Jasmine | Critical Essay by Kristin Carter-Sanborn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of Jasmine.
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Critical Essay by Kristin Carter-Sanborn

SOURCE: "'We Murder Who We Were': Jasmine and the Violence of Identity," in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 573-93.

In the following essay, Carter-Sanborn discusses the place of identity and violence in Mukherjee's Jasmine.

The narrator of Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine implicitly positions herself early in her own text in terms of narratives already abandoned. At age seven, Jyoti is the star pupil of Masterji, "the oldest and sourest teacher in our school": "I was whiz in Punjabi and Urdu, and the first likely female candidate for English instruction he'd ever had. He had a pile of English books, some from the British Council Library, some with USIS stickers…. The British books were thick, with more long words per page. I remember Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, both of which I was forced to abandon because they were too difficult." By thus locating her novel in the space circumscribed by two classic texts of Victorian education and identity, Mukherjee signals to the reader the generic continuity between her bildungsroman and these earlier narratives. Like Jane's and Pip's stories, Jyoti's is told retrospectively, this time from the point of view of a young woman about to light out for the territory, having already experienced a whirlwind series of transformative events. After witnessing her mentor Masterji's death at the hands of Sikh militants, who will later murder her husband, Jyoti flees her native Punjab, "phantom[s her] way through three continents," and arrives with forged papers on the Gulf Coast of Florida. From there she travels to Queens, Manhattan, and then to a small town in Iowa, metamorphosing on the way into Jasmine, Jazzy, Jase, and Jane. The America she encounters is, in its endemic violence, not unlike the Punjab she left behind. Indeed, the latest influx of immigrants to the United States has transformed it into an "archipelago of ghettos seething with aliens"; or, as one reviewer put it, a "new Third World."

The contemporary complexities of "first" and "third" world relations foregrounded by Jasmine return us to Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, the mention of which must also invoke for us the Victorian imperial project in which their production was situated. Both of these earlier novels are indeed "thick" with the voice of an ostensibly progressive colonial authority addressing issues of gender and class formation. The fact that Jyoti abandons the deciphering of that voice as "too difficult" will signal to us that, as Homi Bhabha suggests, the site of that authority is vexed, compromised, "agonistic."

Although the literary voice of colonial authority hardly gets a hearing in Jyoti's Punjab village, the very dismissal of Bronte's book is coincident with its introduction as a structuring "presence" in Jasmine. I would like to use this framing presence as a starting point for my discussion of the postcolonial concerns of Jasmine, even as I too eventually abandon it in favor of a more general examination of the dynamics of subjectivity in Mukherjee's novel.

Jyoti's rejection of Jane Eyre only begins to suggest the complex relationship between the colonialist subtext of Brontë's novel and the "multicultural" implications of Jasmine's narrative. Jyoti leaves off reading Jane Eyre in Hasnapur only to take the Christian name of that novel's protagonist once she reaches Iowa; her character's development also echoes and revises Jane Eyre's in other ways, as we will see. And just as we must consider whether Jane Eyre, in her search for a new female domestic identity, is implicated in the violent repression of colonial subjectivity as figured by Bertha Mason, we also need to ask whether Jyoti-Jasmine-Jane's "discovery" of an American selfhood covers up a similar complicity in the elision of the "third world" woman Mukherjee's narrator purportedly speaks as and for. More generally, we must question whether Jasmine is implicated in the neo-imperialist demands of the Western reader as they are described by Trinh in the epigraph to this essay—demands for "what we can't have," for an exotic diversion from the "monotony of sameness."

This question is especially critical in light of the novel's mainstream and academic popularity—it was received with acclaim in nearly every major review publication and has been increasingly taught since then in women's studies, ethnic studies, and contemporary American literature courses. I would argue that the novel's appeal can be traced in part to its readers' complicated investment in the racial and cultural otherness of the narrator (and, of course, her author). Beginning with Richard Eder's laudatory notice in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the arrangement and selection of popular reviews on the back of the Fawcett Crest paperback edition foreground a simultaneous interest in both Jasmine's alterity and her suitability for naturalization to an "American" way of life:

ARTFUL AND ARRESTING … BREATHTAKING … A Hindu woman flees her family's poverty, and the Sikh terrorism that bloodies her village…. After a time in New York—only a foreign eye could fix the world of the Upper West Side with such hilarious and revealing estrangement—she moves to a small town in Iowa. In corn and hog country—now prey to farm foreclosures and despair—she marks with unsparing brilliance the symptoms of a new Third World.

