Bharati Mukherjee, a professor at the University of California, is an American writer of Indian origin. She has taught at McGill University, Skidmore College, Queens College and City University of New York. Her books include: The Tiger's Daughter, Wife, Jasmine, The Holder of the World, Leave it to Me, Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride. Her non-fiction titles include: The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, Political Culture and Leadership in India and Regionalism in Indian Perspective. Together with her husband ,Clark Blaise, she wrote the memoir Days and Nights in Calcutta.
Mukherjee was born on July 27, 1940 in Calcutta, West Bengal, India. Her Bengali parents were Brahmins, the highest caste of Hindus. For a short while, she and her family lived in London and Switzerland so that her father could pursue his research in chemistry. They returned to Calcutta but with a dramatic change in economic status. Before leaving Calcutta they had lived in an apartment with relatives and friends. When they returned they were able to move into a large mansion, thanks to her father's new position in a pharmaceutical company. From the age of three, Bharati and her sisters were educated in English. She received a completely Western education at the Loreto Convent School. Her social status and education served to separate her from the surrounding Bengali culture. She earned her B.A. at the University of Calcutta and her M.A. at the University of Baroda where she studied ancient Indian cultures. Afterward she moved to America and received her Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree in creative writing from Iowa University. When she met and married Canadian born Clark Blaise, she further distanced herself from her Bengali roots. For a time she and her husband lived in Montreal but received little acceptance from the Canadian arts community.
Mukherjee's writing delves into the lives of Indian immigrants. She drew upon her own personal experiences in Canada and America and focused primarily on Indian women in pursuit of self-realization. She has said that she models her work on miniaturist painting, an art form that was developed in the 16th century during the Mughal Empire. In an interview in1997 with T.Chen and S.X.Goudie of the University of California, she saw "its insistence that everything happens simultaneously, bound only by shape and color," as a source of inspiration for her fiction. Her work illustrates the hardships of emigration from Calcutta to America. She explores how immigrants sustain their own cultures while integrating into new societies. The immigrants fail to feel completely comfortable in their new environment but their native homes are never the same to them. Critics have categorized her work as post-colonial; when a country previously under foreign rule becomes independent and must endeavor to find a balance between two clashing cultures. The fact that Mukherjee's main characters are women adds further complexity to her work. The ancient tradition of suttee, burning a woman alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, best illustrates a perception of femininity wherein the woman is completely dependent on the man. Brahmin culture values such passivity and submission, while the Indian woman moving to America faces an unprecedented yearning for self-awareness once she comes across the independent and experienced type of women in the Western world.
Critics have applauded Mukherjee's work throughout her evolution as a writer. Patrick M. O'Neil in Great World Writers: Twentieth Century Volume Seven writes that "the varied backgrounds from which her characters hail, as well as the skill with which she renders the complexities of their daily lives, makes her fiction extraordinary." She successfully illuminates personal lives and experiences against the backdrop of the universality of cultural identification. Yet Mukherjee never degrades one culture for the sake of another or claims that one should be dominant. In 1994 she said, "Multiculturalism emphasizes the differences between racial heritages. This emphasis on the differences has too often led to the dehumanization of the different. And dehumanization leads to discrimination. And discrimination can ultimately lead to genocide." Her novel Jasmine best illustrates the dilemma of cultural change. Her heroine, Jasmine, says, "I shuttled between identities... I felt suspended between worlds." Jasmine experiences extreme shifts, both geographically, emotionally and culturally. These changes are personified in the novel through its male characters, the men who mold and shape Jasmine along her journey. Only at the end does she exhibit some hint of autonomy. At one point she thinks to herself: "I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness."