Remembering Bharati Mukherjee, An Indian-Born American Writer
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bharati Mukherjee an Indian-born American writer whose work explored the thoughts and experiences of immigrants from many countries died last month in Manhattan. She was 76. Her short story collection "The Middleman And Other Stories" won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Mukherjee was born in Calcutta to a wealthy Hindu family. She went to schools in England, Switzerland and India, including a convent school run by Irish nuns.
She attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the '60s where she studied with Philip Roth and met her husband writer Clark Blaise. It wasn't the life her parents envisioned. They'd planned an arranged marriage for her. Terry spoke to Mukherjee in 2002 after her novel "Desirable Daughters" was published. It's about three daughters whose background is similar to Mukherjee's and about their approaches to some of their cultural traditions, including arranged marriages.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: You were supposed to have an arranged marriage. Your parents had selected a man for you when you were, I guess, still a teenager and living in India. Had you asked them to do that or did they just take that on themselves?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Oh, no. They took it upon themselves. There was never any question of expressing my wishes, ideas, politics. My father decided what we wore, what opinions we had on trivial and important things, and we simply mouthed them.
GROSS: Well, how did you say no to your parents?
MUKHERJEE: Impulse. I think very much like Tara, the narrator in "Desirable Daughters." I found that the moment that I hit Iowa as a graduate student that it was the beginning of the making of consciousness that I come out of such a protected world. I feel now - there was no bubble wrap in those days - but I feel now that in a way I was bubble wrapped in innocence and kept away from any kind of possibility of breaking rules or thinking bad thoughts, so that the moment I came here to the United States, it became an occasion for me to try out all the subterraneous personalities that I had learned to conceal from adults.
GROSS: When you told your parents that you didn't want the arranged marriage, what was their reaction?
MUKHERJEE: Actually mine was even more dramatic or melodramatic than that. I sent a cable to my father saying by the time you get this, I'll already be married. So there was very little that my wonderfully patriarchal father could do about the situation. I fell in love over a two-week courtship with a fellow student in the writers' workshop at the University of Iowa - writer named Clark Blaise. That was 38 years ago, by the way. And we got married during a lunch break in the lawyer's office above the coffee shop. That lawyer's office is still there in Iowa City.
GROSS: And you're still married.
MUKHERJEE: And I'm still married.
GROSS: So was - were your parents very angry with you? Did they accept that this was your choice and that you'd be happy?
MUKHERJEE: They were devastated that I'd had the guts or the audacity to take a decision on my own. They never, never expected me to break any kind of parental rule - or I'd been very careful not to expose my very emotional nature to them.
GROSS: When you came to the United States, what year was that?
MUKHERJEE: 1961 - fall of 1961.
GROSS: So you came to the United States and got married before the women's movement of the late '60s.
MUKHERJEE: The movement, meaning Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook" and Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," were just beginning to be read, '63 and so on. So I was very much here in the United States as people were getting - taking aggressive or self-assertive acts to equalize rights.
GROSS: Now, as an inveterate reader and as a novelist, what are the books that really reached you that spoke about the woman's condition in the '60s and that inspired you to map out your life?
MUKHERJEE: It was a mixture. I loved "The Golden Notebook," but I also loved Emma Bovary and her misguided attempts to liberate herself from what I saw as a very provincial kind of repression of her free spirit. So it was everything combined. But the most important narrative to me was my own life, the experiences I was having because I was - while other women, my women friends, were throwing pots or trying out painting, and...
GROSS: You mean - you're making pottery when you say throwing pots?
MUKHERJEE: Yes. Sorry.
MUKHERJEE: Making pottery, going to art classes, you know, working with their hands - nice, clean medium. And they were also going to consciousness-raising groups and examining themselves with mirrors and so on.
MUKHERJEE: I was, you know, too shy to look at my body. I still can't do those tests for finding, you know, tumors in one's breasts, and that - not at ease with my body, I guess. And certainly the whole idea of consciousness-raising where you write down what the husband's duties are about taking out garbage or doing the gardening and who does the dishes, when all those kinds of things struck me as so irrelevant to my life. Where Clark and I had small children - we were both going to school, getting - I was getting my Ph.D. I was teaching full-time and bringing up - going to the laundromat to clean diapers before going off to teach. That - you know, I had no time for that kind of thinking through a feminist agenda.
GROSS: When did you know you wanted to write?
MUKHERJEE: From age 3. I was a precocious child, and I lived in stories, inside stories.
GROSS: Would your family have considered it acceptable for you to be a writer?
MUKHERJEE: Because I was a woman, and as long as I wasn't writing anything that might be considered rude, such as, sex, violence, it would be OK. Yes. They thought of it as an accomplishment, womanly accomplishment. Gift of the pen is what - the phrase they used.