Subsequent blurbs reproduce the fascination with the estranged "foreign eye" of Eder's assessment (a fascination less evident, it should be noted, in sections of the review not quoted by the publisher). Helping us (that is, mainstream U.S. readers) to see "ourselves as others see us," the "uncanny third eye of the artist [that] forces us to see our country anew" reveals itself to be the uncanny eye of the third world artist for these reviewers. But at the same time it embodies the mystical insight of the Other, Jasmine's "third eye" represents a way of seeing that is ultimately transformed, in the mini-narrative of the book blurb, from the myopia of a backward "Indian village girl, whose grandmother wants to marry her off at 11," into the enlightened vision of "an American woman who finally thinks for herself." The book's selling power seems, then, to stem from its simultaneous exoticism and domesticability, its existence as a sort of pop multiculturalist prop not much different from the one envisioned by Trinh. This observation is not to suggest that Jasmine has no place on our course reading lists. On the contrary, its difficulties may provide us with more paths than obstacles to understanding the exigencies of representing "third world experience." I offer this critique of the novel in the hope that it may help us and our students reexamine our expectations regarding textual authenticity and ethnicity in the literature classroom.

We might consider these expectations in light of Trinh's assessment of the ends and means of the anthropological "dialogue." Essentially a "conversation of 'us' with 'us' about 'them,'" "the conversation [the anthropologist-nativist] aspires to turns out to be rather intimate: a chatty talk, which, under cover of cross-cultural communication, simply superposes one system of signs over another." Gayatri C. Spivak further complicates this conversational dynamic. Commenting on her own discussion of the suicide of a young Indian woman, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, in Calcutta in 1926 she remarks,

What I was doing with the young woman who had killed herself was really trying to analyze and represent her text. She wasn't particularly trying to speak to me. I was representing her, I was re-inscribing her. To an extent, I was writing her to be read, and I certainly was not claiming to give her a voice. So if I'm read as giving her a voice, there again this is a sort of transaction of the positionality between the Western feminist listener who listens to me, and myself, signified as a Third World informant.

In the context of the "transaction" detailed in Spivak's and Trinh's descriptions, certain questions about Mukherjee's novel arise. Does the text in fact ask to be read as speaking the "subaltern" voice through Jasmine's first-person narrative? Or is such an assumption merely a function of the misguided expectations of what Spivak calls "cardcarrying listeners"?

The expectations of others—readers, listeners, lovers, and entire communities—do in fact provide one of the most important structural matrices on which Jasmine is plotted. When he first glimpses Jasmine, Bud Ripplemeyer tells her, "It felt as if I was a child again, back in the Saturday-afternoon movies. You were glamour, something unattainable" (author's emphasis). By renaming her Jane, her lover has something much more exotic and erotic in mind than the "Plain Jane" the narrator and her Victorian namesake would more readily identify with. "Me Bud, you Jane. I didn't get it at first," she reflects. "He kids. Calamity Jane. Jane as in Jane Russell." Her "genuine foreignness" frightens the relatively staid Midwestern banker, however, and as Jane to his crippled Rochester-Tarzan, the narrator can assuage Bud's fears only by settling into the role of domesticated exotic. Earlier, having abandoned the village of her father for her "city man" husband Prakash Vijh, she even more readily settled into the "small and sweet and heady" role of "Jasmine." Vijh's modern wife and business partner—a "new kind of city woman" whom he can show off to friends. And between Jasmine and Jane, she becomes "Jase," exoticized domestic and au pair to Manhattan professionals Wylie and Taylor Hayes. The narrator's ability to "shuttle … between identities," to accept another's interpolation with little difficulty, is explicated in the text as a symptom of the liminality of the "'third world" subject. The quick-changes she accomplishes reflect Jasmine's self-imposed mandate, expressed early in the novel, to "murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams."

The "images of dreams" … but of whose dreams? This ambiguous phrase, central to our understanding of Mukherjee's project, opens up a number of possible readings, all of which compete for primacy in the text. We might compare Jasmine's "suicides" and "rebirths" to the revolutionary process of decolonization as described by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth: "National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon…. Without any period of transition, there is a total, complete, and absolute substitution."

Jasmine's violent substitution of self, then, could be recognized as a move constituting part of the ethnic nationalist repertoire, a liberatory gesture which achieves "that kind of tabula rasa which characterizes at the outset all decolonization," and which institutes a "new language and a new humanity." In this context the significance of "rebirth … in the images of dreams" is that "it is willed, called for, demanded"—the dream is a conscious hope, an aspiration or goal, an object of rational desire that determines anticipatory behavior. Most important, the dream and the program which follows from it are acts of agency, and in fact grant agency: "[T]he 'thing' which had been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself." Jasmine's agenda could offer a counterdiscourse or model of resistance to those who would name and thus control her. She is a "tornado, a rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud," destroying all in her path as she chooses, including her old selves; her dream is a will to power.

