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Delineating Immigration through the Logic of Transformation: Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine


Delineating Immigration through the Logic of Transformation: Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine

Dr. S. Malathi

Assistant Professor of English

V. V. Vanniaperumal College for Women, (Autonomous)

Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu, India


Bharathi Mukherjee published Jasmine (1989), fourteen years after the publication of Wife (1975). In this long interval, she had published two collections of short stories Darkness (1985) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), and had left Canada with her husband Clark Blase and settled in the United States. Mukherjee’s traumatic experiences of racist prejudices in Canada find expression in her short stories. Mukherjee details in her preface to Darkness, her movement from ‘expatriation’ to ‘immigration’. She has come under the influence of an ‘immigrant’ writer. She presents immigration from the Third World to North America as a process of uprooting and rerooting. Her obsessive theme in this new phase is the making of new America and the changing face of America. So, there is a decisive shift from the ‘dark’ phase of ‘expatriate’ writing to the 'bright’ phase of ‘immigrant’ writing. This is articulated well in Jasmine. Jasmine, the protagonist of Jasmine, passes through a six-stage transformation from Jyoti of Hasnapur to Jane Ripplemeyer of lowa.

Keywords: Immigration, transformation, expatriation, liberation, assimilation, Americanisation

Jasmine, the protagonist of Jasmine, though widowed at a young age, casts aside the weeds of a widow and begins her stride towards liberation and empowerment. Ostensibly on the grounds of committing sati on the Florida University campus where her dead husband Prakash wanted to study, Jasmine lands on the Florida Coast. Despite the odds against her, she gets assimilated successfully into the

Jasmine is a novel of emigration and assimilation, both on physical and psychological levels. In this novel, Bharati Mukherjee fictionalized the process of Americanisation by tracing a young Indian woman's experiences of trauma and triumph in her attempt to forge a new identity for herself. Jasmine is characterized by a tendency in which feeling of being displaced is overcome by a desire to settle down, and find a new home.

The nostalgia for the past is balanced by a desire to capture the present; the loss of identity caused through the process of displacement is mended by gaining a new one. Jasmine, the protagonist of the novel, metamorphoses herself constantly, ferrying between these multiple identities in different spaces and at different times. She shows the most predictable crusade towards Americanisation and its obvious mutability of an Americanised cultural identity. Jasmine never feels exasperated by cultural incongruities. She survives to make a new start in the host country, ignorant of the deterrents from her native past.

Geographically, the story begins in India and takes off from Europe to America, where it bounces back and forth from Florida through New York to proceed to Iowa, then finally lands in California. The novelist deliberately transports her in time and space again and again so as to bring in a sense of instability into the novel. However, her displacement of culture ended with a set of fluid identities to be celebrated. These identities are changeable, unfinished and at the same time have scope of innumerable prospects (Darkness 3). In the novel, the journey is a metaphor that advocates the ever-moving, regenerating process of life itself. In India, as Jyoti, Jasmine is seen against the backdrop of the rigid and patriarchal Indian society. In America, her self-awareness is reflected in her relationships with Bud, Taylor and Du. However, her first husband Prakash initiates her transformation from Jyoti to Jane.

Born 18 years after partition, Jasmine's family moved from Lahore, where they had aristocratic connections to Hasnapur. Here they had to lead the life of simple peasants. Having inherited a tradition of exile and migration from her family, Jyoti is considered the most beautiful and intelligent in her family. Her life, as happens in patriarchal societies, is controlled and dominated by her father and brothers, "Village girls are like cattle, whichever way you lead them, that is the way they will go" (46). Jyoti is "the fifth daughter, seventh of the nine children" (39). Jyoti's worried mother wants to kill her in order to spare her the pain of a bride without dowry and diminish her future distress for a happy life. Although the killing is violent, for Jyoti belonging to a poor family, it symbolizes relief from would-be restraints and afflictions. Thus in the beginning itself the writer throws light on patriarchal violence directed towards women. Jasmine is found on the receiving end. The political disputes in the country, such as the Partition Riots and the rebel movements which affect Jasmine's family also depict the violence. Jyoti finds a US-based modern- thinking man, Prakash, as her husband. Prakash encourages Jyoti to study English and renames her Jasmine. He prohibits her from having children at an early age and encourages her to read his manuals to improve herself and to cherish a better future for them both, in America. "Pygmalion wasn't a play I'd seen or read then, but I realize now, how much of Professor Higgins there was in my husband. He wanted to break down the Jyoti I'd been in Hasnapur and make me a new kind of city woman" (77).

However, tragedy befalls her. Her husband dies and she returns to her family. She has to decide between living the rigid traditions of her family and performing Sati, or to continue to live the life of Jasmine in America. She sets off for America as an illegal immigrant to Florida, Her illegal transmigration begins with the thoughts:

We are the outcasts and deportees, strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at the end of tarmacs, ferried in old army trucks where we are roughly handled and taken to roped-off corners of waiting rooms where surly barely awakened customs guards await their bribe. We are dressed in shreds of national costumes, out of season, the wilted plumage of intercontinental vagabondage. We ask only one thing, to be allowed to land: to pass through: to continue. (101).

