanent isolation, if you really want to know." Renata's father is limited to the only interpretations he can think of; these were not appropriate in Vic's case, so his readings were misreadings. Even Renata, close as she was to Vic, misread him: "I should have listened," she thinks. "I mean really listened. I thought he was talking about us, but I know now he was only talking incessantly about himself. I put too much faith in mail-order nightgowns and bras." Putting such responsibility on oneself for failing to "really listen" leaves aside the possibility that deception is occurring—as it does when Renata evades her father's question when he asks if her mother has mentioned that he's acting funny. "'No, Dad, she hasn't said anything about you acting funny.' What she has said is do we think she ought to call Doc…." To save her father pain, or to avoid a painful subject, Renata has chosen to withhold the truth, an option she doesn't allow Vic. Such inbred patterns of communication, such a desire to see into the heads of others and blaming oneself for any failure to do so may be what drives Vic to leave so abruptly, leaving behind Renata and their ritual of looking through the real estate want ads as if they were different people.
That ritual indicates the desire to break out of the enclosed security of family myths, to shape oneself rather than simply to be shaped. Renata and her sister feel the desire to establish their own identities early on: "Renata and Carla are what we were christened. We changed to Rindy and Cindi in junior high," Renata tells us. The sign that Cindi's husband Brent, son of an Amish farmer in Iowa, "is a rebel" is a similar self-recreation. "He was born Schwartzendruber, but changed his name to Schwartz. Now no one believes Brent, either. They call him Bernie on the street and it makes everyone more comfortable." The touch of comfort, however, Mukherjee suggests, is not what such recreation should be about. Brent is no longer plausible in his original guise; in addition to changing his name, he sports "the obvious hairpiece and a gold chain." There has been no amalgamation of his Amish upbringing and the Italian family he has married into; he has simply been absorbed.
Into this tightly-knit, almost claustrophobic community, steps Ro, Renata's lover from Kabul—now for something completely different. And Ro is a new kind of different. Where Brent has been absorbed, Vic had offered a kind of difference to Renata—"he talked of feminism and holism and macrobiotics. Then he opened up on cinema and literature, and I was very impressed, as who wouldn't be?" But Vic's identity is only the flip side of Brent's; he identifies himself through separation. He talks only of himself, he is caught in the exile's self-constructed world that cherishes its opposition to the culture being resisted: "He was macrobiotic in lots of things, including relationships. Yin and yang, hot and sour." Vic offers opposition rather than revision.
Ro's presence in Renata's life offers differences that enrich: "I can tell one Afghan tribe from another now, even by looking at them or by their names. I can make out some Pashto words," Renata tells us. A name no longer signals individuality, but community. When Ro tells Renata about a cousin named Abdul, she thinks that all his cousins "are named Abdul something. When I think of Abdul, I think of a giant black man … running down a court." Her stereotyped identification of the name with a basketball star has begun to change; and despite the multiplicity of Abduls, she knows about this Abdul's difficulty with immigration papers. The name is not what matters, but the connection. When Ro introduces himself by his full name, Roashan, to Renata's parents, her father is stumped: "'Come again?' he says, baffled. I cringe as [Ro] spells his name. My parents are so parochial. With each letter he does a graceful dip and bow. "Try it syllable by syllable, sir. Then it is not so hard." Again Ro is broadening the horizons of the established, or "housed" figure; but equally important is Mr. DeMarco's willingness to try to grasp the difference. Both parties here are trying, and that effort gets them beyond Renata's mother's first reaction—which is to scream for the police when Ro enters unannounced.
Mukherjee seems to suggest that marriage can be the best way to enrich one's culture, wedding one as it does to another world; such marriages have created the multifaceted variety of Renata's family, augmenting its cultural myths through literal intermarriage with other exotics. Renata's father's "one big adventure" was marrying her mother, a "Calabrian peasant"; this marriage has the nineteenth-century touch Mukherjee acknowledges in her writing—"He married down, she married well. That's the family story"—a Cinderella story. Brent, although more assimilated than offering alternatives, also brings his daughter Franny into the family; Carla must deal with the next generation's mixed response to the family. And that marriage opens the way to greater tolerance: Renata thinks about her father's reaction to Ro's religious prohibitions against drinking, "Carla didn't marry a Catholic, so he has no right to be upset about Ro, about us." Diversity also brings an odd kind of harmony; although Brent's efforts to assimilate the stranger among them as "Roy" and engage him in talk of sports fail—since, as Ro points out, "I have not familiarized myself with these practices"—Franny is intrigued by him as she is by no one else. Her interest is so great she takes off her headphones and even chooses to sit beside him at dinner.