But in the context of Mukherjee's representation of certain Hindu beliefs, the "images of dreams" take on a more spiritual dimension. With those dreams she may mean to invoke some kind of cataclysmic return of the repressed, in which consciousness or agency is subjected to an actor's own intuitive (and uncontrollable) dream-knowledge of who she "essentially" and unconsciously is. This "regression" may seem counter to the notion of rebirth. But the constellation of beliefs surrounding the birth-death cycle that the narrator invokes early in the novel, in addition to Jasmine's own "theoretical" belief in reincarnation and reliance on other traditional Hindu cultural forms, obliges us at least to investigate this particular shading of "dreams."

Reincarnation is figured in Jasmine's narrative as the shattering of fleshly vessels that had given only temporary shape to an essentially ephemeral spirit. Recounting the story of Vimla, a young woman who douses herself with kerosene and sets herself on fire after the death of her husband, Jasmine recalls that "[t]he villagers say when a clay pitcher breaks, you see that the air inside it is the same as outside." Vimla commits sati "because she had broken her pitcher; she saw there were no insides and outsides. We are just shells of the same Absolute. In Hasnapur," she adds, "Vimla's isn't a sad story." In fact, it is a triumphant one, guaranteeing for her as it does liberation from the cycle of transmigration and a return to an originary "Absolute." Anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer has tried to articulate the "absoluteness" of ethnicity itself in language strikingly similar to that of the villagers, reading the "epiphanic" moments of ethnic autobiography as "revelations of traditions, re-collections of disseminated identities and of the divine sparks from the breaking of the vessels." Here an ethnic absolute or essence functions (quite problematically, I believe) like a neurosis "that manifests itself through repetition of behavioral patterns and that cannot be articulated in rational language but can only be acted out," fearfully and anxiously, through the mechanism of transference or "the return of the repressed in new forms." This inarticulate "acting out" of ethno-spiritual essence seems to have affinities with both Vimla's act of self-violence and Jasmine's generalization about the compulsive and metaphorically murderous process of "shuttl[ing] between identities."

At various points the novel asks to be read according to one of these glosses. It seems to me, however, that the first—decolonizing, ethnic nationalist—insufficientlyexplains what is going on in the text as a whole; the second—reincarnation—may in fact disguise the imperial subject dreaming of and violently remaking its "third world" Others to fit those dreams. In other words, it may disguise the dynamic of what Edward Said calls "Orientalism" (one form of which is manifested in Trinh's "conversation of 'us' with 'us' about 'them'"): "Orientalism is the discipline by which the Orient was (and is) approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery, and practice. But in addition I have been using the word to designate that collection of dreams, images, and vocabularies available to anyone who has tried to talk about what lies east of the dividing line. These two aspects of Orientalism are not incongruent, since by use of them both Europe could advance securely and unmetaphorically upon the Orient." Bud, Taylor, and even her first husband Prakash, whom Jasmine characterizes as a type of Professor Higgins, call upon these vocabularies in order to speak the narrator's name and thus remake her in the shape of their own fantasies. And, as we will see, these fantasies are sometimes very unmetaphorically acted out on Jasmine's body. When Jasmine reflects that "there are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself," then, she may actually be invoking a process in which change is predicated on pain wrought from without. Although one might expect Mukherjee to demonstrate some ironic distance on this construction of the transformative process, the author's own emphatic "yes," when asked by interviewers if she indeed saw violence as necessary to the metamorphosis of character reveals this not to be the case: "And I can see that in my own case it's been psychic violence. In my character Jasmine's case it's been physical violence because she's from a poor fanning family." This response (the theoretical implications of which I will take up later) further confounds our efforts to locate agency in Jasmine's model of self-transformation.

