Acclaimed Indian Writer Leaves Behind Powerful Works About the Immigrant Experience

The literary world, as well as the international immigrant community, lost a powerful voice last month with the death of Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian born writer whose novels explored the complex realities of the immigrant experience. She died in Manhattan, New York at the age of 76 due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis and a heart condition.

Mukherjee grew up in Calcutta, India and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle. Her father was the head of a successful pharmaceutical company and could financially support Mukherjee’s extended family. While she was educated at prestigious schools in India, England, and Switzerland, Mukherjee was also acutely aware of her limited career options as a woman in the tightly controlled Indian culture of the 50’s. After earning her master’s degree in 1961, she was accepted into the University of Iowa’s world renowned Writer’s Workshop, where she recalled in a 1993 interview with The Boston Globe, “I blossomed, because people didn’t have preconceived notions of who I was and what I could do. It was an enormous transformation in my life. I really jumped the grooves.” [See Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76, by William Grimes, The New York Times, 1.Feb.2017.]

Mukherjee’s novels often focus on strong willed female immigrants who are trying to elevate themselves above adverse circumstances or cultural limitations. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, told the story of an Indian woman, educated in America, who struggles to connect with her native country once she returns. In her sophomore novel Wife, she explores the Indian tradition of arranged marriage through her protagonist, a young woman in India who begins to yearn for freedom after moving to New York with her husband.

But it was Mukherjee’s 1989 novel Jasmine – about a young Indian widow who travels to America and continuously reinvents herself to adapt to her new culture – that cemented her status as a preeminent writer of the late 20th century. In an interview with Bomb magazine in 1989, Mukherjee reflected on the personal connection she felt with the character she had created. “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. Traditionally, a good person accepts this. But Jasmine says, ‘I’m going to reposition the stars.'”

Bharati Mukherjee’s work has a distinct perspective, one that looks at the world through the eyes of an immigrant hoping to start a better life and experience the freedom of chasing their dreams in America. But her stories are fundamentally about hope, optimism, and the strength that it takes to leave the familiar behind in search of a new destiny. They are universal stories, and in today’s bitterly divided political climate, we need them now more than ever.

 

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