Jasmine is the novel which grew from a short story in Bharati Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman. Meatless Days is the autobiography (though an unusually oblique one) of Sara Suleri, the daughter of a Welsh mother and the Pakistani editor and journalist Z.A. Suleri. Both writers now teach at American universities.
In The Middleman marginalised characters (the word ‘margin’ comes from Sanskrit) sent their despatches from the dangerous edge of things. The middleman of the title story, Alfie Judah (‘of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad – and now Flushing, Queens – Judahs’), exploits the advantages of alienation. The Middleman concerned itself with people in whom nationalities meet and mix: all the stories squinted at nationhood. The book reinforced the strength of differentness, the weakness of notions of purity, with their nasty henchmen, discrimination and violence. It implied that we live too late in history for borders: genes will find ways of blurring them.
With the subject of deracination, Mukherjee unearthed linguistic treasure. In her terse but packed accounts of refugees, immigrants, dispossessed souls and others who had slipped between categories, she annexed the force and acquisitiveness of American English. The scrumptious vocabulary of consumption and the cinematic directness of spoken American proved subtle tools with which to pick the locks of ignorance and prejudice. She finds richness in lives that a less empathetic imagination, a more reporterly pen, might construe as one-dimensionally bleak. Mukherjee does not permit any such security. She dismisses the seductions of tidiness. By showing the seething variety flourishing at the fractures in society, she effects an approach towards healing them.
Bharati Mukherjee is at the forefront of a new group of Indian writers whose imaginative confrontation with the West relates not to England and English writing but to America. Jasmine is the story of Jyoti, born in a mud hut in the Punjabi village of Hasnapur 18 years after Partition. The book accompanies her through the lives and ‘deaths’ forced upon her by extremity. Necklaced in bruises as an infant, when her mother tries to throttle her free of life as a fifth girl-child, and marked with a starry scar between the eyes, Jyoti becomes Jasmine, Jazzy, Jyoti again, Jase and Jane, each of these being not an avatar in the Hindu sense, but the response to a crisis which is either close to death or mimics it. Death itself, Lord Yama, repeatedly fails to keep dates, even when Jasmine has arranged her wedding to him, in the form of sati. Jasmine’s several incarnations are more than a device. They exemplify the main power a passive character has: to become someone other and stop the internal bleeding of memories; to clarify by starting again, becoming what others want you to be. For women, not only women of the Third World, this is the most available form of self-preservation.
The temporal form of the book is as intricately logical as electric wiring, moving not serially but in bundled threads between the area of darkness of the East and the often artificial light of America. From the electrical storm of ‘high status goods’ which hit India thirty years ago, from the floodlighting over hogpens on an Iowan farm, to the hybrid gismos built by Jane’s adopted Vietnamese son Du, electricity makes its illuminating, shocking circuit of the book. Water also flows through it: or else there is drought, as fatal in Iowa as in the Punjab. The chopping in time makes plausible the abrupt changing in place. Jasmine is not a long book: to contain so much without bursting requires sustained and daring height, tension and balance of pitch. Mukherjee achieves this with a web of resonances. Each of Jasmine’s lives throws its shadow forward onto the next. With this trick, Mukherjee swings her narrative forward by precipitate leaps. The safety-net is paid out as she flies.
The book is full of reflexive and proleptic images. Jasmine glimpses the Sikh separatist who kills her husband in a shop-mirror – they have gone to buy a wedding sari before her husband sets off for America. After an infernal journey on the shadow-systems of transport used by those who do not officially exist, Jasmine is raped in the Flamingo Court Motel by a man who left half his face in a Vietnam paddy-field. He speaks with a forked tongue. ‘Look, just don’t fuck with me,’ he laughs before he forces her to do just that. She goes to the shower to cleanse and then kill herself. But death is still just out with the mirror. Instead of dying, she slits her own tongue and squats, like Kali, on her violator to knife him. Later, living as Jane, the pregnant mistress of Bud Ripplemeyer, a decent Lutheran bank manager who has been shot and crippled by a desperate farmer client, she hears that the Flamingo Court has become part of a ‘Mixed Use Vacation and Residence Community’ for those accustomed to ‘a slower, more gracious time’. The cruddy Florida beach where she waded ashore as an alien in Eden has become an expensive marina. For the inhabitant of such a life, ‘dullness is a kind of luxury.’