To move closer to an understanding of this model. I would like to explore the ways in which Mukherjee has herself addressed key questions of agency and subjectivity in other essays, where those seem to be topics of some concern. In an early autobiographical collaboration with her husband Clark Blaise, Mukherjee has described herself as "a late-blooming colonial who writes in a borrowed language (English), lives permanently in an alien country [Canada at the time], and publishes in and is read, when read at all, in another alien country, the United States. My Indianness is fragile; it has to be professed and fought for, even though I look so unmistakably Indian. Language transforms our ways of apprehending the world; I fear that my decades-long use of English as a first language has cut me off from my desh." Here the author describes a consciousness that is characterized mainly by its liminality and sense of exile in a field where borders of identity are repositioned and fixed by language itself. In later work, however, Mukherjee seems to abandon the idea that in her current milieu she is somehow exiled or cut off from her "Indianness." Writing now as a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, she exhorts her fellow immigrant writers to "cash … in on the other legacy of the colonial writer, and that is his or her duality. From childhood, we learned how to be two things simultaneously; to be the dispossessed as well as the dispossessor…. History forced us to see ourselves as both the 'we' and the 'other.'"

Such a split subjectivity, Mukherjee asserts, can and must be brought to bear on the literary production of minority and immigrant writers. The "fluid set of identities" thus made available to the artist can broaden her range of materials and the perspectives that she may represent in her fiction. Her training as a "third-world" subject gives the artist the ability "to 'enter' lives, fictionally, that are manifestly not [her] own … over and across the country, and up and down the social ladder," without sacrificing authenticity. In interviews, Mukherjee has schematized this fluidity in terms of psychological transformation, self-reinvention, or, as in Jasmine, murder and rebirth—a "shuttling" and shuffling of selves. Such reinvention, as I noted before, is always violent and, it seems, imperative in the context of emigration, particularly for women. The Asian man, Mukherjee argues, "comes for economic transformation, and he brings a wife who winds up being psychologically changed…. The men have a sense of accomplishment. They have no idea of staying here. The idea is saving money and going. But they don't realize the women have been transformed." Here the man transforms, the woman is transformed, and as positive as her transformation might be, it results from the opposition of violence to agency, of active force to passive object. The male postcolonial nurtures his American dream; with that dream he wields the power that will violently "rebirth" the wife.

On a purely theoretical level, Mukherjee's idea of the gendered colonial "ethnic" subject has easily recognizable affinities with the critique of colonial discourse elaborated in the work of Fanon and, more recently, of Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, although I would argue that the theoretical positions of the latter two ultimately undermine Mukherjee's argument. Obvious parallels can be found between Mukherjee's manipulation of the concept of cultural dualism or "simultaneity" and Bhabha's more labored articulation of the "hybridization" enacted at the site of native oppression. For Bhabha, hybridity represents "that ambivalent 'turn' of the discriminated subject into the terrifying, exorbitant object of paranoid classification—a disturbing questioning of the images and presences of authority." The ambivalence thus revealed "turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention": the discriminated subject, incompletely contained by the power and paranoid knowledge invested in its constitution, participates in, confronts, and unsettles that very power.

Jasmine does take as one of its main subjects the authoritative "ambivalence" or uncertain promise of U.S. cultural space, itself described by the narrator as a "third world" or postcolonial field barely distinguishable, in its tortured and violent landscape, from Mexico, from Haiti, or from Jasmine's own Punjab. The lost promise of this place is at once a disappointment, a force of oppression, and a field of opportunity for the immigrant. "In America," the narrator muses, "[N]othing lasts. I can say that now and it doesn't shock me, but I think it was the hardest lesson of all for me to learn. We arrive so eager to learn, to adjust, to participate, only to find the monuments are plastic, agreements are annulled. Nothing is forever, nothing is so terrible, or so wonderful, that it won't disintegrate" (my emphasis). The author would have her immigrant characters negotiate this hard lesson using the resources of "simultaneity" they have already learned at home; ideally, Mukherjee's protagonists would be able to tap into what Gloria Anzaldúa has called the "mestiza consciousness." a "tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity" like that demonstrated by Jane's adopted son Du, a young refugee who has established a "delicate thread of … hyphenization." The balance he has struck prevents his identity as a Vietnamese from being effaced by the dominant culture.

But in fact, for Gayatri Spivak the duality of which Mukherjee speaks is evidence of the colonial project's success in effacing the female subaltern subject. In the argument over the status of sati, or widow immolation, in modern Indian culture, an exchange emblematic of the collusion between elite nativist and colonial interests, "the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the 'third-world woman' caught between tradition and modernization." Rather than speaking as both the woman-in-patriarchy and the woman-in-imperialism, Spivak asserts, she can speak as neither, precisely because she is constituted as both, and therefore subject to a "violent shuttling" that enacts a steady erasure of being, rather than a series of progressively triumphant rebirths.

