Course 573: The Fiction of Postmodern America
Professor T V Reed
October 31, 1996.
Bharati Mukherjee: Postcolonial-Postmodern/Anglo-Indian/Indo-Anglian/Indo-American/American/Bengali-Indian/?
Hyphens meet, mingle, and march; hyphens disentangle, disconcert, dehyphenate...
Gayatri Spivak. "A Conversation with Spivak" (in Bengali). Kagoj 24 (1995).
The Tiger's Daughter. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1971.
Wife. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1975.
Jasmine. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989; London: Virago Books, 1989.
The Holder of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993; London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
Darkness. Markham, Ontario: Penguin, 1985; London: Virago Books, 1985; New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988; London: Virago Books, 1988.
Alam, Fakrul. "A Hunger for Connectedness." Chapter in Bharati Mukherjee. Twayne's United States Authors Series. New York: Twayne-Prentince Hall International, 1996. 119-148.
Alam views The Holder of the World as a nearly fulfilled postface to Mukherjee's own poetics proposed in her 1991 essay called "A Four-Hundred-Year-Old-Woman." In this essay Mukherjee optatively formulates one of her literary agendas, namely redefining the meaning of America through what she calls "her sense of the interpenetration of all things," and Alam maintains that her novel seems to accomplish this agenda well. Identifying in the novel both a "principal plot" that has to do with "the strange and surprising adventures of Hannah Easton" (120) and a "subsidiary plot" recounting "the story of Beigh Masters" (120), Alam goes on to argue that the novel may be interpreted as a "quest narrative" (124)-a narrative that conveys to contemporary American readers her sense of history predicated on the logic of a "tightly woven...Kashmiri shawl," to use Mukherjee's own metaphor (World 189). In other words, according to Alam, Mukherjee's novel envisages and engages "history" as a complex space across which lives are not merely connected, but are also intricately intertwined and intensely lived intertemporally-a space against which "the superficial divides that seperate us" (124) can be perpetually questioned and dismantled. The novel, thus, exhibits a "hunger for connectedness," which, as Alam further argues, one is not likely to find in Mukherjee's previous fiction. Although Alam seems to be sensitive to what he calls "occasional lapses" in the novel like certain "knotted sentences" (136) or prose "that can be occasionally a little too mannered" (136) (one, however, is not likely to understand what Alam means by "knotted sentences" and "mannered prose," and how they turn out to be "lapses;" perhaps the question of what might be called, in the manner of Rushdie, "grammatical-stylistic Brahminism" is implicit in Alam's judgement?), he fails to point up yet another level of Mukherjee's stylistic connectedness, particularly exemplified in some of the techniques and metaphors she appropriates from contemporary Bengali fiction and ancient Indian narratives. Alam's reading also shows a lack of a serious theoretical engagement with Mukherjee's work from a postcolonial perspective.
Appiah, K. Anthony. Review of The Holder of the World. New York Times Book Review 10 October 1993: 7
Appiah maintains that Mukherjee's most recent novel The Holder of the World "offers us a model of cultural cross-pollination"-a model that is built not on a "gentle melding" but on a vehement interconnectedness, on "a more vigorous, and a more bitter, fusion". Arguing that the novel resists summarizing and that any attempt to summarize the novel is likely to disfigure drama into melodrama, Appiah holds that "the truth" is "in the details, brilliantly conceived, finely written, sustained from the first to the last page," and that Mukherjee, while celebrating "the borderlands" in her novel, also appears as a close relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ardently adulatory, this review is replete with a number of run-of-the-mill comments on Mukherjee-comments which resemble those promotional, stereotyped, almost frozen remarks one routinely encounters on the back covers of always-ready-to-be-sold books. Indeed, how can Appiah point out the fact that Mukherjee is also a distant, somewhat forgetful relative of a Jibanananda Das?
Casey, Ethan. The Holder of the World. In Magill's Literary Annual. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1994. 401-405.
