Saturday, 14 May 2016
Identity and Culture in
Bharati Mukherjee's Short Fiction
We are like chiffon saris – a sort of cross-breed attempting to adjust to the pressures of a new world, while actually being from another older one. – Feroza Jussawala
Is the New World tolerant of its newcomers? If so, why do those coming to America, particularly those from South Asia, not feel "at home" on its soil? Bharati Mukherjee seeks to address these questions in her fiction. Her protagonists' sense of belonging is forced into a process: their cultural identity passes through a recurring process of translating and being translated.
The question of identity and homeland has become urgent as travel and migration have become a reality for many. The quest for roots is linked to the yearning for a space and community that one can call one's own. This new hybrid of hyphenated community, born in one place, brought up in another and living in a third, constantly struggles for self-affirmation in order not to be erased.
Bharati Mukherjee, the Indian born North American novelist, uses language as a tool to give expression to this perennial struggle on the part of third-world immigrants in their attempt to assimilate into the North American lifestyle. As Shirley Geok-lin-Lim puts it: "Language gives indiscriminately to every human inherent abilities to shape, manipulate, express, inform to protest, to empower oneself in the world."
For many of the immigrant protagonists in Mukherjee's short fiction, the assimilation into American culture creates tension resulting from a process of appropriation and abrogation of traits of the two cultures. For "... in crossing borders...an immigrant exchanges more than passports and citizenships" (Wickramagamage 171). It involves also a willingness to exchange the security of a territory of a known cultural geography for the uncertainty of a territory whose cultural geography has to be learned and imbibed.
The essay attempts to highlight the conflict arising from a conscious and sometimes unconscious endeavour at re-rooting oneself in the soil of an alien culture. Trying to bridge the 'gap' entails cross-cultural tension both external and internal. Mukherjee offers two sets of (broadly divided) characters in her fiction: immigrants who seem either unable or unwilling to move out of their cultural moorings like Mr. Bhowmick in "The Father" and others who assert their claim to an American identity by struggling to make their relocation in a new territory work for them. However, one cannot possibly come out of this process of relocation unscathed. The wound whether internal (within the self) or external (inflicted by others) has to be borne. As Mukherjee herself admits: "There are no harmless compassionate ways to remake oneself..." (Chicago Tribune, 6:1). It takes its toll both upon those protagonists who try to overcome it as well as those who buckle down under it....(www.re-markings.com)
Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Union of a Special Kind
One Christmas Eve, the late afternoon found me wandering around the downtown of Amherst. Relaxed on the holidays, my eyes feasted on the white world of the deep winter. Massachusetts is famous for its cold and piles of fresh snow was tempting me to walk on its soft layers. The streets were bright with colorful lights. The shop windows had lines of smiling Santa Clauses and cars passed by with Christmas carols singing on their radios.
The last, pink hues of the setting sun in the western sky gave a conquering look on the fading day. After I crossed the post office I felt a tug on my heart strings and entered the West Cemetery. Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet was buried there. I am fond of nature as she was, and the scenic beauty of Amherst tied my soul to her through all seasons and their waves of changes in nature.
However, on that day, I felt as if someone was beckoning me to the cemetery. When I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum earlier, the presence of her spirit had engulfed me. Inside the cemetery, my creative self was holding out hands, seeking a deeper affinity to her spirit.
I was a few steps into the sacred ground when I became aware that Christmas carols were echoing all around the graveyard. And there came voices reciting poems too. The notes and words were not clear but they penetrated deep into my mind, like echoes coming from a deep cave. I was transferred to a mystic land of people long gone from my world. It was winter but trees around me, no longer were bare but full of green leaves. I was not sure whether I was sensing or actually seeing it all. Even birds, butterflies and bees were floating around and they held me in a trance. Was spring there before winter, a time travel of the seasons?
I had expected a solitary walk in the West Cemetery, the place of the eternal silence. But, I was not sure what was happening, for the graveyard seemed to be bustling with people. I could feel their presence though could not see them clearly. Hazy forms of men and women were moving around, but they wore clothing of long past. Women in billowing skirts and men in tall hats as seen in the paintings I had seen of the 17th and 18th century were moving around. As I walked on, I could see people dressed in modern clothes and wondered if they had left this world recently.
