Bharati Mukherjee (b. 1940)

    Contributing Editor:
    Roshni Rustomji-Kerns

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    It is important to read and discuss Mukherjee's "A Wife's Story" as an integral part of twentieth-century American literature and not as an "exotic" short story by a foreign writer. As the essay accompanying "A Wife's Story" points out, Mukherjee identifies herself very strongly as an American writer writing about twentieth-century Americans. Although most of her stories are about South Asian-Americans (South Asia in the contemporary geopolitical arena usually consists of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldive Islands), she sees herself as being primarily influenced by, as well as being part of, the tradition of Euro-American writers. In a brief interview published in the November, 1993 issue of San Francisco Focus in which she discusses her novel, The Holder of the World (published in 1993 after the publication of the second edition of The Heath Anthology), she says, "I think of myself as an American writer . . . I want to focus on the making of the American mind." But instead of an exploration of the making of the American mind, The Holder of the World is a reflection and an echoing of the existing, dominant American attitudes and concepts about the American colonial period and the "exotic" India of the past with self-indulgent emperors and rajas, wealthy merchants and self-sacrificing women.

    In order to avoid the trap of reading "A Wife's Story" as being from a "marginal" group, I have found it best to first discuss the crafting of the story as a literary work in the tradition of English/American literature, and then move on to the aspects of the story that deal with specific concepts and cultures.

    Keeping in mind Mukherjee's own comments on racism, multiculturalism, and literary influences, it is interesting to discuss how she uses, or does not use, her ideas on these subjects in "A Wife's Story." A classroom discussion on the students' views regarding these concepts helps them understand the importance of these concepts in American literature.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    I have found the following assignments/approaches helpful:

    1. Discuss the story as a literary work.

    2. Read stories and poems by other American writers who deal with the American expatriate/immigrant experience and compare/contrast "A Wife's Story" with the other readings. The bibliography that follows includes some collections of immigrant/expatriate writings.

    3. Gain some knowledge of the history of Asian-Americans, especially within the context of the different patterns of immigration in the U.S.

    4. I have sometimes asked students to interview expatriates or immigrants from South Asia on the campus or in their community and see how Mukherjee's story and her distinctive literary style differ from, expand upon, imitate, or use the style and subject matter of the oral history/interviews conducted by the students. This is often a suitable time to discuss, compare, and contrast the styles and techniques of oral and written literature.

    5. I have sometimes invited South Asian women from the community to speak to us of their experiences in the United States with an emphasis on how they would communicate their experiences to a larger audience. For example, we ask the guest speakers about the kind of stories they would like to write for a book or for a TV show that deals with South Asian-Americans.

    6. Interestingly, after having read the works of South Asian-American writers, many students have explored the immigrant histories of their own families and have then written stories, poems, essays, and screen/TV scripts based on their projects.

    Further discussions of the story, especially on specific issues related to Mukherjee's major themes and the literary influences that emerge out of her root culture, may be based on the statements made in the following parts of this Instructor's Guide essay.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Mukherjee's earlier works dealt mainly with encounters between cultures that take place when her South Asian-American protagonists who live in Canada or the U.S. return as visitors to their home in India (Tiger's Daughter, and Days and Nights in Calcutta). Her later, and maybe more important works, deal with these encounters as they take place in America. The protagonists in her later works are not all from South Asia, but nearly all of them are people who have arrived in America during this century.

    Her 1993 novel, The Holder of the World, takes place in the United States as well as in India. It also takes place across historical time. The framework of the novel takes place in contemporary United States and India. The central story takes place in seventeenth-century America and India. The Euro-American women protagonists of this work have lovers who are from other cultures or countries.

    A significant number of her stories and novels present the encounters between cultures in the context of encounters between women and men either of different root cultures or from the same root culture. Some of these very personal encounters have the poignancy of underlying affection, some of them range from gentle humor to an attempt at broad satire, some are marred by stereotypical characters and events, while others reveal the dangerous, violent side of such encounters.

