Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee died on January 28, 2017. Her death was confirmed in a Facebook post on February 1 by the Taraknath Das Foundation of which Mukherjee was a trustee.
Kolkata-born Mukherjee was Professor Emerita in the department of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She went to the US in 1963 to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There she met and fell in love with fellow student and Canadian-American author Clark Blaise. She published her first novel The Tiger’s Daughter in 1971.
Novelist Manju Kapur remembers her as a “voice from home”. “I read Bharati Mukerjee’s novel The Tiger’s Daughter many, many years ago in Canada. I really liked her,” says the author of Difficult Daughters.
“Mukherjee was one of the first diaspora writers,” says Vrinda Nabar, author of Caste as Woman and former chair of English, University of Mumbai. “In a way, she created a territory for others, particularly women, who came later.”
Best known for her 1989 novel Jasmine, Mukherjee wrote eight novels, four short story collections, three works of nonfiction and a memoir (co-written with her husband). She is survived by her husband and their son.
Writer Amitava Kumar, who is currently the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at the Vaasar College, US, remembers meeting Mukherjee at the Brooklyn Book Festival a few years ago. “She was gracious even though I had opposed her views on immigrants in the New York Times. She felt that the truly creative, maybe even courageous, immigrant was the one who had assimilated and not the one who still clung to bits of her past. I didn’t agree with her and want to say that she was defiant in her own way,” says Kumar in an email.
Though he feels Mukherjee’s book Jasmine did not make an impact on Indians, it was important for Americans. “It introduced to them pretty early on the figure of the postcolonial female in the West. I remember reading some stories of hers even earlier, in The Middleman and Other Stories, and could see that she wanted to mock a familiar idea of Indian masculinity and wished to project a notion of female resistance. It was all a bit predictable but arguably necessary at that time,” says Kumar.
In her fiction, Mukherjee explored the experience and dilemmas of being an immigrant and the culture shock and alienation it entailed. “She had a wry sense of humour,” says Nabar. “There is satire in her works. She could look at the Indian situation, Indian women in the US and the Indian American community.”
Indian American author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says Mukherjee was an important influence on her when she started writing about the Indian immigrant experience in story collections such as Arranged Marriage. “I remember reading, re-reading & underlining passages in her novel Jasmine. I felt she had captured some important aspects of diasporic desires and downfalls,” says the author of The Palace of Illusions.
Mukherjee’s short story The Management of Grief (1988) is Divakaruni’s favourite among the writer’s works. “Although I would soon go a different route, using magical realism to explore immigrant problems in the Indian American community in novels such as Mistress of Spices, and unlike her, I would always consider myself an Indian American writer, I am grateful to her for giving me the confidence that stories about Indians in America were worth telling,” says Divakaruni.
In a 1989 interview, Mukherjee said that she saw herself as an American writer and not an Indian diasporic one. We have to take the author at face value on that, says Nabar. “There have been subtle shifts in her writing, but she remained someone whose work straddled both worlds. One of her strengths remained her use of language and the way in which she was able to make a situation come alive.”
As the news spread, writers and admirers expressed their condolences on Twitter:
The American writer Bharati Mukherjee has died; she was 76. "Book by book, I see the changes within myself." https://t.co/uzAYbwaF9T— Nilanjana Roy (@nilanjanaroy) February 1, 2017
People always asked if I was related to her when I first came to America. RIP Bharati Mukherjee.— oindrila mukherjee (@oinkness) February 1, 2017
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