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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2007



Abha Shukla Kaushik

Negotiating Multiculturalism in Bharati Mukherjee’s Desirable Daughters


Bharati Mukherjee is an established voice of the Indian diaspora in North America. In a critical and creative career that spans over thirty years, she has been engaged in redefining the idea of diaspora as a process of gain, contrary to the conventional perspectives that construe immigration and displacement as a condition of loss and dispossession as a result of dissolution of original culture and an erasure of history. In her fictional works she takes up the issue of the impact of expatriation and immigration on the complexities of life as pitched against divergent ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. Her fictions are constructed around the realities of transplantation and the resultant psychological metamorphosis of characters, brought about by crossing into another country, which is North America in her works. Her characters belong to divergent ethnic backgrounds and national origins: economic and political refugees from Afghanistan, Uganda, Iraq and Bangladesh; illegal stowaways from Ludhiana; professionals from Bombay and Calcutta ; mail order brides from Nepal ; and domestic helps from Trinidad. One fact that binds them together despite their disparate cultural histories and social differences is their shared experience of diaspora as they explore new ways of belonging and ‘becoming’ in America. They are America’s new ‘middlemen’ as epitomized in the title of Mukherjee’s 1988 collection of short stories the “not quite(s)”.
Like her characters in diaspora, “with sentimental attachments to a distant homeland but no real desire for permanent return” (Intro. to Darkness xv), Mukherjee locates the trajectory of her identity and cultural politics in the course of crossing and recrossing multiple borders of language, history, race, time and culture. Disrupting the constraints and absolutisms of nationalist boundaries, her writings of diaspora embody her sense of what, as in her case, it means to be a writer who was born and raised in India, has been a citizen of Canada and the United States, and who has been shaped and transformed by the cultures of India and North America. Mukherjee herself elucidates her aesthetic stand on the identity reformulations made possible by diaspora and its contexts in terms that involve a journey from “unhousement” to “rehousement,” a process that entails “breaking away from the culture into which one was born, and in which one’s place in society was assured” and “re-rooting oneself in a new culture” (Hancock 39). “In this age of diasporas,” she argues, “One’s biological identity may not be one’s only identity. Erosions and accretions come with the act of emigration” (“American Dreamer” 4).
Mukherjee’s differing experiences of diaspora in Canada and the US have influenced her and her literary productions, lead to imaginative, textual and cultural negotiations with dominant narratives. Her stance on the discourse of national identity formation in both nations, shows there are no simplistic ways of dealing with or responding to multiculturalism, and national identity is based on her interpretation of her experiences.
Her latest novel Desirable Daughters is a brilliantly woven, thoughtful and intelligent story of three Calcutta, India-born Brahmin upper-class sisters, renowned for their beauty, brains, wealth, and privileged position in society. Mukherjee follows their lives as they leave their conservative, sheltered childhood home, where they are inundated with culture, tradition, and values and inculcated with education by the Catholic nuns in their convent structured school and college. Two sisters emigrate to America and the other relocates to Bombay, India.
The three sisters, Padma, Parvati, and Tara, are born exactly three years apart from each other and share the same birthday. Their mother names them after goddesses, hoping they will survive and prosper, which they all do. "We are sisters three/as alike as three blossoms on one flowering tree. (But we are not)," says Tara, the protagonist, quoting a poem.
Padma lives in New Jersey but is completely Indian in her attire, her cuisine, and her profession as the television anchor of an Indian television program set in Jackson Heights, Queens, run by her Indian lover, while she stays married to a man once successful, now merely living off her fame.
Parvati is totally Indian to the point of allowing her husband's relatives to be houseguests for weeks at their luxurious apartment in Mumbai with its breathtaking view of the city. And her easy life with servants, drivers, and other amenities at her disposal is funnily described by Tara, as she relates her sister's "very stressed out life."
Tara is the most 'un-Indian' of the three. She lives in San Francisco and is divorced from an Indian Silicon Valley dotcom millionaire Bishwapriya Chatterjee, who is an ideal to all Indian immigrants, a sort of 'ethnic' Bill Gates, for his contribution to creating a network of communication via the Internet. His friend Chester Yee and he invent a computer-routing system that makes them rich.
Tara is almost a Valley woman --- a volunteer at a pre-school, a single parent of a teenage son who reveals he is gay and has a live-in lover Andy, a balding, red-bearded former biker, former bad-boy, Hungarian Buddhist contractor/yoga instructor. If that isn't scandalous enough for an Indian woman, Tara is also caught up in the mystery of a stranger who claims to be the bastard son of a secret alliance between her elder sister Padma and a Bengali Christian, Ron Dey.
Discovering his connection to her family, the stranger becomes both Tara's catharsis and nemesis. By complaining to the police (here she draws a hilarious sketch of an 'ethnic' policeman --- a Sikh --- Jasbir 'Jack' Sidhu), she calls the so-called nephew's bluff. He retaliates by bombing her house, where her ex-husband and son are at the time.
Tara looks back at her family's past and their future and comes to terms with her history and legacy, from which she is almost separated. And yet it is a part of her psyche. As she grows and matures as a character, we are drawn to her humor, her honesty, and her blunt assessment of the two worlds between which she travels, back and forth, between being American and Indian, and also travels both on psychological and physical plane.
Multiculturalism is a theme that echoes throughout the book. Of her life in San Francisco, Tara says, "All the neighbourhood services, except the laundries and the Japanese restaurant, are owned and staffed by crack-of-dawn rising, late-night closing Palestinians, whose shifting roster of uncles and cousins seems uniformly gifted in providing our needs and anticipating our desires."
Continuing this theme, Mukherjee draws a portrait of an ethnic area Jackson Heights, to where all Indian immigrants must make their pilgrimage:
"Jackson Heights is not a Chinatown or even a Japan town on the San Francisco model…Indian people shop collectively, but they don't live together in tight little communities…they travel from distant suburbs…or from neighbouring states. We're a billion people, but divided into so many thousands or millions of classifications that we have trouble behaving as monolith."
The novel, however, begins with the most American of all searches: the desire to trace one's ancestry. Tara is fascinated by an ancestor, her almost namesake, Tara Lata, a five-year-old girl who was a victim of the archaic custom of child marriage –-- a tradition that even her father, a university graduate and lawyer, willingly follows.
It is 1879 and Tara Lata's wedding party is travelling in a dark jungle to rendezvous with the bridegroom's family, who instead of greeting them hurls curses at the 'bride,' calling her 'unlucky' because the boy bridegroom has been bitten fatally by a snake. To save her from a life of degradation, widowhood, and shame, Tara Lata's father 'marries' her to the God of the forest, and she becomes the legendary Tree Bride.
The young girl retreats to her father's house and makes it a refuge for the poor, the sick, and finally the fighters for Indian independence; she is dragged from her home in 1944 by colonial authorities, who announce her death six days later.
With this novel, Bharati Mukherjee, already a critically acclaimed author and winner of the National Book Critics Award, has established herself as a formidable writer whose works combines her pride in her Indian heritage and her gratitude at the opportunities in America. In the context of Desirable Daughters Jope Nyman comments that Bharati Mukherjee’s fictions “rewrite the traditional immigrant story, imagining new spaces and firms of identity as a result of travel and dislocation” (53)
In keeping with her literary and ideological reinscriptions of diaspora, Mukherjee has elected to describe herself as an “American” writer and has announced through various forums that it is the cultural narrative of America that has provided the enabling site for her own identity transformations as well as those she celebrates in her fictions. Her revisionary cultural politics has aroused considerable critical interest, itself a measure of the author’s rising stature.