I felt fearful of where the approaching night was taking me and I blurted out,
“Oh dear, what is going to happen, where am I going?”
I heard a distinct sigh beside me and hesitant footsteps stopped, as if to listen to me. Had someone been walking with me? As if in answer I heard a soft, gentle voice,
‘It’s your heart that brought you to our gathering for Christmas. Had you not so longed to see me?’
I stopped dead on my tracks. At my right, I could just fathom a familiar figure standing beside me. All the gentleness and sweetness I had seen in the pictures of Emily Dickinson seemed to radiate from the figure. I knew it was her, it was Emily’s spirit. I always had firm belief that spirits continue to be in this world after our physical self ends. As I stared at Emily, if I had any doubts, they were gone. The blending of our two poetic souls held the universal bond of mankind that very instant. Emily walked along with me, perfect harmony of steps, but keeping quiet with perfect understanding of my need to take in the miracle of our meeting. I was dumbfounded for a while, but managed to come up with some words,
‘Hello Emily, I’m honored to have you with me. I had no idea that I would really meet you.’ I spoke softly, as if loudness would drive her away.
I spoke but my voice was not there. I was caught in the strangeness of the moment and did not panic. However, she seemed to understand me, hear me. With a tilt of her head and a sweet smile, Emily took my right hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. The warmth of her hold seeped through the three lairs of clothing I wore and I was not cold anymore. My heart was bubbling like summer streams. Me, from Bangladesh and my American beloved poet, we bonded like soul mates, both transcending our times on Earth.
As we moved deeper into the graveyard, the voices I had been aware of earlier became louder. Other spirits of young and old people moved around us. There was magic in the air and I could feel an immense sense of giving into creative moods of Emily and myself. I could distinctly hear many voices going up and down, reciting Emily Dickinson’s poem “Death”.
“ Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
A woman’s voice was saying from nearby. “Emily spoke our thoughts, not many of us could write poetry. We are so proud of her.” I could fathom the form of the other spirit talking to me and wondered if she had read many of Emily’s poetry, like me.
As we moved along the pavement, eyes fell on the different kinds of tombstones. The recitation of poems and snatches of hymns rose from them, as if that was a special day for the departed to read poems. I could catch snatches of Emily Dickinson’s other poetry. The voices reminded me of cicadas that sing in summer days. The spirits around me were in a festive mood. They were not lamenting for the loved ones they had left behind, rather there was peacefulness in them with acceptance of death. I felt my spirits reach a tranquility of its own, I was at peace in my world or beyond. Once again Emily’s hand reached out and patted me on my shoulder, sort of steading me on my thoughts.
My eyes fell on all the graves around me. With every reading of the names on the headstones I could hear voices, as if the buried people were reaching out to me. My eyes fell on a grave that was marked very simply on a square shaped stone. A woman’s form sat on the stone and smiled at me saying.
‘Oh I see you have finally found our Emily, we knew how badly you wanted to meet her.’ ‘
There was a soft laugh, sweet like the first tweet of the morning bird, it was Emily. She remarked,
‘How can we not meet, we two are free spirits, our hearts are captivated by love and nature.’
Somewhere an owl hooted and I pinched myself to make sure that I was awake. Was I dreaming? But Emily knew just what I was thinking for she said,
‘Oh you are awake, very much alive. But on this day you got lucky and got your wish to meet me and other spirits. You are safe and will go home soon.’
Passing by a huge mound of snow, I tried to take a closer look at Emily’s face. I longed to see those lovely, large eyes, the delicate nose and the smiling lips set on the very sweet face. True to the pictures I had seen, there was an aura of pureness in her whole poetic self.
Then there was a soft laugh and I could hear Emily reciting her poem, “Nature is What We See”.
