‘JASMINE’ - AN IDENTITY IN MOTION
DR. KALPANA WANDREKAR
Bharati Mukherjee’s writing is striking because in her novels one finds the novelist rising above the stereotype. What makes her stand apart from the orthodoxy of female representation is her refusal to present assumptions regarding Indian women, their felicity of marriage and its satisfactions. At the point of intersection between one’s own country and the other adopted country which invades the protected area of feeling and affection, the portrait of Mukherjee’s protagonist becomes interesting. Bharati Mukherjee admits, ‘I am in fact writing about America more than about dark-complexioned immigrants. My focus is on the country on how it is changing minute by minute. My stories explore the encounter between the mainstream American culture and the new one formed by the migrant stream. I’m really writing about the seams joining two cultures. Many expatriate writers are destroyed by their duality, I personally feel nourished by it’.1
The story of Jasmine is the story of an identity in motion. But that is only one aspect. One gets the impression that the novel tries to define immigration as part of the disintegration of a homogeneous culture which changes under new geographical and economic pressures with the result her work shows the general doubts regarding the moral imperatives of one’s culture which are proved outdated by new experiences. Even when one may venture to place Jasmine 2 to the tradition of dissent still one finds that the writer does not seem to repudiate or question the system of personal relationships as it exits in both the countries of India and America. By showing the ‘centre of impermanence’ in drawing a new geometry which in James Gleicks’ words (Chaos) “mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked and broken up, the twisted, tangled and intertwined’. The heroine’s problems do not culminate in the resolution of tying a knot of marriage or walking out of it; now the emphasis is on the passion for life and an establishment of a woman’s right to live and love. The narrative treatment is an attempt to ‘defamiliarize’ the traditionally accepted image of an Indian woman. The collapse of the heroine’s submission to convention aims to establish her independence.
The novel opens with an astrologer’s prediction about Jyoti’s widowhood and exile, reminding one of Maya in Cry the Peacock3 but with a difference. The major difference is that Desai’s novel begins with an astrologer’s prediction about death after marriage and the novel progresses seeking the answers to the question whose death? And when? and finally ends with it. Jasmine continues beyond the realisation of the prediction indicating repositioning of the stars and the heroine’s gaining enough strength for a peripatetic transformation from a meek submissive Indian wife to a strong independent Indo-American woman who lives mostly in the now and the present and stops worrying about the future and is indifferent to the past. After her marriage with Prakash her husband gives her a new name Jasmine. “He wanted to break down the Jyoti as 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....Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities.” (77)
It is very suggestive that Jasmine arrives in America at night when she has a brush with death. She certainly would have committed suicide but for her mission. The first shock of another country is not cultural but physical. She arrives in America and that very moment she is compelled to commit murder for self-defence. The sanctity about the body is lost and she learns that body is a mere covering which can be discarded when corrupted ‘My body was merely the shell’ soon to be discarded. Then I could be reborn debts and sins all paid for. (121) ‘Abandoning the past like a baggage she feels light and reborn. With the first streaks of dawn, my first full American day, I walked out the front drive of the motel to the highway and began my journey travelling light’. (121) Mrs. Gordon who supports and helps her to rehabilitate, transforms her totally. Within a week Jasmine gives up her shy side of personality and dresses up on a jazzy Tshirt, tight cords and running shoes. With the change in clothes comes the change in the culture so much so that the intrinsic qualities of her personality start disappearing. With this change she moves from being a “visible minority” to being just another immigrant.”4
As she monologues ‘Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine, Duffs day mummy and Taylor and Wylle’s on pair in Manhattan, that Jasmine Isn’t this Jane Ripplemeyer having lunch with Mary Webb at the University club today. And which of us is the undetected murderer of a half-faced monster, which of us has held a dying husband, which of us was raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms?’ (127)
The shifting of her identity from Jyoti to Jasmine to Jane to Jase is suggestive of the death of one personality and an emergence of a new but it does not have negative-implications. The protagonist does not see her ‘Indianness as a fragile identity to be preserved against obliteration, now it is seen as a set of fluid identities to be celebrated.’ 5
It is difficult to know the real self of Jasmine because the fluidity of herself emerging from one experience to another erases the edges of her identity. The speed and the incomprehensible compulsion of changing relationships in America reduces Jyoti to a mere creature struggling to go on with life breaking into fragments like a broken pitcher. The recurring reference to the broken pitcher indicates the death of Jasmine’s different selves. While talking to Dr. Mary Webb Jasmine admits that as a Hindu she believes in rebirth though with different meaning in time-context. She is reborn many times in the present birth only, Jasmine has seen that the Indian immigrants live a meaningless life and are forced to bury their native identity. Prof. Vadhera is not a professor but an importer and sorter of human hair which he gets from India through the middlemen from Indian villages. Watching Prof. Vadhera at work makes Jasmine reflect ‘A hair from peasant’s head in Hasnapur could travel across oceans and save an American meteorologist’s reputation. Nothing was rooted anywhere. Everything was in motion. (152) ‘That is the thesis of the novel-the moving identity, moving like an escalator, moving but still at the same time “Jyoti was now a sati-goddess, she had burned herself in a trash-can-funeral pyre behind a hoarded-up mooted in Florida. Jasmine lived for the future, for Vijh and wife...” (176)
The village girl displays courage. ‘America may be fluid and built on flimsy invisible lives of weak gravity but I was a dense object, I had landed and was getting rooted. (179) ‘The story does not become a pathetic story of an immigrant but explores the ‘state-of-the-art expatriation’ where the woman aggressively waits for the future without regretting the past. The novel seeks to highlight the human needs which are essential for life and which can be realised only by rising above the cultural conditioning. The compelling urge to live breaks Jasmine emotionally, physically and culturally like all earthen pot. The suggestion is that the things we fight to guard-body, feeling and culture-are as fragile as the pitcher. In totality the novel projects the strength of a woman to fight and adapt to a brave New World and not the damaging effects of immigration. The novel also comments on the American society where people and their relationships are always in motion.
The Americanisation of Jasmine is not her liberation though it hints at breaking of the rigid behavioural norms of the traditional Indian society. Though bold and assertive, still Jasmine’s character delimits the definition of woman as a function. In America she takes the support of men such as Prof. Vadhera, Mr. Taylor or the banker Bud Ripplemeyer. The only positive step in the direction of establishing her self-hood is that she has exercised her freedom of choice. Mukherjee’s women characters act American but think Indian. The characters lack intellectual, emotional and psychological depth and remain superficial aping the Western behaviour pattern. This way Mukherjee’s creative activity envelopes itself in the mesh of unreality. The portrayal of the transformation of a docile Indian wife into an aggressive Indo-American woman. Jasmine reflects a combination of womanism and feminism. The novel supports Bharati Mukherjee’s assertion, “I am inventing an American for myself, I am writing an America that hasn’t been written about. The ‘frontier’ is up there, in front of me, I am pushing it back all the time. This is what makes the new stories so different. They are a natural outgrowth of where I am. I feel it’s the writer’s business to write about his or her environment, whatever that my be.’6
1 An interview conducted by Vrinda Nabar, “America revealed through an immigrant’s eye,” The Times of India (July 9, 1989), p.17.
2 Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine [New Delhi; Penguin Books (India), 1990].
3 Anita Desai, Cry the Peacock (New Delhi: Orient paper Books, 1980)
4 Bharati Mukherjee, Darkness [New Delhi: Penguin Books (India), 1990], p.2.
5 Ibid. p. 3.
6 Interview by Vrinda Nabar.