Characterizing The Holder of the World as an audacious feminist rewriting of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, Casey sees in Mukherjee's novel an attempt to "narrate early modern history through the (somewhat implausible) reconstructed consciousness of a protomodern protagonist" (403). Casey also discerns a "postmodern," particularly metafictional, stylistic strategy in the novel in that it is self-consciously about itself. For instance, Beigh is always consciously pointing up parallels between her own imaginative, space-time-crossing project of recreating Hannah's life and Venn's project-a project that involves filling massive amounts of data in the computer to create a facsimile of a few seconds on October 29, 1989. Finally, Casey raises a series of questions in a headlong succession: "Does Mukherjee "pander" to "stereotypes"? Does she betray her own Hindu heritage? Or can she be granted the artist's customary freedom to attempt depictions of people, places and things-and attitudes-quite outside her own experience?"(405). Although, thus, such questions are enthusiastically raised, Casey neither tries to answer them, nor formulates even a sketchy framework within which such questions can be sensibly and effectively asked. Indeed, Wittgenstein's note of caution comes to mind: not all questions are questions that make sense.
Messud, Claire. Review of The Holder of the World. Times Literary Supplement 12 November 1993: 23.
While Messud acknowledges the merit and maturity of The Holder of the World as a novel coming from one who has been struggling to capture what might be called postcolonial, "borderland" as well as "border-crossing" experiences, Messud points out that World at times comes close to "orientalizing" Bhagmati in the sense that Mukherjee keeps playing on stereotypes of the mystery and sensuousness of the Orient, particularly in the scene where Bhagmati is viewed as a "servant transformed" (World 155). This question of "orientalizing" has been raised by Alam (137) as well, but Messud makes this question more relevant, raising yet another problem in the novel she identifies: "the book takes itself so seriously that it risks becoming more interesting to think about than to read (23)." For instance, Beigh's inordinately intrusive and sometimes pedagogical narrative, attesting to Mukherjee's labored metafictional disposition, insists readers on attributing authorially suggested significances to events and experiences Mukherjee recreates in the novel, while she ceases to operate metafictionally in her construction of Bhagmati who is effortlessly "orientalized."
Rubenstein, Robert. Review of The Holder of the World. The Washington Post: Book World 24 October 1993: 1, 11.
Rubenstein evaluates The Holder of the World as "a different kind of multicultural story, one that imaginatively links the 17th-century colonial New World (Puritan New England) with the Old World (England and Mughal India)" (1), while he simply leaves out "time present" from the nexus or network of temporalities that Mukherjee keeps negotiating in her novel. Finding the novel "wonderfully entertaining" (11) and "spellbinding" (11), Rubenstein contends that it brings to life "a plucky, adventurous woman who challenges the norms of both her era and her gender to become a full citizen of the word" (11). Thus, only mildly suggesting the poltical potential of the narrative that Mukherjee keeps weaving around various time/space zones, Rubenstein again lapses into his glittering, liberal-humanist rhetoric intended to characterize Mukherjee as a "citizen of the world," who, according to Rubenstein, certainly creates and connects not only in imagination but also out of compassion.
Stephens, Rebecca. "Spectral Autobiographies: Rememorizing the Nation in Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World." Immigrant Women Writers and the Specter of Multiplicity. Ph D Dissertation. Pullman: Washington State University, 1996.
Invoking Spivak's formulation of "the process of constructing a subjectivity as part of national identity"-a process Spivak herself terms as rememoration, Stephen argues that this very process has implications for examining strategies whereby immigrant women writers, including Bharati Mukherjee, address issues of identity and subjectivity. According to Stephens, "the weaving together of the various discourses, subject positions, and subjectivities...occurs in the ways that the multiple possibilities for the reconstruction of an American national identity figure," as can be seen in Mukherjee's work, paticularly in The Holder of the World. Juxtaposing Hoffman's notion of spectral autobiography characterized by a process of what might be called discursive chutnification (Hoffman asserts, "every immigrant has a second, spectral autobiography") with Spivak's notion of rememoration, Stephens ably opens up the possibilities of reading The Holder of the World as a novel that "seeks to create a past through telling a possible spectral autobiography of what it means to be American," and that the energeia of rememorizing in the novel considerably enables Mukherjee to "peel off layers of a national subjectivity to voice pieces of a possible history that American tradition has relegated to "ghostly" status." Furthermore, as Stephens argues, this process of rememoration resists the linear logic of the immigrant genre's traditional model, while also "interrogating the straight narrative of simple progress for assuming a national identity." In other words, according to Stephens, Mukherjee speaks from the many layers of intertextuality that correspond to the many subjectivities, attesting to Mouffe's assertion that individuals must be seen as "an ensemble of subject positions"( Mouffe, The Return of the Political 71) so that "a single individual can be the bearer of this multiplicity and be dominant in one relation while subordinated in another" (Return 71). Stephens' is perhaps the most sustainedly theoretically engaged work hitherto done on The Holder of the World.