“Nature is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—…”
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—…”
The frozen world of winter was bursting with liveliness with joyfulness of her voice in her poem. I felt and oneness with Emily under the vast canopy of the darkening sky. My brown skin and her white did not cause a ripple in our soul connection. We were poets in love with life. Evening set in and gusts of chilly wind began to blow. I gathered the lapels of my coat closer, seeking warmth. As Emily and I walked, I wondered what had brought me to the cemetery that day. Things happen for a reason, and I sought answer in my own puzzled self.
We were passing by a large tree when I heard a voice from its trunk area. I was not surprised, trees have life and our conversations were a regular practice. I could tell trees my best and worst secrets and they would understand. The boughs moved up and down as the voice came,
‘I’m the oldest tree in this cemetery you know and the oldest witness to people’s crying for the dead. I too wait, for with all living things I too will be taken on my time, maybe I will witness your burial too.’
‘What do you mean? How do you know I’ll be buried here? Is death near me?’ I asked, puzzled.
As I waited for the tree to speak, the branches stopped moving and the people suddenly vanished. But I could hear their voices singing on,
‘Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright…’
I was about to turn and go home when I caught the sight of a very familiar figure, it was Rabindranath Tagore. I was going crazy, was that the day even Tagore’s spirit had come to Amherst? Tagore, with this versatile work of songs, poems and prose was the beacon to all my literary inspirations. He seemed to be walking along in a long white garb, the “dhuti” that Indians wear. The distinct sharp nose, the long beard and those deep set eyes, I was not making any mistakes. I felt that it was the depth of my worshipping his work that had brought him there to join in the winter evening. And once again I could distinguish his voice breaking the silence of the cemetery,
darieyo acho aamar gaanero paare
( you wait on the threshold my songs…)
I looked around me bewildered. Were there some Indian immigrants buried in this cemetery? Was he conveying the message that he knew how much I loved his works and how was it that he was singing one of my favorite Tagore songs?
As I moved on, I felt as if Emily was gently holding my hand, leading me on, explaining,
‘This is a special night when spirits of poets meet across the world. In the world of the spirits there is not boundary of land and so Tagore too roams around.’ She paused before saying, ‘ See the white snowflakes, it’s snowing! Don’t you love this wonder of nature?’
Just then icy snow fakes touched my face. I had been too absorbed with the happenings to notice the snow. It was to be a white Christmas and snow fell like angels’ kisses all over me.
‘Aha, so another poet is here.” I heard from Emily as a new form stood in front of us. I could not believe it. It was the Afghan poet Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, my spiritual harbor. There he stood, with that humble look that often comes on men of wisdom. His head was covered with what we call “turban”.
‘You, my poet friend would perhaps like to listen to a part of my poem of the spirits since we are gathered here reconciling our poetic senses,” he was telling me. Then in very gentle voice, I heard Rumi’s poem filtering in the air,
“There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
and being the noise.
Drink all your passion…”
‘I..I..I…am…honored Sir,’ I stopped.
But where was he? Just as suddenly as he had come, he had vanished. Somewhere a bell clanged. Suddenly I began to feel an emptiness beside me. Indeed, there was no Emily, no more of her spirit. Then my eyes caught her receding figure, moving farther and farther away from me.
‘Please Emily stay a little longer.’ I said softly but she looked over head, smiled very sweetly, her voice seeping into the space,
‘It was a good communion of spirits. In our world of creative hearts, the living and the dead at times meet in spirits and I was happy to see you. On my behalf spread the beauty of nature and peace in the present restless world.’
I could see the spirit rising up and then all was quiet. It was a quiet cemetery giving into the darkness of night. I was sad but Emily’s spirit left me content, my creative thirst had been filled with the sweetest wine. I whispered into the darkness, knowing she will hear me,
‘Emily, thank you. You have given me sense of purpose and I will continue your mission to spread truth, love and nature with my poems.’
As I moved toward the gate of the cemetery to go home, Santa passed in his carriage, the reindeer and bells jingling away.
Life was strange. Burial places are supposed to give messages of the end. But for me, Emily had given me new beginning to believe in my work, bonded in spirits, we were locals of Amherst. I have to continue writing how beautiful life was to our senses and beyond.
Writer & Poet Tulip Chowdhury lives in Amherst (birthplace of Emily Dickinson), Massachussets