I would argue, then, that Mukherjee's theorization of the gendered postcolonial self most closely follows the colonialist fantasy itself, described here by Fanon: "[l]t is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other. The black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the white man…. That this self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation is beyond question…. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle." Implicit in Fanon's description is the assumption that the settler's fantasy (elsewhere outlined by Said) has in fact determined reality, enacting a "Manichean" world of "them or us." But this Manichean logic ultimately "leaves the native unshaken," for as we have already seen, he "has practically stated the problem of his liberation in identical terms…. For the native, [the violence of the settlers] represents the absolute line of [liberationist] action." The "simultaneity" which Mukherjee celebrates in essays and interviews is proposed but ultimately dismantled in her novelistic work: fluidity in Jasmine is theorized not as hybridity but as a perpetual gesture toward absolute otherness. The trajectory of Jasmine's meteoric transformation traces that of Fanon's theory of change in form only, which is to say that it ends up tracing a fairly traditional colonial itinerary, not without important consequences for the postcolonial "ethnic" gendered subject.

To act, for Jasmine, is to become entirely other. In an interesting inversion of the colonial project sketched by Bhabha, Jasmine can authoritatively impute the idea of "multiplicity" to her own character only retrospectively (again we are reminded of Jane Eyre's own retrospective identity-building), from the perspective of a woman with an all-seeing "third eye." She can look back and reflexively assert her difference from herself as the narrator of the text: "Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine. Duffs day mummy and Taylor and Wylie's au pair in Manhattan; that Jasmine isn't this Jane Ripplemeyer having lunch with Mary Webb at the University Club today. And which of us is the undetected murderer of a half-faced monster, which of us has held a dying husband, which of us was raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms?" (author's emphasis). In cataloging her selves Jasmine is able to conjoin them in the overarching "multiple" consciousness of the narrative. But in the very construction of that consciousness there is no "simultaneity" or even continuity to be found. The narrator is not the widow and the au pair; the Iowa wife and the undetected murderer. The continuity between one of these states and any other is either obscured or destroyed, her implicit argument goes, by the violence of the transformative moment. She abandons agency in this moment to her theoretical Other, and it is this Other who determines and delivers her into new forms. Far from maintaining a "critical difference from [her]self," an ambivalent and non-unified, hybrid subjectivity, Jasmine's self-making insists on fixing "the differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences." Having rejected the demands of a patriarchal nativism which (in the person of her father and the Sikh terrorist group, the Khalsa Lions) violently seeks to limit her cultural mobility, she turns to America and picks up the colonial "text" we thought she had set aside for good. Her flirtation with "multiplicity" ironically resolves itself into a domestic and domesticated fantasy, a classic American dream of assimilation. Disguised as a call for a revolution in our very understanding of the processes of identity in contemporary America, the narrative's lessons reveal a desire to invest American identity itself with presence and authority. Thus the novel may more than anything demonstrate the very impossibility of an integrated subjecthood in the framework of Western notions of independence and individual accomplishment.

At the time of its publication, Mukherjee said of Jasmine, "[I]t's not a realistic novel. It's meant to be a fable." The imaginative license Mukherjee thus allows herself enables her to elaborate a plot in which questions of gender, racial, and cultural identity are skirted through recourse to cultural icons and stereotypes (both Indian and American) and a broad indulgence in fictional extremes. In her novel, as in the Victorian dream of the "Orient" described by Said, the Punjab and even the U.S. itself become places "of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." In this charmed landscape, selfhood and identity are mystified. Many of these mystifications are quite powerful, and indeed might be said to participate in the cultural work of myth-building. I will not attempt to argue against the liberating potential of mythification in general terms; however, I do believe that the specific instances of exoticism in Jasmine serve to reify subaltern identity rather than to liberate it.

This reification is accomplished in the context of a particular notion of rebirth or transformation that is, as we have seen, metaphorically if not literally violent. The ways in which Jasmine moves between the metaphorical violence of identity transformation, the notion of representation itself as violence, and the fact of empirical violence raise a number of theoretical and methodological difficulties. If we indulge too fully the Derridean play between the "violence of the letter" and violence in the social field, or if we define as violent the very forces of psychic transformation, we obviously run the risk of derogating material violence—the physical violation of living bodies—and any political motivation one might have for wanting to represent it textually. This happens when Mukherjee herself starts making comparisons, with little apparent irony, between the "psychic violence" she experienced as the daughter of a wealthy factory owner growing up in Calcutta and the actual physical violence someone like Jasmine might face: "I had to personally experience a great deal of labor violence and unrest. There were many times when I went to school with what we used to call 'flying squads.' Military policemen in vans in front, special policemen in vans in back, our car, with chauffeur and bodyguard in between so we could, the three sisters, take part as pretty maidens in … Gilbert and Sullivan light operas." While certainly the fear and psychic trauma associated with the threat of violence must have had very real effects on the young Mukherjee, there is obviously an incommensurable difference between the anxiety felt by a girl cradled in a "flying squad" and the kind of bodily oppression "labor" was experiencing at the same time, a difference Mukherjee only partially acknowledges.