    "A Wife's Story" is an excellent example of encounters between cultures presented in a narrative of encounters between women and men. It is a fascinating story because it presents the surprise of role reversal and because of the sense of a dramatic presentation that permeates the story. It is the wife, not the husband, who has come to America and who is knowledgeable about this new home. Panna is the guide and often the protector for her husband who is visiting her. And her story is constantly dramatic. It begins with her in a theatre and every episode that follows is carefully situated in a stage-like setting with set actors.

    The story also contains echoes of the memory and nostalgia for the past that play a significant role in the writings of many South Asian-Americans. This memory and nostalgia for the landscape of places and people of the writers' childhood is often juxtaposed with the excitement and challenge of their new life and the unfamiliar landscape of the people and places of the U.S. It is interesting to explore how Mukherjee uses these two strands in this story, bringing one or the other--memory or the excitement of novelty--into the foreground to present her characters and to build the circular, winding pattern of her story.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Much as Mukherjee seems to insist that she belongs to the Euro-American traditions of American literature and as easily as she is able to be fit into that tradition, there are aspects of her work that are derived mainly from her cultural roots in India. She has spoken of the important influences in her life of the images and ideas of her childhood in India and the sounds and sights of the great traditions of Indian mythology and literature. Her awareness of these influences enriches her stories and novels. For example, she can give the impression of a larger work even in a short story such as "A Wife's Story," which carefully meanders from one place to another and in which stories live within other stories. This technique of winding stories and embedding stories within stories dominates the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and much of Indian literature.

    Her ability to let us hear her characters speak to us not only about themselves but as narrators of others' experiences is a reflection of the oral traditions of Indian literature. In "A Wife's Story," we can hear Panna telling us not only the many stories of her life in India and in New York but also the stories of the people she introduces to us.

    Bharati Mukherjee is an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable collector of Indian miniatures. Keeping in mind this interest in miniatures, we see that Mukherjee can also paint small-scale yet detailed episodes and characters.

    Mukherjee's careful manipulation of moods and emotional tones in her stories may be influenced by classical Indian literature, art, and music. In Indian classical art, the universally recognizable essence of an emotion or a mood often dominates the work of art. In "A Wife's Story," Mukherjee portrays Panna through her emotions and moods that move from anger and outrage to perplexity and frustration, to humor and affection, and in the end to the joy of self-discovery of her body and her sense of freedom. Even the memory of old customs, and the excitement of new discoveries for both Panna and her husband are presented in terms of emotions and moods.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    These are dealt with in other parts of this essay.


    Collections that contain South Asian-American writings:

    Aziz, Nurjehan, ed. Her Mother's Ashes and other Stories, 1994.

    A Meeting of Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature. Toronto: South Asia Review, 1985.

    Katrak, Ketu H. and R. Radhakrishna, eds. The Massachusetts Review. Desh-Videsh: South Asian Expatriate Writing and Art (Winter 1988-1989): 29.4.

    Maira, Sunaina and Srikant Rajini, eds. Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, 1997.

    Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women by Asian Women United of California, 1989.

    Mukherjee, Bharati and Ranu Vanikar, eds. The Literary Review: Writers of the Indian Commonwealth (Summer 1986): 29.4.

    Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the South Asian Diaspora by Women of South Asian Descent Collective, 1993.

    Rustomji, Roshni, ed. Journal of South Asian Literature: South Asian Women Writers. The Immigrant Experience (Winter-Spring 1986): 21.2.

    Rustomji-Kerns, ed. Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers, 1995.

    South Asians in America:

    Agarwal, Priya. Passage from India: Post-1965 Immigrants and Their Children, 1991.

    Fisher, Maxine P. The Indians of New York City, 1980.

    Jensen, Joan M. Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America, 1988.

    Saran, Parmatma. The Asian Indian Experience in the United States, 1985.

    Singh, Jane. South Asians in America: An Annotated Selected Bibliography, 1988.

    Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, 1989.

    --. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, 1993.

    Anthologies of cross-cultural and multicultural writings:

    Brown, Wesley and Amy Ling, eds. Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land, 1991.

    Divakaruni, Chitra B. Multitude: Cross Cultural Readings for Writers, 1993.

    Hongo, Garrett. The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, 1993.

    Verburg, Carol J. Ourselves among Others: Cross Cultural Readings for Writers, 1991.

    Watanabe, Sylvia and Carol Bruchac. Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction, 1990.