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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Essay

 

Anupama Jain

Re-reading Beyond Third World Difference: The Case of Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine


Anupama Jain is completing a Ph.D. in English Literature at the U of Wisconsin­Madison. She has received a Vilas Fellowship Award for 1996-97.

 

Bharati Mukherjee's novels demand that readers struggle with the descriptive limitations of concepts such as 'Third World' subjects, post-colonial identities and diasporic communities by questioning the applicability of these terms to the characters she creates. When critics and reviewers focus primarily or solely on issues of racial identity in Mukherjee's novels, they ignore this questioning, instead reifying a view of 'minority' groups in America as inevitably alienated from mainstream culture. In a too easy conflation of terms, such readers consider men and women of color in America to be in-house Third World subjects whose writing is read, above all else, for its description of otherness from dominant white hegemony. Through reading practices which are intended to be pluralistic, we invite such tendencies by constructing special programs and syllabi in which we study texts by 'minority' writers, granting them a separate, not entirely equal, status alongside our traditional canon. Despite Mukherjee's assertion that she is an American, not an Asian-American (repeated most recently in an article in Mother Jones), her readers often do not read farther than the 'difference' from white America they locate in her texts. The result is that her highly popular novel Jasmine is always marked as a novel written by a woman of color who will necessarily describe a Third World sensibility. This mark of difference has resulted in critics overemphasizing certain issues in her work at the expense of other important analyses, most notably the author's resistance to multicultural theories of immigrant solidarity and diasporic bonding as intrinsic components of the post-colonial experience. Rereading beyond 'Third World difference' in Mukherjee's novel means realizing that Jasmine deconstructs easy binaries about race and resists categorization as 'minority' literature. The novel instead requires new types of readings that describe—rather than prescribe—the contours of multicultural experiences.

Jasmine is the story of a young Hindu woman from a village in Punjab who illegally travels to the United States after her husband is murdered by religious fanatics. Named Jyoti at birth, she is transformed in each of her new locations, moving from Punjab to Florida to New York to Iowa and finally to California. For each new metamorphosis, she also acquires a new name: Jasmine, Jazzy, Jase, and Jane. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Mukherjee describes these transformations as a narrative of successful migration to America by an Indian woman who is never a downtrodden and pathetic immigrant. While Mukherjee may have successfully rejected one aspect of what she considers a pervasive image of immigration, the critical response to Jasmine reveals that even 'successful' immigrant narratives are vulnerable to pigeon-holing of other sorts. Mainstream media and scholarly readings of Jasmine show that the story of immigration is expected to present certain images of American communities of Others, even if this version of the story attempts to reverse those expectations. In an article which discusses Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories, Fred Pfeil uses bookjacket 'puffs' as proof of how well Mukherjee has sold a limited and superficial vision of immigrants to a (white) American readership. His argument is a useful one to mention here not only because his critique of Mukherjee echoes many other negative responses by non-mainstream readers, but also because his technique of judging a book by its cover as well as by what's inside is highly revealing.

The blurbs that accompany my copy of Jasmine indicate that critical interest in the book has largely been limited to its Third World 'difference.' The Los Angeles Times Book Review claims that it is

Breathtaking A Hindu woman flees her family's poverty, and the Sikh terrorism that bloodies her village. After a time in New York—only a foreign eye could fix the world of the Upper West Side with such hilarious and revealing estrangement—she moves to a small town in Iowa. In corn and hog country—now prey to farm foreclosures and despair—she marks with unsparing brilliance the symptoms of a new Third World.

Meanwhile, USA Today believes that this is a novel about "exile and transformation. Mukherjee forces us to see our country anew" and the Detroit Free Press values the novel for allowing us to see "ourselves as others see us." The Baltimore Sun celebrates "the transformation of an Indian village girl, whose grandmother wants to marry her off at 11, into an American woman who finally thinks for herself." These blurbs appear on the back of the book, in place of any description of the story itself, so that a reader will potentially buy the book based on this type of praise alone.

These reviewers present Jasmine, our eponymous heroine, to the average American customer as a transformed, liberated, and self-directed woman, but she is nonetheless still the "foreign eye," the outsider immigrant who presents 'us' with a new version of ourselves and who experiences symptoms of an undeveloped backwater in America. This novel is sold as the story of a woman of color who is inevitably marginal and marked by difference, useful only for her ability to inform white America about itself. Where does this marketing strategy leave the non-white reader?

