A Pot Melting

Bharati Mukherjee came up the street, a New York Tunes tucked un­der her arm. The front page announced that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize for literature, becoming the first African American and the eighth woman to do so. It seemed to be an auspicious beginning for a conversation about race, books, and writing.

SANDIP ROY-CHOWDHURY: The jackets of your books say you were born in Calcutta. I’m curious about your life there.

BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I grew up in south Calcutta with my parents, my father’s seven brothers, their wives and children. Each family had one room.

My father, a research chemist, belonged to that first generation of Bengali scientist-businessmen with nationalist pride in remak­ing the country. He started from literally a one-room laboratory and went on to found a pharmaceutical company called Albert David with a partner. Be­cause of business, he went to England and Switzerland for three and a half years and took my mother and two sisters and me with him.

When we came back, we lived inside the factory compound in Kashipur which was outside Calcutta. My school was at Loreto House in Calcutta. So, coming to school and going home everyday, my view of Calcutta was out of a closed car. Since I was growing up during the time of labor unrest and threats of lockout, I grew up specially protected and sheltered.

After my father sold the factory, we moved to Baroda where he became direc­tor of R&D for the Sarabhai group. I got my M.A. in English and Ancient Indian Culture and then came to the States to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa.

ROY-CHOWDHURY: Not so long ago, the only English authors from India we’d hear about were people like Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan. But in the past few months,the Bay Area alone has seen readings by Gita Mehta, Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer. What do you think happened?

MUKHERJEE: I think the real break came with the publication of Salman Rushdie’sMidnigltt’s Children. I think that gave a lot of us a sense of self-confidence that Indians writing in English were not just trying to imitate good British literature. Till then, people writing about India tried to reduce it to something more manageable, more di­gestible. Rushdie embraced the gigan­tism of India.

But even among us, there are striking differences —writers like Rushdie write from the expatriate’s point of view about an India which is still a homeland, if only an imaginary one. I, on the other hand, write about the immigrant and the process of coming to terms with another cul­ture.

ROY-CHOWDHURY:Your work focuses on immi­grants —a Filipina in At­lanta, 0 Sri Lankan in Ger­many. In fact, Hannah Mas­ters, the heroine of your latest work, The Holder of the World, is displaced many times over —a New England Puritan womancoming to terms with British society in an India still under Mughal emperor Aurangzeb! Do you feel that had you not been an immigrant, you would still have become a writer?

MUKHERJEE: Oh yes! I was read­ing voraciously from the age of three. I was very precocious and unathletic and very shy in that huge joint family household. But I would have been a very different kind of writer —I might have written more elegant novels like novels of manners. I think the disloca­tion, plus having to go through the physical, emotional harassment of being a person of a despised minority in Can­ada certainly changed me as a person and as a writer.

ROY-CHOWDHURY: Having lived both in Canada and the United States, was your experience of racism different in the two countries?

MUKHERJEE: As opposed to the United States of the 1960s and early 1980s, yes! The basic difference is in the different approaches to processing im­migrants, particularly non-whites.The Canadian system was the cultural mosaic, which in theory is very enlight­ened because it assumes respect for each cultural heritage. But in practice there’s a vertical evaluation of cultures —so there are certain cultures like the Western Euro­pean ones at the top, and others like South Asian at the very bottom. So not only are the second generation, third gen­eration children from Latin American or Asian countries not allowed to think of themselves as Canadians, but that hy­phenization locks them into second-class citizenship. And when the economy is going badly they are even more targeted for scapegoating.

In the U.S., the theory is of the melt­ing pot. I think that the 19th century idea of the American melting-pot was inade­quate and inappropriate because it as­sumed a one-way transformation —an assimilation where all the non-Anglos were expected to scrub down. I’m trying to remind everyone that it is a two-way transformation. I think what’s happening from the 1980s in the U.S. is an unfortunate Bal­kanization of ethnicity—minority groups are being pitted against each other for very small portions of the pie

ROY-CHOWDHURY: Multiculturalism has made people ultra-sensitive about step­ping on each other’s cultural toes. How do YOU, with impunity, write about Afghanis in New York and the diasporan Indians of the Caribbean —and that, too, often in the first person?

MUKHERJEE: Because I believe, as a writer, in the primacy of the imagina­tion. This is where my battle is against those social critics (usually turf-protec­tors) and academics whose power is only within the protection of their little, newfound territory, who want to reduce fiction to mere ethnography and sociol­ogy.

If I wanted to read an anthropological account of a Filipina, I would go to soci­ologists or anthropologists. But if I want to read literature, I am happy to go to people for whom the limits of imagina­tion are the only bounds. The only criteria I demand is that it be persuasive on the imaginative realm.