As Spivak has noted, "The narrow epistemic violence of imperialism gives us an imperfect allegory of the general violence that is the possibility of an episteme." Imperfect but not arbitrary—it is imperative that we understand violence in its discursive articulation if we are to detail the real effects of material violence beyond the physical. These effects might include a community's or individual's self-description as circumscribed, limited, and defined in daily life by violence, for instance, which may in turn result in nonviolent interventionary practice in the realm of legal or social discourse. In any case, I am aware of the many difficulties involved in any negotiation of "literal" and "metaphoric" social practice. I will try to acknowledge carefully those difficulties as I explore the ways in which Mukherjee's text does in fact "allegorize" psychological violence and the representation of male and female empirical violence, as each extends, comments on, ironizes, and complicates the other.

In Jasmine, "textual" or metaphoric violence is generalized from the postcolonial experience to the immigrant and "minority" experience in the United States. More significantly, Mukherjee makes it contiguous with the very constitution of American identity, broadly construed to include dominant as well as "ethnic" cultural forms. As Edward Said has acknowledged, there is nothing "especially controversial or reprehensible" about the fact that "cultures impose corrections upon raw reality," including encounters with other cultures, in order to make sense of them; but the way those "corrections" are imposed can obviously have serious implications and consequences. Mukherjee's move to represent mainstream American culture in terms of "third world" identity must stand in problematic relation to a feminist or "third world" politics of difference. This becomes apparent when we examine the ways in which Jasmine adapts traditional Hindu doctrine, which argues for the contiguity of the human soul with an eternal atman, and which has historically been used to maintain a rigid caste system. Jasmine attempts to transplant this hierarchical doctrine onto the modern American idiom of class mobility and individual opportunity. It is as if she travels to America in order to radically, violently accelerate the evolution of her soul:

What if the human soul is eternal—the swamis say of it, fires cannot burn it, water cannot drown it, winds cannot bend it—what if it is like a giant long-playing record with millions of tracks, each of them a complete circle with only one diamond-sharp microscopic link to the next life, and the next, and only God to hear it all?

I do believe that. And I do believe that extraordinary events can jar the needle arm, rip across incarnations, and deposit a life into a groove that was not prepared to receive it.

Here, "Fate" still maintains its hold on Jasmine's understanding, and as an idea, if not an actual force, it does in fact determine her plot. A confluence of "extraordinary events" replaces the inexorable propulsion of human life along a predetermined track, and as we shall see, Jasmine's syncretic adaptation of sacred Hindu and secular American beliefs collapses under the weight of what it must support: an impossible negotiation between destiny and opportunity, between unwilled necessity and the willed, private revolution of the "self-made man." As in the debate over sati detailed by Spivak, the figure of the subaltern woman is erased in a proliferation of arguments over her place within feudal patriarchy on the one hand and capitalist patriarchy on the other, both of which posit an evanescent equality of opportunity.

The impossibility of Jasmine's project is not readily apparent in the opening pages of the novel. As a seven-year-old girl, she is foretold of her widowhood and exile by an astrologer and refuses vehemently to believe in her "fate," "'Suit yourself,' the astrologer cackled. 'What is to happen will happen.' Then he chucked me hard on the head," upon which the young girl falls down and a sharp stick punctures a hole in her forehead. This act of violence seems to inaugurate in Jyoti's life what Spivak has called a "discursive displacement"—a shift of perspective which can "only be operated by the force of a crisis," political or social. Such a shift or "functional change in sign-systems" can make the objects of historiography into the subjects of their own history, as in the work of the Subaltern Studies group about which Spivak writes. This collection of scholars has tried to demonstrate how the "criminality" of a rebellious subaltern group is transformed by them into "insurgency." the label of "bondsman" traded in for the radically charged category of "worker." Brought to crisis by the astrologer's prediction, Jyoti can thus assert to her family that her wound is in fact a "third eye," and she, a newly-born sage. A new way of seeing provides her with an intuitive rubric for knowing "what I don't want to become."