Mukherjee gives us, in this story, the collision of compressed lives. Each of us lives in a community, a culture, a background we have built up out of ethnic, religious, regional, or other affiliations. We carry with us prejudices, connections, defenses, that are idiosyncratic and impenetrable to all except those closest to us. Yet Mukherjee insists that when such multiple worlds meet, the result can be a glorious freeing of the leaves of the kaleidoscope, that complexly intermix and produce a new pattern. Renata believes she is the "middleman" in a collision between two mutually incomprehensible worlds. When Ro says this is his first thanksgiving, Renata explains he's from Afghanistan. "But Dad gets continents wrong. He says, 'We saw your famine camps on TV.'" Ethiopia, Afghanistan, it's all foreign to him. Renata wants to tell her family about Ro's background, wants to unpack who he is: "I want to tell Brent that Ro's skied in St. Moritz…. He's sophisticated, he could make monkeys out of us all, but they think he's a retard." However, he is not totally incomprehensible to her family. At other times Renata wants to buffer the true understanding. When Ro says New York flowers have no smell, Renata intervenes: "His father had a garden estate outside Kabul." I don't want Mom to think he's putting down American flowers, though in fact he is. Along with American fruits, meats, and vegetables." A middleman is only necessary between opposed camps; Mukherjee describes her earlier work as a bridge. She has gotten past the detached judgment; now she always sees the pageant as ongoing. The confusions, understandings and miscomprehensions between Ro and the DeMarcos echo the earlier misreadings of Vic; the difference is that understanding Vic offered nothing new to the world. Ro is already changing this family through the discomfort he gives Mr. DeMarco in having to learn of his religious prohibitions, in the interest he affords Franny, and most centrally in the opportunity to grow that he offers Renata. Deeper understandings are possible through the effort to assimilate someone who seems different.
This increased understanding operates on both the characters' and the readers' levels. Renata sees some of her true feelings; more significantly, however, her interventions allow the reader to see into both Ro's and Renata's worlds in a way that the characters cannot. Renata clearly understands her father's discomfort with Ro's prohibition against drinking alcohol: "In my father's world, grown men bowl in leagues and drink the best whiskey they can afford"; faced with a conflicting world view, he whistles a Frank Sinatra song—"He must be under stress. That's his usual self-therapy." She has less insight into a similar conflict between her expectations and Ro's odd desire to watch her get picked up by men who think she is by herself at a bar: "Ro likes to swagger out of a dark booth as soon as someone buys me a drink, I go along. He comes from a macho culture." Renata thinks she is compromising, because she understands his need to see how she is valued by her culture. Yet her thoughts on this topic reveal that she shares the same attitudes: "In a few more months he'll know I'm something of a catch in my culture…. Even Brent Schwartzendruber has begged me to see him alone." Renata, too, values her physical attractions as a sign of her being a "good catch." And just as Ro likes to see her attractiveness through other men's eyes, Renata realizes she will marry Ro if he asks only after she kisses him in front of her parents, a kiss she makes deliberately sexy so they will know the two are lovers. Although one may argue with these attitudes that might seem to stereotype Italian and Afghanistan cultures—the one values women for physical voluptuousness and the other is a "macho" culture of pain—Mukherjee's point maintains that even widely different cultures value social decisions.
To become truly free, in Mukherjee's worlds, is not to escape from other people: Renata pictures Vic in a new kitchen making his sauce and explaining his philosophies. We are all caught in a dense and inescapable tissue of human connections. All we can do is choose whether that fabric will be all of a piece or shot through with brilliant strands from other cultures, unevenly woven by changing circumstance and growth. Renata's freedom is not an alternative to her family; it is a part of her. Instead, freedom leads to enriched ways of viewing, a broader sense of connection to the world, and greater flexibility of actions.