When confronting this question, critics including Fred Pfeil have answered that it leaves those readers feeling stereotyped and invisible. These critics have taken Mukherjee, rather than her reviewers, to task for her reductive representation of Third World subjects and for her assumed audience of white Western readers. Susan Koshy and Anu Aneja, for example, agree that Jasmine's narrative provides a backward-looking, orientalizing construction of the Indian woman from the perspective of the liberated American woman whom she becomes. Both critics locate in the text a re-inscription of a hierarchized world view in which the West is opposed to the East, which they consider a re-colonization of the Third World woman. Carmen Wickramagamage, who reads the novel much more optimistically than either Aneja or Koshy, writes about Jasmine's migration from the Old World to the New as a contrast between the restrictive patriarchal culture of India with the fluidity and possibility of American life, affirming and replicating a polarization for which Aneja and Koshy critique Mukherjee.

These critics focus on the binary of Third/First Worlds in this text, just as some of the reviewers insist on the differences between 'us' and 'them.' Mukherjee's text, however, insistently problematizes these binaries, even if it is at times almost simplistically about "a romance with America itself," as Koshy describes it (72). Jasmine presents readers with a "Third World woman" who deconstructs the very category at its most insidious because Jyoti is never a primitive native, the subaltern who arguably has no voice. Even though the novel's representation of Indian womanhood conforms in some ways to Wickramagamage's reading of it as circumscribed and static, Mukherjee's own text significantly unsettles this image by showing how a traditionally-raised and haphazardly-educated village girl like Jyoti is inescapably implicated in Western, as well as Eastern, culture before ever leaving India. Critics who object to the novel's vision of the ease of immigration ignore this fact about the text because Mukherjee does not present this as an insight that Jyoti has before she actually arrives in America, but which Jazzy exploits easily to her own advantage once in this country. The West and the East are intertwined cultural determinants throughout this novel, with America as the privileged site for the exploration of new hybrid cultures.

Academics in various fields have theorized about hybridity that East has met and continues to meet West in a more complicated fashion than is usually assumed in descriptions like the bookjacket puffs. For example, Lisa Lowe and Trinh T. Minh-ha both posit that interactions between dominant (Western) and minority (Eastern) cultures in America de-stabilize the homogeneous views of each which have been created by the polarization of the terms. Trinh and Lowe describe how the heterogeneity of the putative Third World/minority communities both resists an essentializing containment by dominant culture and denies the First World its own claims to stability or homogeneity. The mutual interaction of far-flung regions of the world is visible not only in the migration of peoples from West to East and East to West but also in the flow of goods and technology which make it impossible to consider any culture pure or uniform. The effects of this circulation of knowledge and commodities are neither inherently reifying nor subversive of hierarchical world views, but instead complicate any notion of rigidly isolated cultures, just as Jasmine itself does. When readers expect the relationship of East and West to be expressed simply as a binary in the novel, they risk obscuring a much more intricate portrayal of global subjectivities which notices both the effects of 'post'-colonial colonization as well as the possibilities for active and empowering appropriation of these effects by Eastern individuals.

Jasmine presupposes that cultures are not monolithic or static. For Jyoti, India combines characteristics ascribed to both developed and underdeveloped nations. Hers is a country in which "Beggars with broken bodies shoved alms bowls at suited men in automobiles. Shacks sprouted like toadstools around high-rise office buildings. Camels loped past satellite dishes. Centuries coalesced as we picnicked" (72-3). Such examples of syncretism depict a transnational culture which brings allegedly unlike things into intimate contact and suddenly both Eastern and Western relics are undeniable elements in any 20th century landscape. This passage depicts a country which is designated as Third World but which has claims to the same evolution and progress reputed to exist only in the First World. Of course, this kind of contrast is hardly unproblematic if we agree with Marx that capitalism is merely the latest form of imperialism, but it also immediately destabilizes any idea of cultural identities shaped in isolation from outside influences, an idea which often leads to the devaluation of the East as undeveloped and backwards. Although Jyoti does not explicitly acknowledge it, her daily life in India is a commingling of traces of many cultures which give her access to broader identification than merely as a Third World native. While these traces do not always (or even usually) have histories which are useful models for future cross-cultural interactions, they are unavoidable in Jyoti's life.

