THE RACIAL AND GENDERED EXPERIENCES IN INDIAN IMMIGRANT WOMEN WRITERS
Minor Research Project
MRP (H) – 1816/11-12/KAKA08/UGC – SWRO, 28 SEPT 2012
TITLE: THE RACIAL AND GENDERED EXPERIENCES IN INDIAN IMMIGRANT WOMEN WRITERS – A STUDY OF THE SELECT WORKS OF BHARATI MUKHARJEE, CHITRA DIVAKARUNI BANERJEE, JHUMPA LAHIRI AND KIRAN DESAI
Submitted by:Lokesh S HegdeAsst. Professor of EnglishDr. A V Baliga College of Arts and Science, Kumta (U.K.) – 581362
Submitted to:University Grants Commission, SWRO, Palace Road, Bengaluruon20 JUNE 2014
Highlights of the Dissertation(Introduction and Conclusion)
Migration has been a major theme throughout history. The reasons for migration have been varied, but climatic, social, religious, cultural and financial factors have been important. In general, the common aim of migration has been to improve one’s future prospects through education and work. The issues of race, class and gender, are important factors in this connection. After decolonization, many people from the Third World and former colonized countries migrated to the West in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families back home. From point of view of the industrialized countries, the immigrants have helped out in an increasing demand for labour. However, the multicultural societies of today have also been a challenge. Prejudice and intolerance, especially in connection with differences in race and ethnicity, have been demanding and problematic. Due to variation in cultural and religious background, gender roles have proven difficult in relation to western ideals and other cultures. Ever since the beginning of migration of Indians to the prosperous West for various reasons ranging from the search for a better life to better academic opportunities, the problem of racial and gender discrimination with women has repeatedly surfaced for the Indian immigrants. Many immigrant writers have dealt with this problem in their works. As a result a world-wide awareness about the issue in question has been awakened and has perhaps indirectly helped the victims of discrimination. This project is an exercise in focusing on the racial and gendered experiences of Indian immigrants as revealed in some of the works of four Indian immigrant women writers- Bharati Mukharjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran
Desai.Bharati Mukharjee immigrated to Canada in the eighties and later migrated to the US. She was born in a rich orthodox Brahmin family in Kolkotta. After getting her Master’s Degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture in India, She went to the US in 1961 and earned her Ph.D. from University of Iowa. She met Clark Blaise, a Canadian writer at the University and married him. The two moved to Canada and lived there for fourteen years before they moved back to the US which they chose for their permanent home.Bharati Mukharjee has written works of fiction as well as of non-fiction. Her most acclaimed works of fiction are – The Middleman and Other Stories, Jasmine, Wife, The Tiger’s Daughter, Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride. In the book, Nights and Days in Calcutta (a non-fiction written with her husband) she writes about her traumatic experience of racial discrimination in Canada. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in 1957 in Calcutta (India). In childhood, she attended a convent school and has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Calcutta. In 1976 at the age of 19, she immigrated to The United States. In America, she continued her studies and earned a master’s degree in English from Wright States University in Dayton, Ohio. Afterward she completed her PhD. from the University of California at Berkeley. To pay for her education Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni did a variety of small jobs in America which include babysitting, selling commodities in an Indian Boutique, slicing bread in a bakery and washing instruments in a science lab. Later she settled in Sunnydale, California in 1979. She founded MAITRI, a helpline for South Asian Women to help the victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Her works of fiction are – Arranged Marriage, The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, The Vine of Desire and The Palace of Illusions. She deals with immigrant experiences of women of Indian origin in her works. She exposes the hollowness of the stereotypes, social and cultural barriers that traumatize the immigrants, especially women immigrants and thereby help such women find their own identity. Chitra Divakaruni has won many awards for her creative writings – to mention a few, PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for fiction, Columbus Foundation America Book Award and Orange Prize for fiction. Her works have been translated into thirteen languages. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and grew up in Rhode Island, USA. Now she lives in Brooklyn, USA. She won international recognition as a writer of fiction when her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. She published her first novel, The Namesake, which was later filmed. Her second collection of short stories, The Unaccustomed Earth came out in 2008. Her second novel, The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Lahiri is a second generation immigrant Indian in America. The problem of alienation or expatriation does not bother her when it comes to expressing her immigrant experiences in her fiction. Like Bharati Mukharjee she too dwells on the positive sides of immigration. For both coming to America is not a displacement but a replacement. Both have chosen White men for their spouses. Lahiri married Alberto V Bush, a journalist in 2001. Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Kiran Desai is the celebrated daughter of a celebrated mother; with her two novels she has already carved a niche for herself in the corridors of famous writers and like her mother, Anita Desai who is obviously one of the most renowned novelists of Post-Independence Indian literature, has come to be recognized as ‘a writer of great promise’. Kiran Desai was born in Delhi, moved to England and then to US where she resides now. Her debut novel is Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss won her the Man Booker Prize in 2006. The novel shows several dimensions of ‘loss’ as a result of displacement and identity crisis in the lives of people. All the four Indian immigrant novelists have explored in their works the racial and gendered experiences of the immigrants of the nation of their origin in graphic details. The issues of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are matters for debate. One attempts to answer the questions, ‘what is gender?’ and ‘what is race?’ whenever one deals with the issues. First the question of gender may be examined. The feminist perspective has given a slogan – “Gender is the social meaning of sex.” But like any slogan, this one allows for different interpretations. Some theorists use the term ‘gender’ to refer to the subjective experience of sexed embodiment, or a broad psychological orientation to the world (GENDER IDENTITY); others to a set of attributes or ideals that function as norms for males and females (MASCULINITY AND FEMININITY); others to a system of sexual symbolism; and still others to the traditional roles of men and women. However, my focus here is to analyze the ways in which the four writers have recorded their gendered experiences (experiences as women) in their works or through the characters in their works of fiction. Similarly the question of ‘race’ too is contentious. ‘Race’ is as much a social construct as ‘gender’. There are no racial genes responsible for the complex morphologies and cultural patterns we associate with different races. Besides, in different contexts racial distinctions are drawn on the basis of different characteristics. The White, the Black, the Brown and the Yellow are the broad categories of ‘race’ characterized chiefly by the skin colour. Again, the issue of race becomes controversial when one race is thought of as superior/inferior to another. Hence it appears that ‘race’, like ‘gender’, could be fruitfully understood as a position within a broad social network. As is generally accepted ‘race’ is socially real, but it is a biological fiction. The focus in this dissertation is to analyze the racial experiences in the select works of four Indian women writers.
Among the four immigrant women writers discussed in this dissertation Bharati Mukharjee and Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee are the first generation Indian immigrants while Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai belong to the second generation immigrants. Bharati Mukharjee had a first-hand racial experience during her stay in Canada. Having married a Canadian she later had to make him leave his country for her sake. However, when she and her husband migrated to America she had little complaint against the adopted country, for she consciously followed the principle of assimilation; unlike other first generation Indian immigrants she went positively about making her adopted country her home; she never felt alienated in the new cultural environment. Stanley M Stephen observes that Mukharjee identifies herself as an American not because she is ashamed of her past or Indian origin but because her whole adult life has been lived in the US. Her artistic agenda is to write about immigrants who are going through the process of making a home in the US. She constantly exhorts the readers to renegotiate the immigrants’ homeland. She writes in the tradition of the immigrant experience rather than the nostalgia of expatriation. In all her works she brings out the heterogeneity of this immigrant experience.Mukharjee is of the opinion that the complexion of America is browning every day as more and more immigrants pour into that country. As a result cultural interaction between the natives and the newcomers becomes a two-way process that leads to the transformation of both the mainstream and the minorities. In her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter the protagonist, Tara who resembles the author in many factors justifies the author’s belief that the place where you live is your home. Except in her non-fictional works (including her interviews) Bharati Mukharjee does not deal with the issue of ‘race’, but her fictional works do focus upon her gendered experiences. In all her novels women are the protagonists and Mukharjee shows the different dimensions of the personality of woman in the novels. Her heroines, Tara, Dimple, Jasmine and the like are, in the first place, self-willed and adventurous women. They are brave and independent of spirit. Similarly the heroines of Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee are also spirited individuals. San Francisco Chronicle observed: “Divakaruni beautifully tells stories about immigrant brides who are both liberated and trapped by cultural changes and who are struggling to ‘carve out an identity of their own’”. In an interview in The telegraph, March 13th 2005 she says that women in particular respond to her work because she is writing about them – women in love, women in difficulty, women in relationship. She wants people to relate to her characters so that they can feel their joy and pain, since it will be harder to be prejudiced when they meet them in real life. As Dr. R Poornima aptly observes in her article Gender Issues and Affirmation of Self, “Jhumpa Lahiri is preeminently concerned with the complexities of expatriate experience and the traumas of cross cultural adjustment. However, her fiction whispers and screams traces of gender issues through the experiences of her female protagonists and their responses in particular situations. Jhumpa Lahiri questions the prevalent gender stereotypes by highlighting their negative roles and seeks to redress the balance by repudiating them. Her protagonists struggle to break out of traditional stereotypes perpetuated by the male-dominated culture to assert their potential as human beings and have an identity independent of preordained feminine essence … The female protagonists of Lahiri’s fiction world seek a reorientation of their selves and their relationships; countering the stress and strain between the two worlds, they un-gender their generical status only to re-gender themselves as determined individuals with a strong sense of selfhood.” Kiran Desai depicts the darker side of the life of Indian immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants in the US in her fictional work, The Inheritance of Loss. The racial discrimination suffered by Jemubhai during his stay in England is the direct output of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. But the one suffered by the illegal poor Indian immigrants like Biju in the US is cruel and pathetic. Desai shows how the lure of the rich country like America makes the lives of the poor immigrants miserable.To sum up, the issues of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ which are controversial and subjects of endless debate are taken up and ably dealt with in the works of the four Indian immigrant writers, Bharati Mukharjee, Chitra Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai.
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