Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | CRCC
SPAN
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by Michèle Drouart

Of Shattered Pots and Sinkholes: (Female) Identity in Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine

Ralph J. Crane

I

Bharati Mukherjee is an Indian-born-American writer who has so far published three novels, two collections of short stories, some very hard-hitting essays, and two non-fiction books (both co-authored with her husband Clark Blaise). Her early work, like the novel The Tiger's Daughter (1971) caused critics to locate her fiction under that elastic heading "Indian Writing in English." It is a label that Mukherjee herself has never embraced - an identity which she appears to see as confining rather than defining, a means of marginalizing a group of writers, of confirming them as Other, and thus making them mute.

Like many writers (V.S. Naipaul and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, for example) who write out of an international milieu rather than a particular national identity, Bharati Mukherjee focusses, in all her fiction, on the theme of alienation, and an exploration of the place inhabited by outsiders, by those who are considered Other - notably (Indian) immigrants or expatriates. More specifically, Mukherjee depicts all her outsiders as female, in a deliberate effort to focus on the particular condition of female alienation in contemporary society, on the male/female dichotomy and the continuing colonization of female identity in contemporary patriarchal societies, usually - in Mukherjee's fiction - India and the United States. Indeed the title of each of her three novels to date draws our attention to the gender of her protagonists. Moreover, the titles of her first two novels - The Tiger's Daughter and Wife (1975) - also emphasize the colonized condition of her female protagonists who are defined by their position within a patriarchal system. Tara Banerjee (like Rosa Burger in Nadime Gordimer's Burger's Daughter [1979]) is a daughter; Dimple Basu is a wife. Even in the titles of these novels, then, Mukherjee makes visible the restrictions imposed on her invisible protagonists. In Jasmine (1991), her third and most accomplished novel, there is a marked shift, a refusal to recognize those restrictions, a refusal to accept invisibility. Here the title of the novel identifies the protagonist, Jasmine, by name rather than by her relationship to a husband or a father, which in context suggests resistance to the imperial shackles. There is another progression that can be traced through these novels, too. While Tara Banerjee seems very much an avatar of the author herself (as a reading of Days and Nights in Calcutta [1977; revised 1986] reveals), and Dimple Dasgupta seems to be a more general representative of Indian womanhood, Jasmine is depicted as a representative of all womanhood.

Like The Tiger's Daughter and Wife, Jasmine uses the metaphor of a journey, in this case through three continents, to emphasize the distance Jasmine, and by extension all womankind, has to travel in search of her true self and freedom from the confines of a dominant patriarchal culture. In Jasmine Mukherjee's interest in the crisis of identity, while incorporating national and cultural identity, focusses primarily on gender issues, on the position of women as Other, alienated by the system of patriarchy from power structures and the right to self-determination. It is this aspect of the novel which I want to consider in this paper. To do that I want to approach Jasmine as a female bildungsroman, as a novel which specifically traces the development of a female protagonist from childhood through various experiences and crises, into maturity and, more importantly, her self-identity and place in the world. And this is not simply an imposition of my own western values on Mukherjee's text; rather it is a recognition that Mukherjee is using and subverting a western genre which, for a woman educated in a Calcutta convent school and the United States, is inherently hers too.

II

Some critics argue that there is no such beast as a female bildungsroman. Barbara Godard, for example, with reference to Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women (1971), argues that "the female bildungsroman is a misnomer, for while the genre traditionally explores the growing up of a young hero, the female variant invariably instructs the hero in growing down." I want to suggest, however, that the protagonist of this novel does grow up rather than down, and that Jasmine, like Jane Eyre, is a female bildungsroman. Indeed Charlotte Bront‘'s Jane Eyre, perhaps the most famous female bildungsroman, appears to provide a shadowy inspiration for Mukherjee's novel. As a young girl Jasmine tries unsuccessfully to read Jane Eyre (1847), but abandons it as "too difficult" (41). But why does the novel seem too difficult? Literally, of course, the language of Jane Eyre (and Great Expectations [1860-61], the other British novel Jasmine rejects, which is also a bildungsroman) is too difficult for the seven-year-old girl from a Punjabi village, whose first languages are Punjabi and Urdu. But more importantly, the concept of independent womanhood contained in Bront‘'s novel is too difficult for her to understand. Indeed, her references to Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland (1865), and, indirectly, to Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), show Mukherjee's awareness of the difficulty of trying to live a female bildungsroman. Instead of reading one, Jasmine creates her own version of Jane Eyre; she lives a life which shows that the solutions of literary convention don't always work. Like Jane Eyre, Jasmine is placed in an alien environment where she struggles as a "muted" female/(colonized) immigrant against the "dominant" male/(colonizer) culture.