At the beginning of the novel, Jyoti is an Indian woman who has a very limited view of the West since her direct encounters with cultures beyond her own are restricted to a few books and one movie. Her clearest introduction to American ideology arrives in the form of an American aerogram to her ambitious husband Prakash, which commands them to "CELEBRATE AMERICA" and to "TRAVEL—THE PERFECT FREEDOM" (75). Her love affair with America commences from this moment of explicit interpellation into the dreams of migration to and liberation in the West. Yet even before this explicit hail, her life in rural Hasnapur is never isolated from or uncontaminated by diverse cultures, as revealed by Jyoti's only means of self-recognition, a 'borrowed' piece of another world. In the hut she shares with her brothers, Jyoti has a mirror which reveals the ways in which her subjectivity is partly a product of cultures beyond her own local institutions and ideology. She receives a reflection of herself from "a rearview rectangle that Arvind-prar had twisted off a UN jeep he'd found rusting in the demilitarized zone near the border" (62). This mirror not only symbolizes the extent to which Indiaand her own little corner of it in Hasnapurhave been exposed to and influenced by international institutions and technologies, but it also implicates her in a transnational community. Jyoti notices that along the bottom of the mirror are "some words in English I didn't exactly understand but took as a kind of mantra: OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR" (63). Although Jyoti feels constrained in a small town which she feels has little contact with the excitement and freedom of the outside world, her immediate surroundings present her with many indications that the modern world has greatly influenced Hasnapur.

'Objects' and people seen through this looking glass, which has been appropriated by her brother from its official peace-keeping role into an accessory for their home, are closer than they appear. The distances between the regions of the world are drastically reduced and Jyoti accepts this mantra without fully exploring its implications. Her relocation to the United States and her actual experiences of another country with a supposedly distinct culture make it easier for Jyoti to claim this mantra with greater self-awareness. Traveling from Hasnapur to the city of Jullundhar and finally to America, Jasmine experiences erosions of the strict separation of First/Third World and self-consciously notices the closeness of seemingly distant objects. Alone, in pain, and hungry after her initial horror-filled night on American soil, Jasmine stumbles upon a community of Native Americans and a white woman who 'does work' with them, and she recognizes sameness, not difference. "I had traveled the world without leaving the familiar crops of Punjab," she thinks, and notices that the faces around her are reminiscent of faces in her own past (115). Jasmine cannot identify where she has landed, since this new world is more like the old world than it is different, and her experience of Third World characteristics in the First is only one of the ways in which her mantra becomes reaffirmed in her new location.

When Jasmine notices on her first day in the United States that she sees no purely "American" faces, she becomes aware of the hybridity present in our overlapping global communities in a way which wasn't clear to her in India. Mukherjee has repeatedly asserted in her essays and interviews that America has always been a country of immigrants, which means that any ideal of one central (dominant) culture is mostly illusion, a theme which is at the heart of Jasmine. Cultural exchanges between women of color and their shared knowledge depicts one element of hybridity in Jasmine's new country, but these interactions are not the main concern of the novel. Instead, hybridity is most fully explored in terms of modifications to the dominant culture and in the deconstruction of the polarity of 'us' (majority) and 'them' (minority). All of the Americans whom Jasmine meets are involved to different degrees with international institutions and American life as Jasmine experiences it is never completely signified or contained by white normative culture. For example, the man whose child she is to have, Bud, enlarges his already multicultural family by adopting a Vietnamese refugee, Du. Du represents some of the urgency of hybridity in a household such as theirs since he spends his spare time adding new functions to standard appliances, a process which he describes as "recombinant electronics. I have altered the gene pool of the common American appliance" (139).

Living in this family Jasmine finds a brave new world in her migration to America, but the existence of cultural hybridity and heterogeneity were already present in India but not fully recognized. Her acknowledgment of the constant inter-penetration of 'American' culture and the culture of immigrants/people of color is in striking contrast to the naivetè with which Jyoti regarded her world (204). Jasmine's more mature view of the world insists on a global sensibility which transcends national or cultural boundaries and a de-centering of First/Third World distinctions as the only important paradigm for discussions of this novel. Rather than considering the contrast between Jasmine and Jyoti as a transparent privileging of West over East, we must nuance previous interpretations of the text that offer useful insights but that also limit readings of the novel to a consideration of it as Third World anthropology. By not emphasizing the many ways in which the novel deconstructs the binary of First/Third World, the theorists I have discussed above (and the reviewers whose blurbs construct an insider/outsider dichotomy) flatten out some of its complexities and ignore other fruitful sites for interpretation.