After a time living with her husband’s old professor, Devinder Vadhera (who mumblingly modifies his name as Dave O’Hara) and his family, in an apartment block ‘so specialised as to language, religion, caste and profession that we did not need to fraternise with anyone but other educated Punjabi-speaking Hindu Jats’, she borrows money for a forged Green Card. The Professor is not a professor: he splits human hair into batches in a basement under the Khyber Bar BQ. Her new job is as ‘caregiver’ or ‘day-mummy’ to Duff, the adopted daughter of Taylor and Wylie, liberal New York achievers. The asexual, corporate-sounding names are spot-on for the Eighties. When death reappears at a hot-dog stall in Central Park, she splits to Iowa, where she is Jane to Bud Ripplemeyer’s Rochester, a day-and-night mummy and caregiver.
She splits almost literally, like a cell reproducing itself. Bud’s mother is 76 and gets her hair and nails done at Madame Cleo’s. She does not see what the women of Hasnapur, who may be old at 22, know: that there are no insides and no outsides. These Americans come from a place where ‘the language you speak is what you are.’ Darrel, the pig-farmer who has named his dog Shadow, asks Jane to come up with a pretty name for the golf club with illuminated fairways to which he intends to turn over his farm, now that Iowa’s in drought, and non-ag use is the only escape from interest rates. He wants a name that’s ‘something in Indian’. How to explain the four-hundred-times-split tongue of the sub-continent?
Du and Jane have both murdered. They both know that ‘the zig-zag route is the straightest,’ ‘the longest line between two points is the least detected.’ For them, these are not theoretical mantras but proven facts of surviving dispossession. He calls her ‘Mom’ and has his friend Scott over to watch Monster Truck Madness on TV. She feels close to Du in ways it would be disloyal to Bud, with his naive faith in straightforwardness, to mention. Yet when Du’s teacher, Mr Skola, says, at a PTA meeting, ‘I tried a little Vietnamese on him, and he just froze up,’ Jane suppresses her shock and disgust. She takes refuge in affecting to be so Americanised that she makes jokes which terminate in an exclamation mark, while inside she remains an acid ironist. Disloyalty has to become a reflex in people who have been raped for a crust, stowed away in gangs under a tarp on an unregistered trawler. It is the survivor’s instinct, and the reason why virtuous survivors suffer so from guilt.
Survival and division are insistent preoccupations for a contemporary Indian or Pakistani writer. The decisive political, religious and geographical shaping of their lives was a splitting: Partition. In showing as well as the wretchedness of divisions the energy produced by the reactions to them, Bharati Mukherjee has tapped a source which she converts to a light so bright it dazzles her readers into seeing the fizzing prism of colours where black meets white, showing up the oversimplicity of such purged, unshaded, inhuman absolutes.
She is a writer both tough and voluptuous. Her local or specialist vocabulary feels properly worn-in, never touristic. The eccentricity of the most ordinary person, the exoticness of the everyday, inform the Iowan quilting-bees, as they do the taking of tea with the Hasnapuri schoolteacher Masterji with his ‘spiffy’ ceremonial hair. That down-home American word has the very sound of a twisted, tucked-in Sikh beard. Density of style is, without succumbing to the easy dying fall, occasionally relaxed, when Mukherjee calls up an affectionate idyll: Duff running in Riverside Park like a milkweed parachute, or Jasmine’s father lying in his charpoy, homesick for Lahore, the city he was forced to leave at Partition. Like the beggar Jasmine is shocked to see in New York, we are all bounding up the down escalator. But this crystalline-orderly novel of a seemingly chaotic life is set adamant against deliquescence or despair.
