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Critical Essay by Arvindra Sant-Wade and Karen Marguerite Radell
SOURCE: "Refashioning the Self: Immigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee's New World," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 11-17.
In the following essay, Sant-Wade and Radell discuss the ways in which immigrant characters adapt to American culture in Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories
The female protagonist in one of Bharati Mukherjee's prize-winning short stories, from the collection titled The Middleman and Other Stories, is shocked when her landlord lover refers to the two of them as "two wounded people," and thinks to herself that "She knows she is strange, and lonely, but being Indian is not the same, she would have thought, as being a freak." The Indian woman, Maya Sanyal, who is the central figure of the story, "The Tenant," recognizes her strangeness in America and her appalling loneliness, but she resists being recognized as a "freak." No doubt this term occurs to her when her current lover, Fred, a man without arms, refers to them both as wounded. She does not see herself as being as freakish as Fred, as bereft as Fred, though certainly the story makes clear that she has been wounded emotionally and spiritually by the struggle to come to terms with her new life in America. In one sense, Fred's assessment is accurate, for as the author indicates in all the stories in this collection, it is impossible to adapt to life in the New World without sustaining some kind of wound to one's spirit.
It is apparently a deeper wound for the women of the Third World, who are engaged in the struggle to fashion a new identity for themselves in an alien culture. Perhaps this struggle results from their sudden freedom from the bonds of superstition and chauvinism that held them fast in their old, familiar cultures, freedom that seems to leave them floating, unbalanced, in the complex, sometimes treacherous air of this new and unfamiliar culture. The irony is that this refashioning of the self is both painful and exhilarating; hence, the terrible ambivalence of the women toward their own freedom—the freedom to become—an ambivalence expressed by these women in the midst of arduous change, in the powerful act of rejecting the past and moving energetically toward an unknown future.
In a Massachusetts Review interview, Mukherjee asserts that
we immigrants have fascinating tales to relate. Many of us have lived in newly independent or emerging countries which are plagued by civil and religious conflicts. We have experienced rapid changes in the history of the nations in which we lived. When we uproot ourselves from those countries and come here, either by choice or out of necessity, we suddenly must absorb 200 years of American history and learn to adapt to American society. Our lives are remarkable, often heroic.
Mukherjee goes on to say that she attempts to illustrate this remarkable, often heroic quality in her novels and short stories. Her characters, she asserts, "are filled with a hustlerish kind of energy" and, more importantly,
they take risks they wouldn't have taken in their old, comfortable worlds to solve their problems. As they change citizenship, they are reborn.
Mukherjee's choice of metaphor is especially apt with reference to the women in her fiction, for the act of rebirth, like birth itself, is both painful, and, after a certain point, inevitable. It is both terrible and wonderful, and an act or process impossible to judge while one is in the midst of it. So the women in Mukherjee's stories are seen deep in this process of being reborn, of refashioning themselves, so deep that they can neither extricate themselves nor reverse the process, nor, once it has begun, would they wish to. There is a part of themselves, however, that is able to stand back a little and observe their own reaction to the process, their own ambivalence. We know this because Mukherjee weaves contradiction into the very fabric of the stories: positive assertions in interior monologues are undermined by negative visual images; the liberation of change is undermined by confusion or loss of identity; beauty is undermined by sadness.
A close look at three stories from The Middleman and Other Stories, each with a female protagonist from the Third World, illustrates the author's technique and her success in conveying this theme of rebirth or refashioning of the self by immigrant women. The stories are "The Tenant," "Jasmine," and "A Wife's Story," and in each of them, we encounter a different woman at a different stage in the subtle, complex, and traumatic process of becoming a new woman, one who is at home in the sometimes terrifying freedom of the new American culture. In each story, the exhilarating sense of possibility clashes with the debilitating sense of loss, yet the exuberant determination of the women attracts us to them and denies the power of pity.
Perhaps this attraction without pity derives from the women's avoidance of self-pity. In "The Tenant," we first meet the protagonist, Maya, sitting over a glass of bourbon (the first one of her life) with a new colleague from her new job in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa. The American colleague, Fran, is on the Hiring, Tenure, and Reappointment Committee, and is partly responsible for bringing Maya to the school. While Fran chats about her own life and gossips a little about Maya's landlord, Maya contemplates the immensity of her isolation and loneliness. And although she longs to be able to confide in someone, Fran even, she realizes that Fran is unable to receive these confidences because Fran cannot see that Maya is a woman caught in the mingled web of two very different cultures. To Fran, "a utopian and feminist," Maya is a bold adventurer who has made a clean break with her Indian past, but Maya understands, as the reader does, that there is no such thing as a "clean" break.
