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Unfolding Dreams in a State of Displacement

By Rima Bhattacharya

The literary ambition of Bharati Mukherjee, a prominent writer of the Indian diaspora in the United States, is to give expression to a complex, cross-cultural sensibility. Cultural interactions, dislocations, and deliberation of diasporic identity are among Mukherjee’s major thematic concerns. Her fictions are not only about the trials and tribulations of uprooted immigrants, but also about their struggle for survival, desire for adaptability and excitement of self-fashioning. Her protagonists are open to changes in their identity, responding to the demands of the unfamiliar environments of the host culture. Fluid identities, name changes, altered personalities represent not only modes of personal survival for Mukherjee’s immigrants but they also act as strategies for transforming the American reality of which they seek to become a part. Straddling between multiple cultures herself, Mukherjee, whose biographical journey spans India, Canada, and the United States, charts the lives of Asian Americans who come to America with dreams of happiness and prosperity but often find themselves victims of exploitation, violence, and marginality, though they eventually survive or adapt by perseverance and sheer will-power.

Mukherjee’s works deal with the life of women, who resist imposed destinies. She believes that Asian women need to employ a different rhetoric and strategy from that of the average, white, middle-class women for negotiating power. A dominant trend in the research on immigrant women of the United States has been to view them “as passive victims of processes of dislocation and modernization” (Erel 11). Indeed, they are thought to be victimized twice – once through the process of migration and a second time, through the particularly strict patriarchal regime of their own ethnic group. Authors like Mukherjee, who have adopted the ethnic bildungsroman or life-story methods to rewrite the stories of immigrant women by shifting them to a position of power usually prescribed for men, possess the potential to redress such passive or docile representations of women in the contemporary Asian American literature.

While dealing with literatures of displacement, it is necessary to pay close attention to the diversity of social and cultural capital within a migrant group, in terms of its differentiation according to gender, class, educational status, and ethnic affiliation. Additionally, while foregrounding gender issues, one must refrain from taking women immigrants as a homogeneous category of analysis. The developing-world and postcolonial feminists such as Inderpal Grewal, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Norma Alarcon, Hortense Spillers, Valerie Smith, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have disrupted the notions of heterosexual and patriarchal conventions in their works by underscoring the role of the state in reinforcing these values and by highlighting “the centrality of racial and class formations in the constitution of gender itself” (Butler 5).

It has been observed that, often immigrant women constitute themselves as subjects with agency, by negotiating their gendered ethnicized self at the site of education. The introduction of major steps like “taking educational decisions, negotiating institutional and familial expectations and obstacles and positioning themselves vis-à-vis public and more personal meanings of gendered ethnicized identities” in the lives of immigrant women assisted their positioning as active agents of social change (Erel 51). It is interesting to note that while immigrant women’s educational or professional abilities often go unrecognized, their cultural competencies or adaptabilities are gradually beginning to be appreciated in the larger social context, thereby generating a new-age, ethnicized, and gendered professional niche.

An assessment of the gendered dimensions of migration helps one to distinguish the experiences of men from that of women in the migration and settlement process. In this process, women are considered to be not only the carriers of culture but also the initiators of the ties that bind the host and homeland. However, one needs to analyse whether this role of a cultural mediator acts as a source of burden or empowerment for the immigrant women in question. Confronted with disparate expectations due to their affiliations to both the host and homeland, they often find themselves in a problematic position, not being able to blindly endorse either of them. The situation is further complicated by strict gender divisions that construe women as care-givers and men as providers. In several cases it has been noted that while Indian immigrant women might be disempowered within the domains of the household, they are potentially powerful in the outer world due to the various U.S. agendas on ‘rescuing’ vulnerable and oppressed female diasporans – a mission that Gayatri Spivak has called “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak 285). Contrastingly, the authority of Indian men remains compromised in public spaces due to their inability to measure up to the white masculinity and in private spaces due to the growing empowerment of their household women.

Men usually take their superior status and their advantageous position for granted. Being the sole-provider and the head of the family in most cases, they demand unquestionable obedience from the women-members of their family. However, in a new country where women are more aware of their potential and articulate about their rights, these relations of authority may have to be renegotiated. In countries like India, there is a clear and rigid gender division of labour that decides separate activities for men and women. Men are usually assigned with tasks that women cannot afford to do. But in America, such categories are dismantled making Indian American women lesser dependant on their men for their livelihood.