To read beyond Third World difference means noticing that Jasmine portrays strikingly diverse immigrant experiences, so much so that Jasmine eventually disassociates herself from any minority identification. Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani suggest why immigrant narratives cannot be reduced to any one script when they write that contemporary subjectivities are formed by the specific imperatives of each context in which a person finds herself. There are many local demands and interactions which play a part in determining "'the postcolonial' as an axis of subject formation," Frankenberg and Mani insist, when they recognize that there is no one postcolonial identity marker or paradigm which works equally well for all individuals in non-dominant positions (302). The reviews of Jasmine mentioned above scrutinize and celebrate the text primarily in terms of community membership, equating all immigrant experience. This equation is not quite appropriate to Mukherjee's vision. Jasmine is the story of a unique rather than a representative immigrant. Meanwhile, postcolonial critics like Koshy, Aneja, and Wickramagamage seem to read the novel with implicit expectations of subversive politics and positive re-conceptualizations of stereotypes (whether exoticizing or overtly negative) which hardly seem to be a part of the author's agenda.

There is an implicit determination in all of these readings of the novel to fit both Bharati Mukherjee and the transformed Jasmine in the West into a community of Third World women, whose discourses must recognizably be distinct from those of (truly) Western women. Readers of texts by minority writers often search insistently for collective expressions and community-building—fundamentally, for links between similarly oppressed peoples in a variation of a 'nationalist agenda,' perhaps. Although national identities are frequently a significant element of Third World texts and this search can be one useful area for analysis, it can also be used to elide other elements of texts which may not conveniently fit our paradigms of postcolonialism, oppositional politics, or feminism. Hampering these paradigmatic expectations, Jasmine moves ever westward in a novel in which building coalitions or defining a community is never of primary concern. For this woman of color, any sense of community is considered to be inherently unstable and often hinders rather than empowers her. From the first chapter of the book, a reader is aware that, even as Jyoti, she was a different woman from those around her. Although she was neither radical nor rebel, she expressed a strong sense of distinction from everyone else from childhood. It is Jasmine's very uniqueness which enables her transformation into a free-thinking and -acting individual, not simply the move to America. According to her father, Jyoti was like "a lotus blooming in cow dung" since she insisted on continuing her education much further than any girl in her village, rather than getting married (40). Her teacher meanwhile considered her "the first likely female candidate for English instruction he'd ever had" (35). Jyoti was thus in some ways never a Third World woman, not only because of the effects of globalized cultural interactions, but also because of her predisposition to distance herself from those aspects of her surroundings which insisted on her sameness to a cultural type. Instead, she embraced literal and metaphorical migrancy as another mantra. Because Jyoti instinctively valued the open-ended potentials available to her, given the rampant hybridity of the late 20th century, she rejected any type of identification with traditional ideas of Third World subjectivity.

In Jasmine, there are really no coalitions to be built as long as "we" (those who can think and act as Jasmine does) knowingly and willingly accept America as a utopian space, symbolizing fluidity and possibility more overtly than any other country because its culture has always depended on immigration and thus hybridity. Positive relations in this novel are defined by the capacity of individuals to exist separately but provisionally—related in similar states of liberating dislocation. Jyoti dislocates herself first from her family and then from India, beginning her journey towards this type of freedom. After Prakash's death, Jasmine decides to leave India because she does not want to join the only community open to her, that of the widows who seem to be as dead as their departed husbands. Surrounded by old women, who are forgotten and forever marked by their loss, Jasmine makes the daring plan to perform ritual sati not in India, but in America. Her intent to enact traditional self-sacrifice on the unhallowed ground of an alien culture might be one of the more striking examples of syncretic hybridity in the novel. Discovering in America that survival is more compelling than ritualistic notions of honor which justify sati, Jasmine finds herself making her own way with a little serendipitous help. Those who aid Jasmine quickly learn to let her go her own way, because she herself is so good at letting go.