ROY-CHOWDHURY: You mentioned your degree was in English and Ancient IndianCulture. Is The Holder of the World an ex­ample of both these subjects coming together?

MUKHERJEE: I’ve always loved history and read historical accounts and biographies for pleasure. One of the ar­eas I was fascinated by was the Euro­pean travelers in Mughal India, espe­cially in Akbar’s time.

But this novel came together for me differently. I love Indian miniature paint­ing—all those stories competing for at­tention in a small space. Although I can’t afford them, I try to go to museums and auctions and see them. In 1989, I was at a previewing in Sotheby’s in New York. And there was this painting of a European woman in Aurangzeb’s court—a blonde woman in full Mughal dress. I wondered, who is this woman? What took her there where she did not stay European but re­made herself?

ROY-CHOWDHURY: You shattered the stereotypical Raj images of India with faces of the new Indian pioneers such as an immi­grant researcher at M.l.T. and an illegal household help in New York. And now you give us an India of jewels and spices, ele­phants and rajahs. Why?

MUKHERJEE: But I am not writing about the Raj. I am writing of Europe­ans going through exactly the same process of being expatriates, hustlers, and dreamers that the immigrants in The Middleman are going through. I was very careful to choose pre-colonial times when colonialism had not jelled. The Coromandel Coast is in the hands of Emperor Aurangzeb. The Europeans are the little people for whom the incred­ible wealth is so exciting—they were used to more grimy lives.

But this book is also about the making of the American consciousness. I’m say­ing that America is what it is because it always had to define itself in coalescence with or in contradiction to the “other.” In the first part of the book, the [Native Americans’] wilderness is the “other” and must be tamed or taken over. Then the alien “Orient.” You know the governor of Fort St. George in Madras just before my characters arrived was Elihu Yale who founded Yale College.

This is my debate with the late Allan Blooms and William Bennetts who want to conceive of America as an exclusively European, uni-culrural society. I am say­ing that just as the world went to the Coromandel coast, so also the world came to Salem [Massachusetts]. It’s the interaction between the two which has made America multicultural.

ROY-CHOWDHURY:Hannah is a woman of many parts. She grows up during the witch-hunts in Salem, knows Native Americans, marries a seafaring adventurer. Yet every blurb of this book describes it as the story of a blonde woman who becomes the consort of  a Hindu rajah, although the rajah only appears in the last 80 pages. Do you feel your work is being exoticized and thus trivialized?

MUKHERJEE:Well, I have no control over blurbs. But I think as soon as a reader takes the trouble to read the book, that reader will respond ac­cording to his/her bag­gage. My book will ap­peal to people who like a good story with strong characters. Those who are Puritan schol­ars will find all sorts of nuggets about American colonial history. Those who are India buffs will find something else.

My aesthetics are derived from the Mughal miniature where there are a hundred points of focus. I wanted that kind of exuberance and mul­tilayering. So there are many many stories happening in this book—Peter the Great passes through incognito, as does Captain Kidd.

ROY-CHOWDHURY:What makes his­tory so fascinating are the gaps in it. But today every minute detail of information is available and stored. What would you do in writing the story of a 20th century Hannah Masters when you find there are no gaps to fill?

MUKHERJEE: His­tory is interactive. It is not given to you. You try to make what you can out of the haphazard data. I didn’t want peo­ple to sit back passively and receive a historical novel. I wanted Beigh [the 20th century woman trying to piece together the story of Hannah Masters] with the help of her [Indian] scientist boyfriend Venn Iyer, toexperience history. I am thinking of Venn as the new American pio­neer who helps Beigh, the heir to the old American dream, to complete her identifica­tion of Hannah.

And this is where I’m saying you must respect the primacy of the writer’s imagination. It isn’t about putting to­gether verifiable data. It’s about intuiting larger truths in the ways in which the human mind works. To me imagination is everything—research is a way of buttressing in­tuition. I refuse to reduce novels to ethnography.

ROY-CHOWDHURY: In a short story called “The Tenant,” you described a Dr.Chatterjee like this: “he wants to live and work in America, but give back nothing except taxes.” What do you feel you are giving back?

MUKHERJEE: I believe, I hope, that I am contributing to the rein­vention of America, to this two-way transformation. Not only am I no longer the Bengali I was in Calcutta and would have been had I spent the last 30 years there, but the people around me—whether in New York or Iowa or Cali­fornia—are also changed by me and thousands like me.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is a software engi­neer with Central Point Software.

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