Saturday, 14 May 2016

Re-Markings Vol 15 No.1 March 2016: Excerpts from Essay on Bharati Mukherjee

Identity and Culture in
Bharati Mukherjee's Short Fiction
Itishree Devi
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 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....(

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