Later, on her morning trip to the outhouses with the other women of the village, Jyoti must confront a mad dog which she somehow knows "had come for me, not for the other women. It had picked me as its enemy." However, even as she recognizes "fate" in the terrifying form of the rabid jackal she resists that doom: "I wasn't ready to die." On the way to the outhouse she had picked up a thorny staff cast off by one of the Khalsa Lions and felt a "buzz of power" as her hand closed on it; this "buzz" now translates to action, and she kills the dog in mid-leap with the club. Jyoti's grandmother attempts to defuse Jyoti's moment of triumph over fate—"All it means is that God doesn't think you're ready for salvation. Individual effort counts for nothing"—but it seems in fact that against the violent forces of Sikh gangs, crazy astrologers, and mad dogs, individual effort is all, and holiness without significance.

Mukherjee describes the landscape of contemporary America in similarly violent terms, painting a picture of a state in economic, social, and political crisis: "Last week in Dalton County, a farmer dug a trench all around his banker's house with stolen backhoe equipment. On TV he said, 'Call it a moat of hate.' Over by Osage a man beat his wife with a spade, then hanged himself in his machine shed." Stable bonds of family and community seem to have dissolved, leaving behind only "Monster Truck Madness"; televised INS raids: farmers shooting bankers who foreclose on them; and the constant threat and reality of rape which first Jyoti, then Jasmine, then Jane and other immigrant women must constantly negotiate. As Jasmine muses. "Something's gotten out of hand in the heartland." The vertiginous violence of change in the American landscape unsettles and even nauseates the narrator: "I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist." she tells us. "unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I'm on. Down and down I go, where I'll stop, God knows."

Between this moment and the one in which Jyoti describes the "buzz of power" she feels as she handles the thorned club, the text of Jasmine has accomplished a subtle displacement of agency. Jyoti has gone from being the subject to being the object of transformation, and it is violence itself which has displaced her on that positional continuum. Exactly at that instant when Jasmine desires to break the "diamond sharp links" from one state of being to another, she allows her own {not so peculiar) notion of female subjectivity to confirm her position as it stands, even as she is re-positioned in terms of plot. The mysteriously accomplished shift recalls Mukherjee's description, in the interview excerpted earlier, of the passive "transformation" of the Indian women who trail after ambitious husbands seeking economic and educational riches here in the States. And indeed, even the language Jyoti uses to describe her confrontation with the mad dog is strangely passive: "I took aim and waited for it to leap on me. The staff crushed the dog's snout while it was still in mid-leap. Spiny twigs hooked deep into its nostrils and split them open. I saw all this as I lay on the winter-hard ground." It is as if the staff has leaped out of Jyoti's hands and done its work alone; she describes the scene from the point of view of prone and helpless observer.

A similar displacement of agency occurs as the narrator confronts another attacker, after she arrives on U.S. shores. Jasmine's killing of the rapist Half-Face constitutes a defining moment in the complex articulation of violence and gendered subjectivity that I have begun to sketch. In this moment Jasmine clearly reveals her complicity in an assimilative imperial and patriarchal practice, the primal scene of which, ironically, is the scene of Othering. The narrator's complicity is crystallized not in her act of violence, but in her figuration of that violence—the way in which the act is discursively deployed. Thus I am emphatically not making the argument that any material act of violence implicates its executor in the perpetuation of imperialism or patriarchy. Rather, it is the way in which the narrator makes the act of violence intelligible to herself and to her witness, the reader, that is significant. The framework in which she enacts violence is one in which that act is seen only as a symptom of the greater epistemic violence of modern subjectivity, "first world" as well as "third world." Jasmine reinforces the colonizer's project by figuring her activity as assimilation or commutation to her Other—the "duality" she (and, implicitly, Mukherjee) has figured as power resolving itself into assimilation.

When Half-Face takes Jasmine to his motel room, several levels of violence—epistemic, metaphoric, and literal—are collapsed. Even as he drags her into the room she observes that "[h]is leg flew waist-high in a show-offy kick and the door thumped closed"—that is, his violence is stylized, it has meaning, and thus operates at the level of discourse. He forces himself on her and she, not surprisingly, refuses his advance. But Half-Face is surprised. "I thought you'd be different from the others. A spark, you know?" Something about her categorical difference, her "Indianness" has intrigued him. "You don't like white men, that it?" he asks. Jasmine here represents to Half-Face the inaccessible "exotic"—not in terms of her sexual availability, which he easily enforces, but in terms of her "inscrutability." her unknowability, her otherness. Angered by her suggestion that her life in India was not that much different from his life in the motel room—she looks at his television and notes that her husband had been a whiz repairman of such objects—Half-face must recapitulate epistemic violence at the literal level. "Don't tell me you ever seen a television set. Don't lie to me about no husbands and no television and we'll get along real good" (author's emphasis), he yells, even as he slams her head over and over into the set. His violence enacts his dream of the Other, in which he will be the one to painfully introduce the native to the requirements and perquisites of culture, assuming as he does that culture itself is unknown to her: "I got things I can do for you and you got something you can do for me, and I got lots of other things I can do to you, understand?" (author's emphasis).

