Bharati's Visible Ghosts
What's their in science to tell me that spirits don't exist, asks Bharati Mukherjee.
What’s their in science to tell me that spirits don’t exist, asks Bharati Mukherjee.
When Bharati Mukherjee came to America in 1961 to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, Indian American writers were not just a rarity, they were practically non-existent. Over decades of writing and novels like Holder of the World, Jasmine and the National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Middleman and Other Stories, Mukherjee has been dubbed the grande dame of diasporic Indian literature. It’s a crown she’s worn uneasily often wanting to be just a writer, rather than a hyphenated one like Indian American. But her latest novel, The Tree Bride is both Indian and American.
The second in a trilogy that started with Desirable Daughters, The Tree Bride switches back and forth between Tara Chatterjee in post dot-com San Francisco and her great aunt Tara Lata sequestered in a mansion in pre-Independence Bengal. Mukherjee says she has been thinking a lot of these journeys back and forth. When she came to the nited States in the 60s she was at the forefront of a wave of doctors and engineers that crested with the 90s boom of software engineers. Now when she goes back to India she notices the US-returned NRIs. “I was amazed at the number of Silicon Valley families who have settled in towns like Bangalore and set up hybrid Indo-American lives,” says Mukherjee, describing the “McMansions” she has seen in areas of Bangalore nicknamed Dollar Colony.
In The Tree Bride, entrepreneur Bish Chatterjee could have been one of those freshly-returned engineers. Mukherjee is amazed at the confidence with which this new generation of Indo-Americans “present themselves as having the best of both worlds. They want their children to have the kind of schooling that would make it possible for them to max their SATs and go to Princeton and Harvard and MIT. But they are also the guardians of Kathak and Kathakali and ancient Indian culture.”
Mukherjee certainly never thought in 1961 that she could be both Indian and American in quite this way. “When I was a child, we were wary of Bengalis who had moved out of Bengal,” says Mukherjee. “To be a “probashi (diasporan) Bengali” was to be a sorry creature, cut off from true Bengali culture.”
She remembers at that time, even in a place like Manhattan, Indians were so few that when passing each other on the street, they nodded and smiled. “By the time I came to write Jasmine, Indian immigrants were far more visible as a community, but the rhetoric for talking about immigration was stuck in the old melting pot versus rejection of American culture,” says Mukherjee. “That meant either you had to reject wholly the culture that you had come from or you became very American and gave up something in order to acquire the other.”
In fact many South Asians have criticized Mukherjee for what they have seen as jettisoning of her Indianness in order to be American just as her character Jasmine re-invents herself. “I am an American, not an Asian-American,” Mukherjee wrote in an essay in 1997. “My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally.”
She finds that dilemma less compelling now and her characters hreflect that. Tara and Bish Chatterjee are perfectly at home sipping wine on deck in Marin County looking at sail boats dotting the San Francisco bay as they are at an Indian function. In Tree Bride, she describes them as part of “an immigrant fog of South Asians (that) has crept into America.” It’s a fog that has completely changed the contours of places like Silicon Valley.
“Of course, Silicon Valley will never be what it was,” writes Mukherjee. “By the time Bish walks again, it will be a memory, ripe for a twenty-first-century Fitzgerald to make it come alive. The Great Gupta, perhaps.”
America to Mukherjee may not have been a glittering Great Gatsbyesque party, but it was a conscious escape from the tug-of-war of identities in Kolkata. She came from a traditional Brahmin family but went at her mother’s insistence to Loreto Convent School in Kolkata. “I had grown up watching the funeral processions of young freedom fighters,” remembers Mukherjee.
“So I was personally upset at the way the Irish nuns in my very British school continued to display colonial attitudes.” But she knew her going to Loreto and getting an English education was important to her mother. Her mother had long had to suffer the barbs of her in-laws for producing three daughters. “English for her was looking outwards,” hreflects Mukherjee. “The roots of the do we want to acquire English or do we want to reject English goes back to the different ways of reacting against the influx of colonial educational policies.”
Colonization is a central theme of Tree Bride containing characters like John Mist who completely go “native” in India, even abandoning English as well as Virgil Treadwell, a pugnacious Churchill-devotee who thinks the Empire needed to show its subjects some tough love for their own good as well as Nigel Coughlin, an officer of the Raj who is deeply conflicted about his role.
Though all of that is set in pre-Independence India, Mukherjee notes “these conflicts are relevant to American enterprise like the war in Iraq.” Mukherjee admires the “pioneer toughness” in characters like Mist who are even capable of murder. But she says unemphatically it doesn’t mean the British with their sola topis were more qualified to be Emperor than the Americans trying to rule Iraq by remote control. “I don’t think anyone is more qualified to be emperor,” says Mukherjee unequivocally. The solution? “My short answer is get out and vote,” she says without hesitation.
Growing up in fifties Calcutta, Mukherjee was keenly aware of the colonial legacy that English held as well as its power. America was in some ways, a way out of the dilemma. “For me coming to America rather than Britain was a sense of relief,” says Mukherjee. “I think of American English as my step mother-tongue.”
But it was a kindly stepmother. “The discarding of the British English we were forced to respect and copy in Calcutta and adopting instead the much looser make-up-your-own-grammar and pronounce-it-the-way-you-want-freedom American English provided was very liberating.”
Though she finds her Bengali remains strong and vibrant, she doesn’t think she can write fiction in anything but “American.” “Probably because I can be free to be any character I want in English, but I am stuck, constrained, restrained to be the good well-brought up Bengali woman in Bengali,” she laughs.
Tara Chatterjee in Tree Bride is just such a well-brought up Bengali woman, though as a divorcee who shacks up briefly with a boyfriend she may not fit the Rashbehari Avenue definition of “good”. But in Tree Bride, Tara is tentatively re-assessing her relationship with her ex-husband. When the book opens she is pregnant with her second daughter from Bish.
In Desirable Daughters, Tara was anxious about the shackles of her “wife-of-Bish-Chatterjee identity. In Tree Bride she is avidly searching out the family history of her great aunt Tara Lata who had been married off to a sundari tree when her husband-to-be died on their wedding day. She is also more acutely conscious of where she comes from, even seeking out an Indian gynecologist. Of course, the V. Khanna her health plan offers her is neither Veena or Vibhuti but Victoria with blondish-white hair and gray-green eyes. “In Desirable Daughters, Tara concentrated on the very American pursuit of individual happiness,” says Mukherjee. “Now she has to discover for herself how her identity has been shaped by social historical, political and colonial forces that are beyond the individual.”
In that sense she says Tara is a very different creature than Jasmine of yore. “Tree Bride tabulates the regrets and the limitedness of the concept of free will that had been embraced by my earlier characters like Jasmine,” says Mukherjee.
She admits that might make some of her more American readers unhappy, but she says that this “dance of free will and destiny is a complicated one in which each side casts a shadow.”
Even in her home in San Francisco’s Upper Haight, Mukherjee is keenly aware of these shadows. Who knows if ghosts can cross the Pacific but Tara always turns on the lights of her San Francisco home at dusk to drive away the roaming spirits just as her mother used to do in India. “I do literally turn on the lights in my room in my home and I did have ghosts at one time there before we renovated,” says Mukherjee, laughing.
“What is there in science to tell me that spirits don’t exist? So I am turning on the lights even more vigorously.”