Mukherjee has encountered some resistance, particularly from what she sees as the "imperialism" of western feminism that requires women to act in their own self-interest rather than being willing to please others. This attribute in some of her female characters—what I would call an internalization of attitudes that value women as somehow less complete or accessory human beings, rather than people in their own rights—is a trait that has disturbed me in some of her work. Yet to resolve this seeming difficulty, one need only look at Mukherjee's willingness to let her characters—and readers—learn from their experiences. She is not forcing her characters to enact a didactic or stereotypically oppressed position. The growth in her characters illustrates that rejecting dogma from whatever direction allows one to develop in accordance with one's own set of values, and this would accord with my understanding of a feminist agenda—that a woman be free to work out her own choices in life in accordance with her own priorities. In other words, although at a given moment a character may seem to acquiesce in a restrictive assumption, Mukherjee's unwillingness to allow any one position the final word allows such restrictions to crash and break up against each other like ice floes in a thawing river.
This fluid approach to the world is also what marks Mukherjee as different from the stereotype of contemporary conventional American literature, novels and tales about domestic crisis and angst in white, middle-class suburbia. To write about that world, one must have faith in its stability, and that faith is denied those who have gone through great change in their lives. Mukherjee is such a one; she accepts the contrast between her privileged childhood and her frequently impoverished adult life. This, and the breadth of her background, gives her a broader perspective, less of a reliance on a given approach as right or best or even constant, than more mainstream American writers. For Mukherjee, "a social and political vision is an integral part of writing a novel…. Whereas for contemporary American writers, fictions exist only in a vacuum of personal relationships." Comparing Mukherjee to John Updike, Adam Hochschild notes how much more ambitious Mukherjee is in the range of her subjects. Polly Shulman points out that Mukherjee's message may be that "everyone is living in a new world, even those who never left home."
This global awareness adds richness: Celia McGee writes that the depth of the stories in Middleman "comes from the sudden interference of history and tragedy, and the exigencies of politics and war"; certainly such an intersection is what gives "Orbiting" its powerful core. From the concern Renata's family—and Renata—feels about Ro's name, clothing, speech, or looks, the story suddenly plunges into the particular history of the man—a history that includes torture, jail, and escape, a history that forces the DeMarco family to reexamine its own rituals at the same time that it alleviates any fear we may have that Ro will be assimilated as Brent has been.
At story's end, Renata elides Ro with America in her mind: "Ro is Clint Eastwood, scarred hero and survivor," But the story allows us to see the limits of Renata's facile equation of a man's personal history with a celluloid Hollywood survivor: Ro becomes America in a far more tangible way, as he makes the DeMarcos see through the cellophane to the content of America's shared heritage. Mukherjee believes in reincarnation in the sense that we remake our lives as we kill our old ones; Ro has left behind his "culture of pain"; he is embarrassed to speak of it because he does not treasure the scars of difference. He has come to America, to a land that celebrates Thanksgiving, but he will not lose his core as he integrates himself into his new land; instead, he will invest its rituals with new meaning; he brings a new dimension to the family meal. As Ro talks about his torture, even Franny takes off her earphones and listens. The communal gathering hears graphic stories of "electrodes, canes, freezing tanks. He leaves nothing out." As the family looks sick, Renata thinks, "The meaning of Thanksgiving should not be so explicit." But why not? Eleanor Wachtel writes that for Mukherjee the conflict of societies "is not simply a culture gap; the immigrant changes the way Americans see themselves." Ro's incorporation changes the DeMarcos, as he revitalizes what had become simply a ritual of food.
I presented a version of this essay in November, 1992—on the day George Bush or Bill Clinton was to be elected president and close to Thanksgiving; the timing brought to mind another aspect of America. During a discussion of politics, a friend said to me, "It's an amazing American spectacle, whoever wins: 250 million people choosing their president, and the decision will be accepted by all, whatever it is." That is something to give thanks for; and it is through our knowledge of other cultures in which that freedom, that responsibility to vote is not exerciseable or is not respected, that we can better see what it means to be American. We are all part of the multicultured fabric Mukherjee celebrates; we ignore the inextricable, many-colored threads of our plurality at our own cost.
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