Once he has raped her, Jyoti, in turn, enacts her own "dream" of violence, destroying in the same instant both Half-Face and her former self. Significantly, she plans to kill herself in order to purify her soul after the rape—she asserts, in fact, that she has already left her earthly body and would soon be joining her father's and husband's souls, even before she puts her knife to her own throat. As she hides in the motel bathroom, the "murkiness of the mirror" into which she looks "and a sudden sense of mission" stay her literal suicide. At the very moment, in other words, that she loses sight of her "self," she is subjected to a mandate spoken by an authority from elsewhere. Jyoti implicitly acknowledges this splitting of her subjectivity by symbolically slicing her tongue with the knife she will then use to slit Half-Face's throat. In doing so she becomes Kali of the bloody tongue, the destroyer goddess, "walking death. Death incarnate." Only in this dissociative state can she do what she has to do. It is important to note that even as Mukherjee figures the act as one of agency rather than reactive self-defense—after all, Jasmine leaves Half-Face and upon reflection returns to murder him—she makes the murderer not Jasmine, but Kali. Where before she had stood before him a naked, vulnerable young girl, she would now return to stand over him with her "mouth open, pouring blood, [her] red tongue out," in the classic pose of the vengeful goddess. When it is over, the narrator still feels that her "body was merely the shell, soon to be discarded"; in the wake of this violent birth into America, she can only look forward to future rebirths, a perpetual "revolution" of the soul which begs the question of its own existence.

As Mukherjee represents her, the "third world" woman cannot be violent without recourse to some original mythic, mystic "presence" (in this instance, the Bengali Hindu goddess Kali) that ironically blocks access to agency. As I stated earlier, the invocation of cultural heroes is not automatically disempowering—it can be a valuable tool for amassing spiritual strength and focus. But in Jasmine's case. Kali's presence overcomes and effaces Jasmine and the personal history which has brought her to this point. Kali, the "Goddess ex machind" appears and positions herself as a kind of midwife in the "rebirthing" process, an intermediary between one Jasmine and another. (The flesh-and-blood Lillian Gordon and Mother Ripplemeyer serve the same function in other instances. They each arrive on the scene just in time to pluck her from a dangerous situation and arrange for her a new "position.") Rebirth is a violent event, then, but this violence does not secure agency, as it does for Fanon. Rather, Jasmine's "act" of violence is an "act" of de-selfing, much like sati itself. Literal violence, in this case, murder, stands in for, even numbs, the pain of individual transformation. This violence of identity in turn replaces or masks the discursive violence Jasmine is subjected to as a "third world" gendered subject objectified by the "first world," represented here by her own author, Bharati Mukherjee.

The central problematic for any radical theory of change, according to Spivak, is that "the possibility of action lies in the dynamics of the disruption of the [continuous sign-chain constituting the socius], the breaking and relinking of the [semiotic] chain. This line of argument does not set consciousness over against the socius, but sees it as itself also constituted as and on a semiotic chain. It is thus an instrument of study which participates in the nature of the object of study. To see consciousness thus is to place (he historian in a position of irreducible compromise." The tangle of metaphorical and empirical violence itself has brought Jasmine to this same "irreducible" position, never interrogated and always abandoned, only to make its violent return again and again.

As the novel ends, we find Jane, pregnant with her Rochester's child, facing once again the "promise" of America and preparing herself for the next transformation. This time around it is at the hands of Taylor, once her employer and now her lover. "I realize I have already stopped thinking of myself as Jane," she tells us. "'Ready?' Taylor grins. I cry into Taylor's shoulder, cry through all the lives I've given birth to, cry for all my dead." In these few minutes, she seems finally to begin acknowledging the strength of her former "attachments"—but the mourning period is brief, and "then there is nothing I can do." In the final moments of the book, then, the narrator abdicates agency once again, scrambling forward to meet a fate and a frontier al-ready "pushing indoors," she hopes, to embrace and assimilate her.

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