Jasmine's journey to maturation can be divided into four distinct stages (paralleling, in number at least, the four stages of traditional Hindu life), each of which is represented by a change of name, or reincarnation, and which, in leaving its own scars leads Jasmine to a greater awareness of her female self-identity. Jasmine is a female bildungsroman because it details Jasmine's growth up from a restricted, male-defined girlhood into the freedom of liberated, self-defined womanhood.

Indeed this growth of the individual female which clearly takes place in Jasmine, also occurs more gradually, more tentatively, but on a much grander scale during the course of Mukherjee's three novels so far, which, when treated together, act as an extended female bildungsroman - detailing the growth of a female protagonist from daughter to wife to independent woman (which more closely parallels three of the four stages of Hindu life).

III

Jasmine's birth in the village of Hasnapur, Jullundhar District, Punjab, India, is carefully stated to signpost her cultural identity. The significance of her female identity is also signposted:

... daughters were curses. A daughter had to be married off before she could enter heaven, and dowries beggared families for generations. Gods with infinite memories visited girl children on women who needed to be punished for sins committed in other incarnations.

My mother's past must have been heavy with wrongs. I was the fifth daughter, the seventh of nine children.

When the midwife carried me out, my sisters tell me, I had a ruby-red choker of bruise around my throat and sapphire fingerprints on my collarbone.

To be female, then, is to be a burden, an embarrassment. And if a couple are burdened with a female infant the blame certainly lies with the past sins of the mother, not the father.

When she is named "Jyoti" which aptly means light - the opposite of the title of Mukherjee's first collection of stories, Darkness (1985), and an allusion to Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902)) - the name is given by her grandmother. Jyoti will be given other names, but this is the only time she is named by a woman, though that woman is both a product and preserver of the patriarchal system that Jasmine is born into. Unwittingly, however, Jasmine's grandmother chooses a name which can be seen to at least offer the hope of difference.

Predictably, her first change of name and identity occurs with her Hindu marriage, a ceremony which binds the female to the male more certainly than in the West. Consider, for example, a cautionary word of advice from an Indian aquaintance of Mukherjee's recorded in Days and Nights in Calcutta:

"Now, then, Mrs Blaise, please do not be rash and call us sexist. You see, the impulse to worship one's husband should be seen as a short cut to the worship of God. How good is your Bengali? Can you read the inscription below?"

The inscription, loosely translated, advised this: if husband is pleased, pleased is god/husband is life/husband is pride/ husband is the only jewel.

When she marries, Jasmine adopts her husband's name and becomes Jyoti Vijh. Where she had previously been defined by her relationship to her father, she is now re-defined in relation to her husband; the continuity lies in the line of (male) power. But Jyoti's family name is not all that changes when she marries Prakash Vijh:

My husband Prakash Vijh, was a modern man, a city man ...

He wanted to break down the Jyoti I'd been in Hasnapur and make me a new kind of city woman. To break off the past, he gave me a new name: Jasmine. He said, "You are small and sweet and heady, my Jasmine. You'll quicken the whole world with your perfume."

Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities. (76-77)

Thus Prakash, with a Shiva-like gesture of power, destroys Jyoti and creates Jasmine. As she herself acknowledges: "Prakash had taken Jyoti and created Jasmine" (97). But is this any more than a change from fuedalism into patriarchal subjection? Prakash's desire to change the given name of his wife as well as her family name is possessive ("my Jasmine"), an assertion of patriarchal power which could be the consequence of a more subtle, even subliminal male desire to control female identity (which is the case when Dimple Dasgupta is renamed Nandini Basu in Mukherjee's Wife). Yet conversely, the transformation of Jyoti to Jasmine is also a liberating act, and Prakash, who insists that his wife call him by his given name, consciously treats her as an equal. It remains true, however, that while a male can initiate liberation, even aid female growth, the major steps in that direction must be taken by the woman herself. Thus Prakash's death is necessary to further liberate Jasmine, to free her of male support, and induce her to make decisions that will facilitate her own growth into a mature female identity.

The next stage of Mukherjee's bildungsroman takes place in the United States. In Florida, on her first night in that country, Jasmine is raped (an almost clichˇd symbol in colonial and post-colonial fiction of the brutal relationship between colonizer and colonized); the melting-pot culture of the United States can offer no magical solutions to her status as outsider. She then moves up to New York, first into an Indian ghetto which saps her individual identity, and then into a live-in job as a "day-mummy" to Duff, the daughter of Taylor and Wylie Hayes. In Florida and New York Jasmine is known variously as Jazzy, Jassy, and Jassie, all derivatives of Jasmine, before Taylor renames her Jase, a third identity which is a more lasting abbreviation of her second one (176).