Such a reversal of gender roles is staged between Panna and her husband in one of Mukherjee’s short stories, “A Wife’s Story”, anthologized in The Middleman and Other Stories. A positive version of Mukherjee’s novel Wife, “A Wife’s Story” narrates the story of an Indian woman, named Panna Bhatt, who earns a brief respite from her wifely duties in India by migrating to the U.S. to earn a PhD in Special Education. Narrated in the first person and in the present tense by the wife herself, this is apparently one of the few short stories, in which Mukherjee has bestowed the protagonist with a voice of her own. The highly significant narrative mode of the story progresses through internal monologues and self-reflections of the main protagonist, Panna. Leaving her family and country in order to pursue her doctoral studies in New York is a major step for Panna Bhatt, who comes from a traditional Gujarati family in which the women could never aspire to be educated: “My mother was beaten by her mother-in-law, my grandmother, when she registered for French lessons at the Alliance Française. My grandmother, the eldest daughter of a rich zamindar, was illiterate” (Mukherjee 29). In fact, Panna, who has received an expensive vocational training at Lausanne and Bombay, is one of the few beginners who have started to break the cycle of the Old World patriarchy of her family. Despite her comparatively liberal upbringing, Panna’s marriage is arranged keeping with the Indian tradition. Prior to her marriage, she has no opportunity to know anything about her husband apart from “his taste in food” (Mukherjee 31). ‘Arranged marriages,’ which by now has become an outdated academic stereotype, or a rather unfashionable regressive practice, is still among Indians, a popular means of maintaining ethnic boundaries. Like most men chosen for arranged marriages, Panna’s husband is an eligible man with a degree from IIM Ahmedabad and the Vice-President of a cotton mill.

Panna, who has settled down both physically and emotionally in New York, shares her one-bedroom apartment with a Chinese American, Charity Chin. Chin, who is estranged from her husband, Eric, randomly selects men to be involved physically with them while still continuing to love her husband secretly. Straddling between two cultures, Panna can neither appreciate Chin’s “lurid love life” nor identify with her inherited notions of “marital duty” (Mukherjee 32). Chin’s indiscriminate sexual liaisons are as remote to her as her own mechanical relationship with her husband in which she cannot tell the difference between affection and love: “Who can tell the difference in a traditional marriage in which a wife still doesn’t call her husband by his first name?” (Mukherjee 32). Ironically, while safeguarding her own culture, she is simultaneously estranged from it and finds herself observing her husband as a stranger embedded in culture that is different from hers. One must understand that Panna’s crisis is not merely a personal one, but reflects the predicaments of all Asian Americans: “It’s the tyranny of the American dream that scares me. First, you don’t even exist. Then you’re funny. Then you’re disgusting” (Mukherjee 26). In a culture, where insults heaped on the immigrants are taken to be a sign of their gradual acceptance, it is not surprising that Panna’s family name is mispronounced as “Mrs. Butt”, instead of “Mrs. Bhatt”, making out of her a butt of joke (Mukherjee 31). This black humour thoughtfully depicted by Mukherjee is one of the many ways in which the First World undermines the survival strategies of Asian Americans and thwarts their chances of being accepted by the U.S. as rightful citizens.

Panna’s exposure to the outer world not only widens her horizons, helps her learn more about the world, experience things hitherto unavailable and meet new people like Charity’s uncle, but also strengthens her enough to protest firmly against racial insults. On an outing to see a David Mamet play with her Hungarian friend, Imre, something that would have been unthinkable in India, Panna is highly disturbed about the jokes on the Patel community and gibes at Indians that the play Glengarry Glen Ross by Mamet displays. After paying eighteen dollars for a ticket of the play, she has to sit and endure disrespectful lines about Indians, such as, “their women…they look like they’ve just been fucked by a dead cat” (Mukherjee 26). Despite bearing the offences, she is indecisive about writing to David Mamet and Steven Spielberg, to protest against their stereotypical and often bizarre representation of Indians as she imagines that this kind of an insult is probably a mark of acceptance (Mukherjee 29). Although she feels sorry for the Gujaratis, she finds enough justification for the humiliating response of ordinary Americans towards them. Stifled by the indecisions of the present life, she longs for the certainties of the past, even if it is the “simple, brutish, partisan hate” of the old country (Mukherjee 27). Annoyed by the first act of the play, Panna vents out her anger towards the white American sitting next to her. Cleverly utilizing the Western norm of spatial provision against a westerner, Panna chides the gentleman for resting his elbow on the arm of her seat, with “the effortless meanness of well-bred displaced Third World women” (Mukherjee 27).

