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Today’s PaperBharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76
Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian-born American writer who explored the internal culture clashes of her immigrant characters in the award-winning collection “The Middleman and Other Stories” and in novels like “Jasmine,” died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 76.
The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a stress-induced heart condition, her husband, the writer Clark Blaise, said.
Ms. Mukherjee, a native of Calcutta, attended schools in England, Switzerland and India, earned advanced degrees in creative writing in the United States and lived for more than a decade in Canada, affording her a wealth of experience in the modern realities of multiculturalism.
“The narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium,” she wrote in an autobiographical statement for the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2005.
In many of her novels and stories, a young woman — shaped, as she was, by a patriarchal culture — strikes out for the unknown, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. In the existential crisis that ensues, a new self emerges — or a series of selves, with multiple answers to the question “Who am I?”
In “The Middleman and Other Stories” (1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, Ms. Mukherjee served up the immigrant experience in all its rich variety, told through the voices of newcomers from the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, all of them both daunted and intoxicated by the strange possibilities of life in the United States.
The title character and narrator of “Jasmine” (1989), a novel that quickly won a place on high school and college reading lists, is a poor Punjabi who makes her way to Florida and undergoes a series of transformations. Taking on a new identity and a new name as she moves from one job to the next, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope,” she draws ever closer to the dream of shedding her old identity and achieving the American dream of self-definition.
“I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist, unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I’m on,” the narrator writes. “Down and down I go, where I’ll stop, God only knows.”
Bharati Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940, in Calcutta, where her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, ran a successful pharmaceutical company and supported, in a large compound, an extended family of nearly 50 relatives. Her mother, the former Bina Banerjee, was a homemaker.
Bharati attended an English-style school until she was 8, when her father, after a falling-out with his business partner, took the family abroad. She studied at private schools in London and Basel for the next three years. When the family returned to Calcutta, she was enrolled in Loreto House, an elite Roman Catholic school run by an order of Irish nuns.
The world of her childhood was tightly circumscribed. When she left the family compound, she was escorted by bodyguards. Until she left for the United States, she had never attended a party with boys. At the same time, she roamed freely through the vast storehouse of Indian folk tales and epics and made a close study of the endless family dramas around her.
The cover of the novel “Jasmine.”CreditViking Books
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and a master’s degree from the University of Baroda, in Gujarat, in 1961. After sending six handwritten stories to the University of Iowa, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied with Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily in her first year. She earned an M.F.A. in 1963 and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1969 at Iowa.
“I blossomed, because people didn’t have preconceived notions of who I was and what I could do,” Ms. Mukherjee told The Boston Globe in 1993. “It was an enormous transformation in my life.”
She added, “I really jumped the grooves.”
She married Mr. Blaise, a fellow student, in 1963. Besides her husband, she is survived by their son, Bernard; two sisters, Mira Bakhle and Ranu Vanikar; and two granddaughters. Another son, Bart, died in 2015.
“From those years I evolved a credo: Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic — the India of elephants and arranged marriages — familiar,” she wrote in Contemporary Authors.
In 1966 Ms. Mukherjee and her husband moved to Montreal, where she taught at McGill University. They moved to Toronto in the late 1970s, but, fed up with the racial tensions she encountered there, they moved again, in 1980, this time to the United States, with Ms. Mukherjee firing a parting shot in a blistering essay, “An Invisible Woman,” published in the magazine Saturday Night.
By then she had published her first two novels. “The Tiger’s Daughter” (1972), the most autobiographical of her works, told the story of an American-educated Indian woman who returns home to an India she no longer recognizes. She moved into less familiar territory with “Wife” (1975), taking as her main character a young Bengali woman who rebels against her arranged marriage after moving to New York.
With the story collection “Darkness” (1985), Ms. Mukherjee began to attract critical notice for her discerning portraits of immigrants struggling to cast off the bonds of tradition and remake their lives. In “Jasmine,” her breakthrough novel, she painted a portrait of a character dear to her heart.
“I think of Jasmine, and many of my characters, as being people who are pulling themselves out of the very traditional world in which their fate is predetermined, their destiny resigned to the stars,” she told the magazine Bomb in 1989. “Traditionally, a good person accepts this. But Jasmine says, ‘I’m going to reposition the stars.'”
After years of short-term academic appointments, Ms. Mukherjee was hired in 1989 to teach postcolonial and world literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She then embarked on a series of expansive novels, with multiple plots and generations, starting with “The Holder of the World” (1993), a novel within a novel based in part on Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
“Desirable Daughters” (2002), which traced the different fortunes of three sisters from Calcutta, was the first in a loosely joined trilogy of novels, the others being “The Tree Bride” (2004) and “Miss New India” (2011).
Throughout, the restless, hopeful surge of immigration, and the mutability of cultures, gripped her imagination.
“While I have changed in my 30 years in this country, it has also had to change because of the hundreds of thousands of people like me, forcing the culture, moment by moment, into something new,” Ms. Mukherjee told The Globe. “I am looking for that new, constantly evolving thing.”