The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

Fleeing the cage has its pains too
Cookie Maini

Desirable Daughters
by Bharati Mukherjee. Rupa, New Delhi. Pages 310, Rs 195.

Desirable DaughtersCLOSE on the heels of Manju Kapoorís Difficult Daughters comes Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee, at any rate a progression in the fictional recasting of gender from the earlier title Enslaved Daughters by Sudhir Chandra. Interestingly, both the former books are a search for roots, and an endeavour at mapping gender identities. With an amalgam of history and fiction, Manju Kapoor reverted to Lahore as she culled her mothersí past in the historical backdrop of pre-Partition Punjab, synthesising fact and fiction. Bharati Mukherjee imbues the typical diasporic yearning for her homeland, i.e., her Bengali culture, on which reams of publication culminated into a vital component of literary consciousness.

As gender studies in formal scholastic environs is emerging as a force to reckon with, such fictional books are a trajectory of authentic feminist thought processes. As one delves into the world of Bharati Mukherjee or others of her genre, one finds it a mode for contemporary gender location and reconstruction. As she is now a diasporic litterateur, it is a peep into the psyche of the globalised entities. Immigration posed a myriad of dilemmas which have spawned reams of literature ó simplistically women writers appreciate the gender facilities on alien shores, yet cannot release themselves and abandon their genetic framework and continually empathise with the socio-cultural conventions their gender counterparts are confined in.


In a palanquin borne by four servants sit a rich manís three daughters, the youngest dressed in her bridal sari, her little banks painted with red lac dye, her hair oiled and setÖ I cannot imagine the loneliness of this child. A Bengali girlís happiest night is about to become her lifetime imprisonment. It seems all the sorrow of history, all that is unjust in society and cruel in religion has settled on her. Even constructing it from the merest scraps of family memory fills me with rage and bitterness.

Bharati Mukherjee enmeshes the socio-cultural history of Bengal, blending it with personal family history, which is transmitted down the generations. Central to her story is the impact of western culture on ethnic Bengali society. She traces the earliest influence of colonialism, bringing it up to the present when immigrants have a differential circumstance but essentially the same confluence of the orient and the occidental. As one traverses through the novel to see an emergent transition in the processes of assimilation, simultaneous reactive patterns manifest in a parallel gender transformation. The earlier women in the East were protected from an infusion of alien cultures due to the intractability of social patterns and mores; the cross-cultural impact was restricted to menís mobility. However, the modern feminine emigrant is aware, awakened to ideal gender notions and rights, so she is quick to adapt yet acutely sensitised to the plight of her gender back home. Where there is a sociological statement, she grapples with this conundrum. Many young feminist diasporic writers have tried to map the emergence of their identities. They reconceptualise that in the context of their adopted milieu as well as their former habitat. Similarly they endeavour a recasting of their sisters back home.

These are the theoretical abstractions that one can deduce from the plot as it unravels. The story is engrossing and well written in Bharati Mukherjeeís racy style; the plot is quick.

Taraís story begins in Calcutta as the author shuttles between the colonial Bengali society, with the facets that typify emergence of the Bhadralok, cultural dilemmas westernised lives juxtaposed with the tradition bound warps of Hindu ritualism which their wives were subjected to and the emergent social reforms seeping in through the Bhahmo Samaj Movement, from where the scenario moves on to California. The observations and reactions are autobiographical and allegorical since Bharati lives there now. Central to the theme is Taraís quest for identity, as her traditional Brahmin roots and American interlude coincide. When she lives in San Francisco, she intermittently reminisces spells of her Bengali Brahmin childhood, thereby portraying the "contrasting cultures and the emergent eternal migrant dilemmas."

Tara lives in San Francisco surrounded by an ex-husband, Bish Chatterjee, her son Rabi and her lover, a Hungarian Buddhist. In parallel projection are the two men in her life who symbolise two diverse cultures and her cultural dilemma.

Her portrayal of her son Rabi, who is a typical product of cross-cultural upbringing, brings out the conflict of imposing an Indian pattern of parenthood. "I look at Rabi and, for the first time in my life, I want to slap him, scream at him and tell him to shut up, but parents canít feel this way. No, thatís not right, Iíve seen them in parking lots and supermarkets. They get furious and make fools of themselves and security guards have to be called and they get in the papers for child abuse and end up in jail. Indian mothers donít; we donít have violent feelings except against ourselves, and never against our children, at least not against our sons."

She has woven in her sibling interaction, very Indian in its style but again showcased in the USA. Apparently, these were the contraindications for Bharati Mukherjee to contend with. She has given vent to her emotions in a novel, which has mental turmoil, mystery, intrigue and primarily a fervent quest for identify and space.