Short stories by Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee died in New York City on January 28, 2017, from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. She is survived by her husband, the Canadian novelist Clark Blaise. The couple had two children, Bernard and Bart, who predeceased his mother by a year.

Professor Mukherjee joined the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989. She had published two novels, The Tiger’s Daughter and Wife, two works of nonfiction in collaboration with her husband, Days and Nights in Calcutta and The Sorrow and the Terror, a prescient account of the terrorist attack on Air India Flight 182 in 1985, and two books of stories, Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories, which had just won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in fiction. After her arrival at Berkeley, she published another half dozen novels, Jasmine, The Holder of the World, Leave It to Me, Desirable Daughters, The Tree Bride, and The Miss New India and found time to publish some 30 essays, which are yet to be collected and which reflect her wide interest in the Indian diaspora, immigrant experience in America and trans-globally, the tensions between immigrant and expatriate ways of defining a writer in this age, marriage, family, the politics of the Indian subcontinent, especially women’s issues, and the art of the novel. In her last decade she published another 10 stories and a book—Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee, and a number of book reviews.

She was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal on July 27, 1940. Her father, Sudhir Lal Mukherjee, ran a pharmaceutical company. Her mother, the former Bina Banerjee, was a housewife. She was raised in the household of an extended family that included 50 relatives. The parents took her and her sisters abroad and she had part of her early education at private schools in England and Switzerland and returned to Kolkata where she earned a B.A. from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and a master’s degree from the University of Baroda in 1961. She arrived in the United States to study creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she said in an interview she came to understand that she had lived such a protected life that she felt “bubble wrapped.” (She liked to say that when she arrived in Iowa City, she had never been alone in a room with a young man her age.)

The wrapping came quickly undone. With an arranged marriage awaiting her return to Calcutta, she met the young Canadian writer Clark Blaise and, after a two-week courtship, married him and telegraphed her parents to notify them of the leap she had taken. She got an M.F.A. from Iowa in 1963, a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1969, and during those years wrote her first novel and stories. The couple moved to Montreal, where she taught at McGill University, and then to Toronto, and to New York. In the early 1980s she was beginning to receive notice for the way her work reflected on race, gender, caste, class, and immigrant experience. The National Book Critics Circle Award for The Middleman and Other Stories heightened that attention. And she was beginning to understand her own relation to her themes and to the country she had adopted. “I am an American,” she wrote, “not an Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all citizens equally.”

“Bharati Mukherjee and I were aware that we were pioneering the inter-cultural novel,” her colleague Maxine Hong Kingston wrote. “She was a sister writer to me.” They formed a remarkable literary constellation in the English department, along with the novelist, essayist and poet Ishmael Reed who had this to say about her: “Bharati Mukherjee lived in a country where their husbands, sons, and fathers owned women. I know this because Bharati inspired me to read works by Indian and Pakistani women writers. Her work includes a strong indictment of this system…She was not only my friend but my teacher and without her influence I would not have studied Hindi and written my recent novel Conjugating Hindi. While many of us have become cynical and jaded about the possibility of America, she believed that the American dream was possible.” Her younger colleague, the novelist Melanie Abrams, gives another glimpse of her and also of a singular aspect of her teaching style: “She was incredibly generous and kind to younger writers (or at least to me), actively encouraging their careers and giving advice and help. I’ve never been a huge fan of little dogs, but she loved that dog so unabashedly and so charmingly that I would have defended her right to have that dog in her classroom (which she did—every single class)—to anyone who questioned it. Such a kind, talented, generous, charming woman.”

On women’s issues, on immigration and the global economy, on the various cultural models for the assimilation of immigrants into receiver countries, on displacement and creativity, displacement and nationalism and violence, she was writing just as these subjects were coming into focus and it made her a writer very much in demand. In her 24 years at Berkeley, she represented the university at literary festivals and symposia and through lectures and readings in Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Canada, the Czech Republic, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations, and still managed to teach in the department every year but one.

She taught mostly courses in creative writing, the short story, the contemporary and classical novel, and world Anglophone fiction at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first. One glimpse of her teaching is provided in a blog by a former student, then in an M.F.A. program, looking back in 2009 on his Berkeley experience: “All I remember,” he wrote, “is the Honors Thesis class, and the brutal workload of taking six classes, being in class twenty-three hours a week. My relationship was dead. My girlfriend and I barely saw each other. I learned how to think. I impressed people with my writing and Bharati Mukherjee was the real deal. She provided excellent commentary on my essays and treated our class like professionals. That was refreshing. I made progress. Some weeks I only saw J once in seven days. I wasn’t yet starving. I wasn’t yet alone. And I was learning to write.” Two classes per semester for most of 24 years—a mix of small seminars and large lectures—would suggest that she touched the lives of between 1,500 and 2,000 students. She retired in 2013.

Listing 3 stories.

A teenage Bangladeshi girl runs from the unwanted advances of a doctor, the shackles of her traumatic past, and the upcoming mysteries of her future. All the while, her comatose adopted sister fights for her life.

Set in Canada in the 1980s, an Indian-Canadian immigrant woman travels abroad, attempting to learn how to grieve her husband and sons after a terrorist attack on the plane kills them on their way to India.

In the face of unwanted romantic advances and a discriminatory landlord, a recently divorced Indian American woman struggles to find her place in Cedar Falls, Iowa.