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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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The Writer’s Visit

Bharati Mukharjee comes to Dhaka to reclaim her ancestral home--Bangladesh

Nilofar Khan

Bharati Mukherjee--the eminent American writer was in Dhaka on a short visit. Research on her roots in Bangladesh had brought this gorgeous Bengali lady to this part of Bengal for the first time about four years ago. The recent tour was her second trip to her ancestral homeland. Since I had wonderful memories of interviewing her at Berkley in 1992, I rushed to see her again despite all kinds of duties and torrential downpour.

I must admit that during our first meeting I did not fully grasp or appreciate Mukerjee's political stand as a pioneer immigrant writer who was claiming her right to change the face of American fiction. At that point of my academic career I was just discovering writers of Indian origin who were writing in English. So while I felt proud of my cultural affinity with these writers, I also assumed that they must all be very proud of their own origins and heritage. But when Mukherjee read me out parts of her manifesto as presented in her essay, "A Four Hundred Year Old Woman," I began wondering about the need of writers like her to be absorbed by mainstream America and American literature. Later however, while preparing for my Ph.D comprehensives, as I read more of her fiction, I discovered her endeavours at striking a balance between two opposite poles. On the one hand, her writings seemed to aggressively embrace the diverse facades of the New World that she has been discovering since her arrival at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa in early 60's. On the other hand, they seemed embedded in Indian history and her Baligonjian familial past with an unquestionable certainty.

However, the impression that our recent meeting has left on my mind is that despite her praises for pluriculturalism or mongrelization, her primary agenda is still the need to justify her Americanness. Perhaps this justification is required not so much by the white Americans as by the Sub-Continentals who are either afraid of losing their intellectuals to the Western world, or who interpret their appropriation of the West as entirely self-centered and economically motivated. Prepared for such a tension amongst some of her audience, while Mukherjee reminded them of her allegiance to the American constitution, she also made it clear that she is not an uncritical, complicit citizen of her nation. As with her North American husband in private life, in her civic life also she practices the art of tactful assertiveness. Now she does not hesitate to point out the loopholes of the American essentialist mindset or its Establishment. In fact she has been trying to muster the art of rectifying the ways and beliefs of the white male dominated society whenever and wherever necessary by confidently reminding it that, "even if your objectives are great, your methodology is not always necessarily correct."

Another confirmation that I made from her two lectures I attended is, for Mukherjee the biggest fights have been against Western racism. She emphasized the fact that her brown skin has thrown more ruthless challenges on her way than the fact that she was born as one of three daughters in a conservative Bengali Brahmin family. According to the author this is why her major concerns have been minority issues in America rather than post-colonial or feminist issues.

However, the fiction writer has her own qualms with these schools of thought. Expressing her utter displeasure with that type of post-colonialism that demands constant referring back to the colonial heritage, Mukerjee declared that our colonial hang up is long over. Hence, according to her as an author she should not be forced to stick to issues of nationalism or patriotism. Her characters similarly should not be expected to be mouthpieces for enhancing cultural glory. As a writer of the postmodern era, and inhabiting in midst of cultures that are constantly in flux, she demands her right to hybridity and "impurity". Nonetheless, a hyphenated identity, as in Asian-American is something she detests. Unlike the Naipaul types who perpetually carry around a baggage of nostalgia for "homes " left behind, she has decided to lay newer roots at the soil of America. Hence like the John Updikes and Joyce Carol Oateses of America she wishes to be able to contribute to the collective consciousness of America.

However, parting ways with mainstream American feminism and it's heavy adoption of French feminism, she tried to remind her audience that South Asian feminism as sprouting from the soil of Kolkata for instance, is far different from the type brewing amongst the diasporan or immigrant minority of America. After a lot of what she calls "unhousing" and "rehousing" that an immigrant woman like her had to go through, Mukherjee seems to have gained a certain insight into the various faces of neo-colonialism, which includes a part of Western feminism. All in all, the sudden short arrival of this controversially famous author amongst our midst opened many channels for further debate upon the hot issues briefly touched on above.

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