One of the chief criticisms made against Mukherjee, especially by US-based India-born critics, is that her optimistic narration of the American saga of immigrant incarnations elides a consideration of the material realities impinging on Third World immigration, namely the role of race, class and gender in the workings of identity politics in America.

A nuanced reading of her texts and an unpacking of her terminology will reveal that Mukherjee has not been wholly uncritical of dominant ideologies in her literary and cultural imagining of the American nation. 

Tara travels to the New World, but, even as she absorbs the energy and vitality of this world, her traditional worldview remains intact. Mukherjee’s narrative is woven within a set parameter where Indian mysticism and fatalism stand challenged by American optimism and materialism. Mukherjee recounts the Americanization of an Indian first generation female protagonist and reveals how the path to Americanization for a non-Anglo is a difficult one. On the one hand she faces restrictions, though indirect, imposed by the ethnic group, as a result of which her divorce remains an open secret – something that cannot and should not be discussed publicly, her sister apparently has some secrets for the same ‘social’ reasons; on the other hand is the disillusionment brought about by the social decay. In the novel, Mukherjee dramatizes the immediate cultural negotiations that are demanded from immigrants who come to America for economic reasons. Tara’s traditional background compels her to admit that she isn’t, perhaps never will be, “a modern woman” (27) Although apparently she seems to have rejected her old cultural values, she is anguished and uncertain as she keeps visiting her past which is like a refrain in the narrative not only to compare things but often also to offer judgments. Her home in San Francisco reminds her “not unhappily, of mountain resorts in India” (24), although it is also a symbol of autonomy and selfhood for her. Torn between the dual pulls of her identity she is intensely aware of her difference. She says “I am not the only blue jeaned woman with a Pashmina shawl around my shoulders and broken down running shoes on my feet. I’m not the only Indian on the block. All the same, I stand out, I am convinced. I don’t belong here, despite my political leanings; worse, I don’t want to belong” (79). 

Tara is unable to come out of the traditional mould of an Indian woman in spite of her consciously adopted liberated attitude reflected in her acceptance of her son’s gay sexuality and live in relationship. (In an interview with

Mukherjee has remarked that she writes “in the tradition of immigrant experience rather than nostalgia and expatriation.” However, Tara in desirable daughters is unable to completely restructure conventional gender roles. Nyman terms Tara’s struggle as a desire of constructing hybridity and forming new forms of identity and culture in space “ (56).

Through her female protagonist Mukherjee expresses her concern at the problem of assimilation of traditionality and spiritualism of east with materialism of the west. Commenting on this aspect in her novels Pushpa N. Parekh writes, “Fear, anger, pain, bitterness, confusion, silence, irony, humour as well as pathos underline her observations as she discovers for herself the undefined median between the preservation of old world and a simulation into the new one.”(197).

Mukherjee’s affinity to Indian soil and culture is rooted in her fiction. Hence, whatever claim she makes about her real identity being American, her approach to life and its problems is moored in her Indian upbringing. Nevertheless, through her characters she explores the ways in which many heritages are combined into a new singular bowl in this age of globalisation. In the process immersing themselves in the present and looking forward to the future, her characters have to discover for themselves the social, religious, historical and political forces that have shaped them.



Works Cited


Parekh, Pushpa N., “Telling Her Tale: Narrative Voice and Gender Roles in Bharati Mukherjee’s      Jasmine”. Emmanuel S. Elson, Bharati Mukherjee: Critical  Perspectives. New York: Garland   Publishing

Bharati Mukherjee, Desirable Daughters, New Delhi: Rupa, 2002

Jope Nyman., “Transnational Travel in Bharati Mukherjee’s Desirable Daughters”. The      Atlantic Literary Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 2002, interview with Bharati

Mukherjee dated 28 March, 2002