This is apparent in Jasmine's instinctive impatience with her experience in Flushing, where she lives with a Punjabi family and feels like "a prisoner doing unreal time," because the neighborhood is a "fortress of Punjabiness" (132). All Third World individuals in America don't necessarily change when they relocate—noticeably, Nirmila, the young wife whose family takes Jasmine into their home, is not transformed since she maintains traditional Indian roles as wife and caretaker—but Jasmine repositions the stars and re-writes her fate. Jasmine eventually escapes from the immigrant community in Flushing and does not need or want to identify with any group but rather to build provisional relations to suit her ever-changing needs. She moves from New York to Iowa, maintaining a relationship with Bud but hesitating to marry him and thereby lock herself into a structure of conformity. Traveling West to California with Taylor and his daughter Duff, carrying Bud's child, hoping to re-unite with Du (who has moved on himself), Jasmine rejects any permanence for the promise of change and a desire-driven peripateticism. Eschewing community or a stable identity (national or otherwise collectively defined), Jasmine chooses America the Land of Recombinant Identities. Her identity is thus formed in relation not to the 'real' country but to her vision of it as insistently hybrid and heterogeneous.

Jasmine is a text which cannot be contained by prefabricated notions of what a Third World subject should write. When the focus of our attention is shifted away from oppositional struggles (configured as the liberation of the Eastern subject from Western hegemony) in the novel, we discover that there are many other sites for examination. Analyses of these sites are related in important ways to questions of Third and First World but are not simply extensions of such inquiries. Rather, such analyses must be attempts to broaden the perspectives with which we can approach unique texts. Bharati Mukherjee's vision of immigration and identity-formation in Jasmine is not solely about distinctions between Eastern and Western subjectivities, since she depicts a world in which cultural hybridity has replaced immutable differences between people and countries/regions of the world. When insisting that this aspect of identity is the only one worth pursuing, readers are liable to ignore the ways in which the novel problematizes notions of community, of cultural preservation, and of coalition building, all crucial issues to address.

When we look to Jasmine for a celebration of 'native' culture or for a politics of coalition-building, we are disappointed. When we read the text with expectations created by our needs for Third World texts to perform subversion of dominant hegemony, we find that our configurations are inadequate to describe Mukherjee's sometimes complex and often provocative constructions. My own investment in this novel is not uninformed by these expectations. As I have struggled to understand it and my own often troubled responses to it, I have noticed that the novel actively disrupts the notion of a Third World subjectivity with a de-centered, fluid and uncontainable politics of non-identification. Gail Ching-Liang Low reminds us that this is a troublesome aspect of the novel because of the protagonist's willingness to forget the past in reconstructing herself again and again while minority groups have frequently found their pasts erased for them (17). Low recuperates the text by asserting that Mukherjee rejects the very expectations which would insist on the author's Otherness as the determining factor of her literary project. I find this a helpful suggestion for approaching the text but it cannot mean an uncritical affirmation of Mukherjee's narrative, such as that represented by the reductive and revealing blurbs found on the back of the book .

Those readings of the text clearly indicate how Jasmine is complicit with the American dream, suggesting that, if immigrants share only one thing, it is having 'escaped' restrictive, conventional lives in the Third World for the freedom of the New World. But when we remember that minority groups in this country have different histories and relations to dominance versus privilege, we have to realize that the text never really explores what an illusion this dream is for most immigrants or minority individuals, seeming instead to criticize their inability to adapt repeatedly and succeed quickly. The fact that Jasmine can exploit the exotic cachet of being an Indian princess, for example, makes her experience of the American dream a unique (and compromising) one in many ways. Further, even as the novel expands our ideas of postcolonial identities, it does not seem to comment enough on the implications of Jasmine's ability to imagine America as an un-colonized space for herself in comparison with India, where African-Americans and Native Americans will never have the same privilege. These lacks are disquieting, but we must approach them with multiple readings that can correspond to a subjectivity which, however problematic we may find it, is influenced by diverse local and global realities, as well as unimagined possibilities. Perhaps Jasmine does not offer us a model for collective political action, but readings of it which insist on multiple axes of analysis can provide us with important insights about how we define our identities as much as Jasmine's. This can only be useful for those of us in postcolonial and multicultural studies who are interested in broadening our canon to include works by non-dominant groups and who wish to assess those works with sensitivity and rigor, but also with a clear sense of our own ideological baggage.

 

WORKS CITED

Aneja, Anu. "Jasmine, the Sweet Scent of Exile." Pacific Coast Philology 28:1 (1993): 72-80.

Frankenberg, Ruth and Lata Mani. "Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race,

 

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