Thus begins her journey of transformations, displacement and a search for identity. She undergoes her first transformation from a dutiful traditional Indian wife when she meets the intellectual Taylor who calls her Jase, and then moves on to become Bud's Jane. But before that she burns Prakash's suit in the hotel to put her past away by her informal sati. "Around her there were rusty metal trash bins punched with holes for better ventilation. I laid the suitcase inside and lit it from the bottom. It sputtered and flared. The outside melted, and then the cotton and wool ignited" (120).

Sati for Jasmine is more like to discard the past and begin a new present. She represents her resistance to Indian restrictions, and her desire for a new life. With her New York identity as Jase, a sweet, happy "day mummy," Jasmine discovers the joys of consumerism. Finally, she becomes Jane Ripplemeyer, an Iowan banker's beloved. It seems likely that as Jasmine leaves for California with Taylor and Duff, her identity will continue to transform. In New York, Jasmine explicitly recognises her ability to adapt: "I wanted to become the person they thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate. Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed, raped, destitute, fearful" (171). The abilities to adjust to the requirements of a changing environment and to cut the past loose are Jasmine's survival skills. They allow her to deal with the transience and culture shock of time-space compression. Bharati Mukherjee ends the book on a novel note, and re-emphasizes the complex and alternating nature of identity of a woman in exile, "Then there is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope" (241).

There are number of sad incidents of "between-ness" in the novel. In India, between the identities of Jyoti and Jasmine, Jasmine feels hovering between the traditional and the modern world offered by her Indian husband, Prakash: between controlled and independent love (69). In the United States, she often confronts situations that are "in between," highlighting the concept of "two." When she leaves Taylor, he is between marriage and separation with his wife who is also between her lover and husband (175). In Iowa, she happens to hear "two" farmers talk about the difference between "horsepower" and "whorepower" (179). Bud, her lover, knocks one of them, because those remarks were intended to her. This kind of between-ness with "two" issues leads her into distress.

The phenomenon of displacement in the novel can be traced by focusing on a demonstration of the rhetoric of loss and gain at work in the novel. Jasmine's intense desire to build a home away from her native land and to rebuild her identity helps her to survive. The novelist seems to be absolutely reluctant in the preservation of cultures, the glorification of traditions and being indebted to the past. Mukherjee seems to advocate the violence that accompanies cross-cultural revision and personal change. Jasmine says: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake ourselves. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the image of dreams'' (25). Jasmine herself is an agent of violence as she kills the mad dog, and more significantly, the man who raped her. "I extended my tongue, and sliced it. Hot blood dripped immediately... My mouth had filled with blood... I wanted that moment when he saw me above him as he had last seen me, naked, but now with my mouth open, pouring blood, my red tongue out... blood, ribbons of bright blood, rushed between his fingers... [I] began stabbing wildly through the cloth, as the human form beneath it got smaller and smaller" (106).

It is the eagerness of Jasmine to kill her past self that permits her to dynamically proceed into alien but reassuring futures. The futures into which she propels herself toward are not guaranteed to be successful, but do have the potential for personal, material and spiritual success. Though she uproots herself from her native culture and transforms herself in accordance to a new culture she contradicts her own desires: on the one hand she appears to be in a state of constant change, "How many more shapes are in me, how many more selves, how many more husbands" (215). On the other hand, she feels her roots penetrating foreign soil. "Taylor, Wylie, and Duff were family. America may be fluid and built on flimsy, invisible lines of weak gravity, but I was a dense object, I had landed and was getting rooted. I had controlled my spending and now sat on an account that was rapidly growing" (179).

For Jasmine, history is the commotion and fissure as a result, the self becomes multiple and opposing. Her survival depends upon a flexible strategy of appropriation and transformation. It is her idea of disconnected history that admits her to subdue the restraining structure of memory in her endeavour at re-inventing herself. In her self-structuring, she does not destroy or dispose of the past, but puts it to a process of excision: a simultaneous negation and preservation of the past. The past is counterbalanced in terms of its power of constraint and paralysis but well-kept as a means of re-creating identity within the framework of an in- subordinated reasoning. The obvious non-existence of any sign of bereavement, wistfulness, or pensiveness in Jasmine is quite noteworthy.

At one place Jasmine weeps over photographs of migrant workers, though she is not related to it personally but she somehow associates herself to it. She then controls herself and decides never to mourn over Hasnapur ever again. "I remembered Kate's book of photographs of migrant workers that Lilian, the proud mother, had shown off to me back in Fowlers Key. That book had brought back such sharp memories of Hasnapur that I'd cried. It was now only a few months later, but I didn't think I could cry over Hasnapur, ever again" (160).