When Maya is invited to Sunday afternoon tea by another Bengali, Dr. Rabindra Chatterji, a professor of physics at her new university, she accepts with somewhat mixed feelings but dresses carefully in one of her best and loveliest saris. Once inside the Chatterji's house, in a raw suburban development that seems full of other Third World nationalities, Maya allows the familiar sights and smells of Indian high tea to take her back to that other world of "Brahminness":
The coffee table is already laid with platters of mutton croquettes, fish chops, onion pakoras, ghugni with puris, samosas, chutneys. Mrs. Chatterji has gone to too much trouble. Maya counts four kinds of sweetmeats in Corning casseroles on an end table. She looks into a see-through lid; spongy, white dumplings float in rosewater syrup. Planets contained, mysteries made visible.
Maya's hostess begins to ask questions about Maya's distinguished family in Calcutta, and Maya thinks to herself that "nothing in Calcutta is ever lost." She worries that the husband and wife may retreat to the kitchen, leaving her alone, so that they may exchange "whispered conferences about their guest's misadventures in America." Apparently the story of her "indiscretions" with various men, her marriage and divorce to an American, is known to the entire Bengali community in North America, which may be one of the reasons Dr. Chatterji both speaks and acts suggestively (he has one hand in his jockey shorts) when he drives her home that evening. Maya has been marked as a "loose" woman and as a divorcée, and therefore cannot ever hope to remarry respectably in the Indian (at least not the Brahmin) community: she is both in it and out of it, forever.
She occupies the same ambiguous position in the American community; although she has become an American citizen, she does not fully belong there either. She longs for a real sense of belonging, for the true companionship and love she dares to want, and eventually brings herself to answer an ad in the matrimonial column of India Abroad, the newspaper for expatriates. She answers the ad that declares:
Hello! Hi! Yes, you are the one I'm looking for. You are the new emancipated Indo-American woman. You have a zest for life. You are at ease in USA and yet your ethics are rooted in Indian tradition…. I adore idealism, poetry, beauty. I abhor smugness, passivity, caste system. Write with recent photo. Better still, call!!!
Maya does call the man who placed the ad, Ashoke Mehta, and arranges a meeting at Chicago's O'Hare airport, "a neutral zone" they both prefer for this emotionally risky encounter. Until she meets Mehta, another immigrant who lives a life that bridges two worlds, she feels she lives in a "dead space" that she cannot articulate properly, even to herself. At the end of the story, after their courtship has entered its final phase, and she has decided to go to Connecticut to be with him, we know she will finally be able to repudiate her own accusations that her life is grim and perverse, that "she has changed her citizenship, but she hasn't broken through into the light, the vigor, the bustle of the New World." At the end, she does bustle off to meet the man who will make her whole again (and whom she will make whole) in this new life.
The next story, "Jasmine," also explores some of the more appalling, perhaps even "violent and grotesque aspects of [the] cultural collisions" Mukherjee writes about. In this story, the protagonist is a young Trinidadian woman named Jasmine who has been smuggled illegally into the US, all paid for by her father ("Girl, is opportunity come only once"), and goes to work first in the motel of the Indian family who helped her get there, and later as a "mother's helper … Americans were good with words to cover their shame" for an American family. When her new American employers ask about her family and her home, Jasmine recognizes the need to deceive them:
There was nothing to tell about her hometown that wouldn't shame her in front of nice white American folk like the Moffitts. The place was shabby, the people were grasping and cheating and lying and life was full of despair and drink and wanting. But by the time she finished, the island sounded romantic.
Jasmine must construct a suitable, tolerable narrative of her past and her roots, in the same way that she is attempting to construct a positive narrative of her life in the New World. She seems precariously balanced between what she once was and what she hopes to become. She is like other Mukherjee characters, who
remind one of circus performers, a combination of tightrope walkers and trapeze artists, as they search for secure, even familiar, places they can claim as their home…. They try to transcend the isolation of being a foreigner not only in another country but also in their own cultures.