America provides Panna with an opportunity to not only reconstruct her identity but also to perform new socio-cultural roles. It also opens for her new possibilities to develop life-long friendships with other migrants inhabiting New York. The American metropolis decolonizes Panna and inserts her into a space, where interracial erotic encounters are possible, quite unlike in India. Although her impulsive and un-Indian behaviour of hugging Imre, a friend and no lover, publicly forces Panna to self-reflect on how much she has changed, she relishes this basic freedom of expression provided by the U.S. Yet her newly found freedom is terminated by the sudden visit of her husband to the States, an act that reintroduces patriarchal domination into this hitherto uncontrolled space of liberation. To greet him at the JFK Airport, Panna reverts to the Indian clothes and jewellery she had once discarded. Unhappy with Panna’s transformed values and her reconstruction of roles, the arriving husband sulks and wishes to be able to control his wife. As early as on the bus returning from the JFK airport, he criticizes Panna for not wearing his mother’s “ghastly” ring (Mukherjee 33). A confident Panna, who now knows her way around New York and can handle money and even buy tickets unlike in India, is indeed secretly happy to be able to control the environment and gives directions to her husband for once. Panna’s husband, on the other hand “looks disconcerted” and is not at all happy about this role reversal (Mukherjee 33).

If women are construed as vessels of culture and symbols of the nation, then by reversing the gender roles between Panna and her husband, the story also critiques patriarchal Indian constructions of nation and its traditions. It questions, in particular, the nation’s traditional conceptions of women’s conventional social roles and behavior. In the introduction of Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State, Norma Alarco̕n, Caren Kaplan, and Minoo Moallem discuss the ambiguous relationship between women and the modern nation-state, underscoring the marginalization and victimization of women despite their symbolical value in discourses of nationalism. If the monitoring and possessive husband in “A Wife’s Story” represents the bourgeois codes of the nation, then Panna’s confident behavior, freedom and uninhibited interactions with men other than her husband pose a threat to the national respectability. In other words, by rejecting the conventional roles imposed upon Indian women, Panna, the protagonist of Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story” produces a counter-hegemonic understanding of the nation. Unlike the earlier works of Mukherjee that depict the successful Americanization of an ethnic woman through a marriage or a union with a native-born male, this particularly significant short story explores the potential of immigrant women who have acquired, what M. Jacqui Alexander defines as the “erotic autonomy,” in gaining admission into the American society (64). According to Alexander, women’s sexuality is a matter that is mostly under the jurisdiction of the state. Therefore, women’s erotic autonomy can be disruptive to the nation as it may challenge the stereotypical patriarchal practices that usually relate women to reproductive and domestic activities. In this regard, Alexander opines that “[e]rotic autonomy [of women] signals danger to the heterosexual family and to the nation. And because loyalty to the nation as citizens in perennially colonized within reproduction and heterosexuality, erotic autonomy brings with it the potential of undoing the nation entirely, a possible charge of irresponsible citizenship or no citizenship at all” (64).

For ages, gender roles have been conceptualized as undeniably oppressive to Indian women, who are habitually portrayed as passive and victimized. Therefore, women’s contribution in ethnic or national projects is often portrayed as depending on men. Playing the metaphorical roles of mothers, wives, sisters or daughters within the family, women are viewed as the biological and ideological reproducers of the nation or ethnic group they represent. In addition to this, the construction of conventional gender roles is central to the structural maintenance of ethnicity. The boundaries of ethnic groups are usually thought to be safeguarded by women and their appropriate (sexual) behaviour. The transgression of these boundaries, especially in the form of relationship (physical or emotional) with a person of a different race, is often viewed as treason for heterosexual women. Although for a long time such reductionist images of women have been replicated within immigration research by overlooking the predicaments of women migrants or by stereotypically representing them as doubly marginalized, recently other forms of emancipated, democratic, and progressive femininity popularized by immigrant women writers like Mukherjee in their fictions have posited a challenge to such representations. Indeed, Mukherjee’s characterizations speak to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s suggestion in the Critique of Postcolonial Reason that “an ethnic minority or post-colonial (or we could add diasporic) is not necessarily a subaltern positionality” (Virinder S. Kalra, Raminder Kaur, John Hutnyk 26). In other words, the role of a culture-bearer is not always a limitation but often a source of empowerment for women, who are interested in positions of communal authority.