There is a temporal ambiguity in this passage: it is not clear whether she promises herself not to bemoan again as if bemoaning is an intentional act, or she is surprised by the event of lamenting in which the subject is taken over by the intensity of memory. Memory usually forces a person to cry over the loss of the object of desire such as familial bonds, friends and homeland, Jermone Beaty and Paul Hunter in their book, New Worlds of Literature, say: Thinking of home is often accompanied by nostalgia the absence or loss of loved ones, the remoteness of the home place we are cut off from our childhood home are Exiles. And the rest of us can perhaps understand, that we are all "exiles" from our past, our childhood, that universal "home" (Beaty 1)

But in Jasmine, the novelist replaces the task of the memory to cry over the lost and gone by well calculated and manipulative memory that helps the subject in its crusade for identity formation as well as transformation. Jasmine therefore confesses: "I have memory." She never says: "I am in the grip of memory." Jasmine represents herself as being in control of her own destiny, or her own memory, "I rip myself free of the past" (208), or even when to change and when not to: "I changed because I wanted to. To bunker inside nostalgia, to sheathe the heart in a bulletproof vest, was to be a coward. On Claremont Avenue, in the Hayeses' big, clean, brightly lit apartment, I blooded from a diffident alien with forged documents into adventurous Jase" (185).

Adorno describes this distinction in his short note on Jean Paul in Minima Moralia:

The pronouncements, probably by Jean Paul, that memories are the only possessions which no-one can take from us, belongs in the storehouse of impotently sentimental consolations that the subject, resignedly withdrawing into inwardness, would like to believe the very fulfillment that he has given up. In setting up his own archives, the subject seizes his own stock of experience as property, making it something wholly external to himself. Past inner life is turned into furniture just as, conversely, every Biedermeier piece was made of wood. The interior where the soul accommodates its collection of memoirs and curios is derelict. Memories cannot be conserved in drawers and pigeon-holes; in them the past is indissolubly woven into the present. No-one has them at his disposal in the free and voluntary way that is praised in Jean Paul's fulsome sentences. Precisely where they become controllable and objectified, where the subject believes himself entirely sure of them, memories fade like delicate wallpapers in bright sunlight. (Adorno 166)

Jasmine sees memory from the utilitarian point of view. She makes rational use of her memory. She uses it to expand herself. It appears that she goes on assimilating memories of lost bonds, places and events. Though this psychological process where the subject goes on replicating in itself behaviors, attributes or other fragments of the surrounding world, especially of other subjects seems to be improbable but it does seem convincing that Jasmine has amalgamated her earlier beaten and raped self within her in a interior, but, by the same keepsake, outside it, external to the interior. Violence affects Jasmine; it results in a transformation. In Jasmine, violence results in a change in circumstances and mindset.

The continual apparition of death is a hint that Jasmine feels the need to kill her former identities simply because they cannot be articulated or used to augment the expansion of the subject. If she would have really assimilated memories of lost ones within her there would have been no need to kill the former selves. Her earlier memories or identities form an enigmatic territory. Because of this the figure of death dominates her narrative. These dark terrains contain images of an earlier brutalized Self, which remains preserved as an alien body excluded from the Self: "What the crypt commemorates, as the incorporated object's 'monument or 'tomb,' is not the object itself, but its exclusion, the exclusion of a specific desire from the introjection itself" (Fors: xvii). Jasmine tries to convince the readers that she has overcome the past by assimilating it but actually her past constantly lurks into her present. As Jane at the present time of the novel Jasmine juxtaposes in her memory each of her identities-as Jyoti, Jasmine, Jazzy, Jase and Kali implying that she evokes and revises her past in articulating her identities. The author depicts this transformation and transition as a positive and an optimistic journey. Jasmine creates a new world consisting of new ideas and values, constantly unmasking her past. She tries to establish a new cultural identity by integrating new desires, skills, and habits. This transition is defined not only in the changes in her attitude, but more significantly in her relationship with men.

In the case of an average person the supposed coherency would have been dislocated after having endured a shocking experience of the deprivation of her objects of love and aspirations. But Jasmine rises above ordinary lives by transforming all her sufferings to something more positive: Jasmine, being in control of what puts her outside herself, is the epitome of an ideal capitalist, a pragmatically-oriented individual and an American heroine who faces the frontier (240) and who can change and rebuild herself quite deliberately.

Cultural fusion in the novel is thus a placing of the protagonist as a subject in control and as an agent of the rebuilding of the Self. The protagonist is not affixed to any fixed or single identity since she discovers no fixed roots to cling to. Instead of anchoring to a final selfhood she cannot help but shuttle among temporary identities in different spaces in different times, one after another.

Jasmine sways between the past and the present attempting to come to terms with the two worlds, one of "nativity" and the other as an "immigrant."

Edward Said, in his essay Reflections on Exile, says, "Exile is the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between the self and the true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever" (101).


Works Cited


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott.New York: Verso, 2002.

 Bhabha, Homi. The location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 

Derrida, Jacques. "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok." The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonomy. Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok. Trans. Richard Rand. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

 Jermone Beaty and Paul Hunter. New Worlds of Literature: Writings from America's Many Cultures. W. W. Norton & Company; 1994.

Martin Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Alfred Hofstadter, New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Darkness. Markham, Ontario: Penguin, 1985.

---. Jasmine. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002.