At this juncture Jasmine pauses to examine her so-far tri-coloured identity: "Jyoti was now a sati-goddess; she had burned herself in a trash-can-funeral pyre ... Jasmine lived for the future, for Vijh & Wife. Jase went to movies and lived for today" (176).

Here Jasmine recognizes that in her first two incarnations she has not been free from patriarchal control - note the references to sati (which is also another allusion to both Jane Eyre, and Wide Sargasso Sea) and wife in relation to each of those identities. Only as Jase does she feel released from male domination of her identity, and free to define herself without male reference.

Taylor, like Prakash, by re-naming Jasmine has liberated her. But unlike Prakash, Taylor doesn't appear to want to recreate Jasmine in any way: "Taylor didn't want to change me. He didn't want to scour and sanitize the foreignness ... I changed because I wanted to" (185). However, Taylor's apparent benevolence must, at least in part, be qualified by the recognition that he doesn't wish to change Jasmine because he is attracted by her exotic Otherness, which raises the possibility of a sub-conscious wish to colonize her. And thus once more, Mukherjee, like many other postcolonial women writers, highlights the analogous relationship between men and women in a patriarchal system, and between colonizer and colonized in an imperial one.

When Jasmine continues her journey and moves to Iowa, she changes her name once more - to Jane Ripplemeyer. In doing so she again defines herself through her relationship with a man, this time with Bud Ripplemeyer, the man she lives with, though she is not legally married to him.

Now the allusions to Jane Eyre are more solid. Jasmine's latest avatar, Jane Ripplemeyer, echoes the name of Bront‘'s hero (Jane ripple[the]m [i.e. will cause ripples] Eyer), while her initials echo those of the married Jane Eyre. Moreover, Bud Ripplemeyer, like Edward Rochester, is "[a] crippled man, twenty years older than [Jane], whom [Jane] will have to wait on."

The ironically named Bud is also effectively impotent, his relationship with Jasmine, in terms of the novel as a female bildungsroman, is a sterile one. In Fruedian terms, Bud is castrated. And by making Bud experience the lack or "castration" traditionally associated with women, Mukherjee has inverted one of the fundamental axes of patriarchal discourse. Yet it is during her relationship with Bud that Jasmine becomes pregnant. Bud's impotence, however, means that impregnation is essentially performed by Jasmine; in effect she impregnates herself. Because Bud cannot achieve or sustain an erection without unusual aid, Jasmine is no longer controlled by male power, she controls it; quite literally she controls his phallus. Thus she is in the position of Jane Eyre who assumes the reins of male power over a castrated Rochester when she assumes control of his money (a traditional symbol of male power) and promises to be his eyes - a role which will enable her to interpret life for him through her own values. Jasmine, as Jane, has the opportunity to assume similar male power over Bud - in effect to accept, like Jane Eyre, that the male role is superior and adopt that position herself.

Instead, like Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, she refuses this new-found power by deciding to leave Bud in favour of Taylor (Jane Eyres no longer marry Mr Rochesters), to continue her journey west, towards assimilation and her fully-defined female identity. In other words, Mukherjee's female bildungsroman resists closure; unlike Jane Eyre, Jasmine doesn't end in marriage (or death, the other "rightful end" of women in novels), and thus it refuses to accept that the future will be stasis. It is a fluid closure which, to borrow Du Plessis's phrase, writes beyond the ending.

IV

There is also one other identity that Jasmine possesses which is relevant to her spiritual growth. At various stages of her journey Jasmine takes on, temporarily, the identity of Kali. This is an interesting contrast to the legendary figure of Sita, whom the then unmarried Dimple considers the ideal role model for a wife: "In Dimple's dreams, she became Sita, the ideal wife of Hindu legend" (6). As Mukherjee explains in Days and Nights in Calcutta, "To the Hindu girl-child, Sita is an exemplary figure. The lesson is clear, uncomplicated. The wife's role is one of self-abnegation" (232). This is a pervasive ideal which helps to confine the expression of female identity, and another impulse Jasmine must overcome during her process of maturation.