Although Panna’s Indian husband cleverly utilizes the space of American sexual freedom to be intimate with his wife, his personal liberation from a patriarchal mode of thinking remains impossible. A startled Panna comments on the behavioral transformation of her husband: “My husband doesn’t chase me around the sofa, but he pushes me down on Charity’s battered cushions, and the man who had never entered the kitchen of our Ahmadabad house now comes towards me with a dish tub of steamy water to massage away the pavement heat” (Mukherjee 35). Yet inevitably like a typical unthinking, patriarchal husband, he pleads with Panna to give up her studies mid-way and return home with him. Nonetheless, being aware of her irreversible transformation, Panna refuses to quit her studies and instead decides to pose as her former-self momentarily, just to calm down her husband. At one level, Panna who is not even sure of taking up a job in India after completing her degree is shown to pity her husband who has no clue about her future plans.

The ending of the story eroticizes Panna who informs the readers, instead of her husband, about her personal transformation: “In the mirror that hangs on the bathroom door, I watch my naked body turn, the breasts, the thighs glow. The body’s beauty amazes. I stand here shameless, in ways he has never seen me. I am free, afloat, watching somebody else” (Mukherjee 40). Here, Panna’s body simultaneously acts as a metaphor of cultural difference and diasporic connectivity. The ending encapsulates Panna’s strength to refashion herself according to the new culture as well as her struggle to achieve wholeness despite her self-division between two cultures. The feeling of “watching somebody else” creates a distinction between her former and her newly constructed self. The words “shameless,” “free,” “afloat” are significant as they indicate Panna’s departure from the stable notions of home and nation towards diasporic mobility. One must note that the inherent contradiction in this self-representation, is a prominent trait of most modern autobiographies and self-portraitures, where the self is constituted through an act of creation. The self-referential nature of this story clarifies that its self-reflexive protagonist with the first-person voice is actually none other than the author Bharati Mukherjee herself. Thus, although initially “A Wife’s Story” appears to be distinct from Mukherjee’s other creations in depicting an immigrant woman with a voice of her own, gradually it dawns upon the readers that even in this piece the protagonist has been denied any direct contact with them.

To conclude, one could say that Panna of Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story” epitomizes the twenty-first century immigrant woman, who uses her erotic as well as psychic autonomy to resist her colonization by the state and its patriarchal norms. It is undeniable that compared to other women characters drawn by Mukherjee, Panna’s education and her socio-economic position go a long way to make her autonomy and decolonization possible. Although Panna’s emancipation is embedded in the utopian narrative of American liberation, the story does not take a clichéd romantic turn. Instead it depicts a woman who is ready to accept her newly constructed identity and enjoy her emerging sexual freedom in the U.S. Also one must add that if “literary creation is one of women’s self-empowering devices—that is, a rehoming practice that empowers women to assert positive identity, to gain a sense of satisfaction and achievement, and to have a feeling of ‘being at home’ in their own voice,” or if “the writing woman is her text” then by producing such literary accounts of female liberation, Mukherjee, who had moved to the U.S. to study at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and finally became an American citizen in 1988, justifies her own journey of escape from the domestic fetters of India to the American realm of liberation (Zhang 46; Zaborowska 31).

Rima Bhattacharya is currently working as a PhD Research scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India. She is UGC-NET qualified and has completed her M.A and M.Phil. Degrees from the Department of English, Presidency College, Kolkata and University of Calcutta respectively and has taught at a College (affiliated to Calcutta University) for two years as a lecturer. She has graduated with English Honours from Loreto College, Kolkata. She has published papers in journals like South Asian Review,  Journal of Commonwealth Literature, International Journal of Comic Art, Economic and Political Review, Indian Journal of Gender Studies (forthcoming June 2018) to name a few. She has attended some prestigious conferences organized by associations like LCIR, SALA, AAS at London, New York and Washington D.C.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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