Jasmine tries hard to cut all ties with "anything too islandy" as she struggles to refashion herself in America. Though she cleans, cooks, and irons for the Moffitts, she never stops giving thanks for having found such "a small, clean, friendly family … to build her new life around." She is constantly thanking Jesus for her good luck. The irony is that through all the exuberance and energy we see how terribly she is exploited by the Moffitts, and how unaware she often is of this exploitation, though it is not something she could recognize, even if it were pointed out.
At Christmas time. Jasmine is taken by Bill Moffitt to see her only "relatives" in the country, the Daboos, the Indian family she had originally worked for. In her original interview, she had told Bill and Lara Moffitt that Mr. Daboo was her mother's first cousin because
she had thought it shameful in those days to have no papers, no family, no roots. Now Loretta and Viola in tight, bright pants seemed trashy like girls at Two-Johnny Bissoondath's Bar back home. She was stuck with the story of the Daboos being family. Village bumpkins, ha! She would break out. Soon.
We never do get to see Jasmine "break out," but the sense that she is a survivor emanates from the story even when she weeps with homesickness on Christmas Day. However, Mukherjee undercuts Jasmine's enthralled sense of unlimited possibility with a poignant moment of epiphany at the end of the story. In the last scene, she is half-willingly seduced by Bill Moffitt:
She felt so good she was dizzy. She'd never felt this good on the island where men did this all the time, and girls went along with it always for favors. You couldn't feel really good in a nothing place…. She was a bright, pretty girl with no visa, no papers, and no birth certificate. No, nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell. She was a girl rushing wildly into the future … it [the love-making] felt so good, so right that she forgot all the dreariness of her new life and gave herself up to it.
In "A Wife's Story," another immigrant woman has had her share of dreariness, loneliness, confusion, and anger in the effort to reshape her life in the land of opportunity. She too is weighed down by the burdens of two cultures and the hardship of trying to balance parts of her old life with the best of the new. The wife is a woman who has left her husband temporarily to pursue a graduate degree in New York, to break the cycle begun hundreds of years before. The narration is first person this time:
Memories of Indian destitutes mix with the hordes of New York street people, and they float free, like astronauts, inside my head. I've made it. I'm making something of my life. I've left home, my husband, to get a Ph.D. in special ed. I have a multiple-entry visa and a small scholarship for two years. After that, we'll see. My mother was beaten by her mother-in-law, my grandmother, when she registered for French lessons at the Alliance Française. My grandmother, the eldest daughter of a rich zamindar, was illiterate.
This woman has even gone so far as to befriend another lonely immigrant, a Hungarian named Imre, who also has a spouse and family back home in the old country. Their friendship, so necessary to her survival in New York, would be unthinkable in her own country; in India, married women are not friends with men married to someone else. But Imre helps her to survive assaults on her dignity and the hopelessness of not truly belonging. He comforts her after a David Mamet play (Glengarry Glen Ross) in which she must endure terrible lines about Indians, such as, "Their women … they look like they've just been fucked by a dead cat." She feels angry enough and strong enough to write a letter of protest to the playwright, or at least to write it in her head.
The Americanized but still Indian wife surprises herself occasionally by literally breaking out in very un-Indian behavior (like the time she impulsively hugs Imre on the street), and when her husband arrives for a visit, she realizes how many of the changes in her own behavior she now takes for granted. She dresses in a beautiful sari and her heavy, ornate wedding jewelery to greet him at JFK Airport, but underneath the familiar costume she is not the same woman at all. She is not even sure whether she is unhappy about it, though she can tell her husband is disconcerted.
The end of the story encapsulates both the strength of her spirited struggle to refashion herself and the difficulty of achieving wholeness when one is stretched between two cultures. On her way to bed with her husband, she stops to look at herself:
In the mirror that hangs on the bathroom door, I watch my naked body turn, the breasts, the thighs glow. The body's beauty amazes. I stand here shameless, in ways he has never seen me. I am free, afloat, watching somebody else.
This sense of floating is the key to the immigrant woman's experience, whether it is the English professor in "The Tenant," the Indian girl from the Caribbean in "Jasmine," or the PhD candidate in "A Wife's Story." Like Bernard Malamud, with whom Mukherjee compares herself in The Massachusetts Review interview, and other American writers of immigrant experiences, Mukherjee writes powerfully "about a minority community which escapes the ghetto and adapts itself to the patterns of the dominant American culture," and in her own words, her work "seems to find quite naturally a moral center." This moral center she speaks of comes quite naturally to her because she is attempting the nearly sacred task of making mysteries visible, to paraphrase an expression from "The Tenant."
This section contains 2,792 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)