Consciously, Mukherjee, if not Jasmine herself, does this by replacing Sita with Kali as a role model. In The Tiger's Daughter the description of an arranged marriage ceremony ends with these words: "then the groom takes his bride, a total stranger, and rapes her on a brand new, flower-decked bed." The loss of virginity, an important ceremony in the growth from girlhood to womanhood is hardly presented as a vision of bliss. Mukherjee also explores a memory in Days and Nights in Calcutta of the screams of a new bride: "that, to the culture into which I was born, was the potential tragedy. To be a woman, I learned early enough, was to be a powerless victim whose only escape was through self-inflicted wounds" (227-28). In Jasmine, however, with Kali as a model rather than Sita, Jasmine is able to escape another way after she is raped by half-Face in a seedy Florida motel room. Instead of killing herself, as she thought to do, to "balance [her] defilement with [her] death" (117), she chooses instead to slice her tongue (an act of defiance against language itself, which is a prime enforcer of the patriarchal system), and reincarnated as Kali she kills the man who raped her. Being a woman, she discovers, need not necessitate being a powerless victim.

Although Jasmine is a celebration of female identity, it is important to note that for each of her incarnations Jasmine has a husband: "I have had a husband for each of the women I have been. Prakash for Jasmine, Taylor for Jase, Bud for Jane, half-Face for Kali" (197). So while Jasmine grows into her female-defined self during the course of the novel it is with the awareness, at least on Mukherjee's part, that she does so in a predominantly male-defined world.

Jasmine, then, I believe, is primarily a female bildungsroman. In this novel the issue of expatriate versus immigrant experience, as well as the wider questions of cultural and national identity that lie behind that haunting question of Kipling's ("Who is Kim - Kim - Kim?") that have long been popular concerns of colonial and post-colonial fiction, and of Mukherjee's own earlier novels, are, while still relevant to the question of gender identity, nevertheless of secondary interest.

V

I have raised the spectre of Kipling quite deliberately because there is a central passage in this novel, which seems to echo that wonderful scene in Kim (1901) where Lurgan Sahib unsuccessfully attempts to make Kim see the whole of a broken clay water jug.

Here is the passage from Mukherjee's novel, in which Jasmine recalls the death of a childhood friend by self-immolation:

I think of Vimla, a girl I envied because she lived in a two-story brick house with real windows. Our hut was mud. Her marriage was the fanciest the village had ever seen. Her father gave away a zippy red Maruti and a refrigerator in the dowry. When he was twenty-one her husband died of typhoid, and at twenty-two she doused herself with kerosene and flung herself on a stove, shouting to the god of death, "Yama, bring me to you."

The villagers say when a clay pitcher breaks, you see that the air inside it is the same as outside. Vimla set herself on fire because she had broken her pitcher; she saw there were no insides and outsides. We are just shells of the same Absolute. In Hasnapur, Vimla's isn't a sad story. The sad story would be a woman Mother Ripplemeyer's age still working on her shell, bothering to get her hair and nails done at Madame Cleo's. (15)

This passage draws our attention once more to the issue of male control of female identity. And as in Kim there is an important lesson to be learnt from the broken water pot. Here the shattered water pot reveals a truth about (female) identity. In an Indian context the water pot can be interpreted as a symbol of woman's subservient role in a patriarchal system. It is the kitchen sink to which women in India are tied. (In Wife, for instance, much is made of the fact that Dimple Basu must carry water up to her 3rd floor apartment in buckets every day). Jasmine's friend is without a meaningful female identity because she has allowed herself to be male-defined on the outside. The shock of finding that she is no different on the inside is too much for her. She has no identity other than that which she borrows from her husband. This is the rationale behind a system that encourages widows to burn themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. Within the context of this novel Vimla is an empty shell. For Jasmine, however, the reverse is true. Her "outside" identity has been strengthened, re-fired, by the discovery of her "inside" identity. Despite the Lurgan-like efforts of history to force us to see the complete pot, to see only the male-defined outside identity of women within a partiarchy, Jasmine's story celebrates the broken pot which reveals her female-defined identity, and gives her the power to shape her outside identity. Indeed, Jasmine's story insists that both inside and outside identities can be female defined, even though they may not be clear likenesses of each other.

There is another passage which further highlights this idea of outside and inside identities:

Once we start letting go - let go just one thing, like not wearing our normal clothes, or a turban or not wearing a tika on the forehead - the rest goes on its own down a sinkhole. (29)

It is only by letting go, rather than clinging to a cultural identity as do the Indians transplanted into North American settings in Mukherjee's early short stories, that Jasmine achieves a degree of freedom. At this point she can see what she doesn't want to be even if she can't see what she does want to be. As Jasmine continues her journey west, in a manner which parodies the American Western genre, it is with the inference that every sunset she rides into is also the prelude to a new dawn. Jasmine's journey is not over, despite the distance she has travelled.

University of Waikato


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