GROSS: And have you written about sex or things that are rude?
MUKHERJEE: I'm afraid so. (Laughter) And for my characters, including Tara, sexuality becomes a fevered way of expressing revolution, trying out a life outside the box.
GROSS: Is it hard for you to write that way since you said you're too uncomfortable to even do self-exams?
MUKHERJEE: No. I think for me, my fiction is a way of getting in touch with my inner bad girl.
MUKHERJEE: And so, you know, I want in my fantasies to be...
MUKHERJEE: ...A cross between Rita Hayworth and Diana Ross.
GROSS: And not the Hindu convent girl.
MUKHERJEE: And once I'm in that mode, you know, inside the character...
GROSS: Anything goes (laughter).
MUKHERJEE: Oh, I can do bad things.
DAVIES: Bharati Mukherjee speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. Mukherjee died last month in Manhattan. Her death was announced by her husband, writer Clark Blaise. They were married for 53 years. We'll hear more of her conversation with Terry after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's 2002 interview with writer Bharati Mukherjee, who died last month in Manhattan.
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GROSS: Now, I've read that there was a period when you - of a few years when you lived in Canada. And that this...
MUKHERJEE: Fourteen years, yeah.
GROSS: ...And that overlapped with the period when several thousand refugees left Idi Amin's Uganda. And about 5,000 of those refugees - people who were formally, I think, from India...
MUKHERJEE: They were second and third-generation Ugandans of...
GROSS: Asian descent.
MUKHERJEE: Asian - yes.
MUKHERJEE: And they had British passports, which Britain did not honor. And so the Canadian prime minister of that time, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, very kindly offered them residence - green cards. And that caused a sudden, really unanticipated - at least by me - backlash against brown immigrants. And the government didn't react to control that backlash in the way that it should have.
GROSS: Why do you think there was a backlash? And how did it directly affect you?
MUKHERJEE: Oh, dear. It meant that anyone with a brown face in cities like Toronto, Vancouver was fair game for physical harassment as well as verbal harassment on the street. And so, you know, there were incidents every day.
And I was a victim of many such incidents of not being served in stores or being roughed up by teenagers in blue jeans overalls in subway - on subway platforms or being, you know, thrown out of lobbies of fancy hotels if my white husband wasn't near me or being given secondary examination in airports or - racial profiling.
And there was no - in the Canada of those early '70s to late '70s - in fact, through the '70s, there was no constitution in Canada. The constitution hadn't yet been repatriated. And so there was no Bill of Rights. There was no legal agency of redress against race-based hate crime.
GROSS: What must have been particularly odd for you during that experience in Canada when you felt that there was a lot of backlash - you had come from a very elite family in Calcutta.
GROSS: Your family was wealthy. You were among...
MUKHERJEE: We were brought up to think well of ourselves and that our ideas mattered.
GROSS: Right. So what - it must have been a very kind of educational experience to suddenly be perceived not as the elite, but as the inferior. And to have people, you know, even attacking you because of that. I'm sure you could use a lot of words...
GROSS: ....Other than educational to describe that experience, but I'm sure someone like you really walked away from that...
MUKHERJEE: It was devastating.
GROSS: ...Learning a lot. Yeah.
MUKHERJEE: Yes, it was totally, totally devastating to me to be seen as, you know, an unwanted Canadian, as a smelly immigrant, a potential burglar and con artist and so on. And it made me reassess my status, my own attitudes towards minorities in India, while I'd been growing up, how unconsciously racist or ethnicist (ph) I may have been myself in relation to Indian minorities.
And having been an elite in Calcutta brought up to believe that my ideas matter meant that I had the gutsiness to take on government officials in Canada, and say you can't do this. This is not right. And I know what's right, and I'm jolly well going to tell you how to set it right.
It didn't work. But, you know, I was caught in two simultaneous roles. One as someone who's very confident of herself and knows right from wrong and feels very strongly about civil rights, human rights and the other, who feels impotent, that there'll be no change in the way that the country thinks. I'm so glad though, I - over the years I've been proved wrong and that Canada is a very habitable place.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
MUKHERJEE: Thank you, Terry.
DAVIES: Bharati Mukherjee speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2002. Mukherjee died last month in Manhattan. She was 76.
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DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, New Yorker staff writer, Sheelah Kolhatkar, takes us inside one of the biggest insider trading scandals in history. She'll talk about the investigation into the hedge fund of billionaire trader Steve Cohen. Her new book, "Black Edge", explores how Wall Street's elite accumulate wealth and the implications for the rest of us. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.