‘There are no women in the Third World,’ Sara Suleri says she tells her students, having explained to them that the Third World is anyway only ‘locatable as a discourse of convenience’. ‘Discourse’ is a word she uses often. Meatless Days is a super-subtle book which is less an autobiography than a conversation or series of essays. She pins us down at once by assuming we know what she is talking about. Although she is rigorously distant and offers only sidelong glimpses of herself except through others’ eyes, she plunges us among her family and friends without introduction. Her mother, Mair Jones, became Surraya Suleri, ‘redistributing herself through several new syllables’. Her father ‘colonised’ her mother’s body with the five children, Ifat, Shahid, Sara, Iillat, Irfan. As Pakistan, ‘where history is synonymous with grief’, disintegrates from the dream of Jinnah, her father grows frantic, is jailed for ‘sedition’ and at length becomes exhausted and disillusioned. The death of his wife and probable murder of his elder daugther Ifat, his growing blindness and his capacity to take up sudden new lives, his resorting to faith as his feud with his own mother, Dadi, flowers, make the striking unstated point that public men may need to be less rich in dimensions than private ones, no matter how much happens to their personal selves. Meatless Days shows how the other members of the family redressed their father’s urge to suppress nuance in the interest of Muslim nationhood.
Suleri writes with a surgical intellectual frankness which enables her to deal deftly with potentially trivial or embarrassing subjects. She combines a slightly distorted syntactical elegance with an unusual clarity of diction. Language is as much a member of the family as the beloved parents and brothers and sisters. Conversations are relayed which invite scepticism until the subtle grammatical character of the mother is unveiled. The family’s other language, Urdu, Suleri thinks of as ‘a second establishment’. ‘Living in language is tantamount to living with other people.’ The family speak with the formality of writing. The daughters pursue the grace of habit which is the domestic curatorship of an oriental daughter, and they are slaves on the galleys of their Miltonically blind father.
Dislocation is made a virtue in this book, as in Jasmine. In Meatless Days it makes for a poetic precision which crisps the reader into paying absolute attention; in Jasmine, it is a source of energy and life. Blankness is the thing to be feared. It is the affectless man who is the killer: ‘the inexpressive voice comes from a demented man,’ says Mukherjee. Each of these expressive women speaks sanity in her dealing with particularity. Suleri’s subject, no less dramatic than the story of Jasmine, though set in the ostensibly safer and more comfortable life of Lahore, is handled without the taint of self-therapy, although she clearly continues to mourn her mother and beautiful sister. The story is at once intensified and made more valuable to the reader by the strange, intentional absence of the ‘I’. It is as though she is speaking – or not speaking – for all Pakistani women. Her understanding of the abnegation which Jasmine shares is acute: ‘Only in my obliteration will you see the shapes of what I really can be.’ Ifat, ‘like cleanliness, came to be undone’.
She may not show herself to us, but Sara Suleri knows herself. Her relation with memory, unlike that of older Pakistanis, has not been fractured. Her recall is exact, physical, clearly true, without the patina of forged memory. She can call up English evenings, just not too lushly – ‘the ball’s hypnotic plock in the lasting light of summer nights’ – and then be tart about the tactlessness of the will to live even at the highest moment of grief: ‘the will is convalescent, it crawls back to life.’
Jinnah addressed his crowds in English, and it is this language which Suleri fillets, parses and dishes up, not fussily garnished but imbued with Shakespeare, Henry James, Jane Austen, Robert Graves, and the shade of Kipling, who seems also to get a tribute from Mukherjee in the name of the farm dog Shadow, and whose father worked in Lahore. She has the gift she ascribes to her sisters, of taking the world on her tongue. ‘Interested in sentences’ from the age of two, it is clear that she speaks as she writes.