Bharati Mukherjee

Indian-American writer (1940-2017)

Bharati Mukherjee (July 27, 1940 – January 28, 2017) was an Indian American writer and English professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.


  • It meant that anyone with a brown face in cities like Toronto, Vancouver was fair game for physical harassment as well as verbal harassment on the street. And so, you know, there were incidents every day. And I was a victim of many such incidents of not being served in stores or being roughed up by teenagers in blue jeans overalls in subway - on subway platforms or being, you know, thrown out of lobbies of fancy hotels if my white husband wasn't near me or being given secondary examination in airports or - racial profiling…
  • I totally consider myself an American writer, and that has been my big battle: to get to realize that my roots as a writer are no longer, if they ever were, among Indian writers, but that I am writing about the territory about the feelings, of a new kind of pioneer here in America. I’m the first among Asian immigrants to be making this distinction between immigrant writing and expatriate writing. Most Indian writers prior to this, have still thought of themselves as Indians, and their literary inspiration, has come from India. India has been the source, and home. Whereas I’m saying, those are wonderful roots, but now my roots are here and my emotions are here in North America…
  • I have tried very hard as a novelist to say, "Novels are about individuals and especially larger than life individuals." My protagonists are very feisty characters. And, you know, that there is no one unified story about the immigrant experience or the immigrant passage and what I hope I've done in DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS is show how fractured the responses to that whole odyssey of moving, pulling up your roots from your original country and re-rooting yourself in an adopted country is.
  • I have been murdered and reborn at least three times; the very correct young woman I was trained to be, and was very happy being, is very different from the politicized, shrill, civil rights activist I was in Canada, and from the urgent writer that I have become in the last few years in the United States. I can't stop. It's a compulsive act for me. It's a kind of salvation, and the only thing that prevents me from being a Joyce Carol Oates, and I'm not talking about quality, but just that need to create, is schedule.

Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee edited by Bradley C. Edwards

  • That's the marvelous thing about the writing process: you don't know when and how a memory, a scrap of conversation overheard, an allusion or image, is suddenly going to surface and work itself into your story. (1996)
  • I believe that if you are literate, all literature that you expose yourself to is your heritage to claim

or reject. (from 1996 interview)

  • Where am I going? I don't want to know too far ahead. (1996)
  • Novelists aim for fullness of catharsis, not a political pamphlet. (1996)
  • An author focuses on a few individual characters, and hopes that a larger frisson of emotion and revelation comes across to the reader. (1996)
  • I am always amazed when reviewers or some literary critics lump all Asian American writers together as being a homogenous group. Whereas within the subcontinental group of immigrants and naturalized American citizens here, we retain our old world ethnic differences. It's the narcissism of the slightest differences, as Freud might say. (2002)
  • I'm amazed at how fast the interest has grown in writing in English by writers of South Asian origin, whether they're living in India, living in South Asia, or they are expatriate writers living here or immigrant American writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and me. The size of the community of such writers and the body of work produced has happened so fast. (2007)
  • Literature can help bring about change of hearts and minds and then put pressure for political, legislative change. (2007)

"A Four Hundred-Year-Old Woman" in The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory (1991)

  • I was born into a class that did not live in its native language. I was born into a city that feared its future, and trained me for emigration.
  • I am an American. I am an American writer, in the American mainstream, trying to extend it. This is a vitally important statement for me-I am not an Indian writer, not an exile, not an expatriate. I am an immigrant; my investment is in the American reality, not the Indian. I look on ghettoization-whether as a Bengali in India or as a hyphenated Indo-American in North America as a temptation to be surmounted. It took me ten painful years, from the early seventies to the early eighties, to overthrow the smothering tyranny of nostalgia. The remaining struggle for me is to make the American readership, meaning the editorial and publishing industries as well, acknowledge the same fact. (As the reception of such films as Gandhi and A Passage to India as well as The Far Pavillions and The Jewel in the Crown shows, nostalgia is a two-way street. Americans can feel nostalgic for a world they never knew.)
  • my literary agenda begins by acknowledging that America has transformed me. It does not end until I show how I (and the hundreds of thousands like me) have transformed America. The agenda is simply stated, but in the long run revolutionary. Make the familiar exotic; the exotic familiar.
  • The most moving form of praise I receive from readers can be summed up in three words: I never knew. Meaning, I see these people (call them Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese) around me all the time and I never knew they had an inner life.
  • I have been blessed with an enormity of material. I can be Chekhovian and Tolstoyan-with melancholy and philosophical perspectives on the breaking of hearts as well as the fall of civilizations-and I can be a brash and raucous homesteader, Huck Finn and Woman Warrior, on the unclaimed plains of American literature.
  • Writers (especially American writers, weaned on the luxury of affluence and freedom) often disavow the notion of a "literary duty" or "political consciousness," citing the all-too-frequent examples of writers ruined by their shrill commitments. Glibness abounds on both sides of the argument, but finally I have to side with my "Third World" compatriots: I do have a duty, beyond telling a good story or drawing a convincing character. My duty is to give voice to continents, but also to redefine the nature of American and what makes an American. In the process, work like mine and dozens like it will open up the canon of American literature.
  • my true material is immigration. In other words, transformation not preservation.
  • My theme is the making of new Americans

Quotes about Bharati Mukherjee

  • She has been called the grande dame of diasporic Indian literature, and her relationships with the others in the group are at times complex. Two men in particular engage her attention. She wrote in 1989, "our collective experience is mirrored in the works of two magnificent writers: V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Either-following Naipaul-we are less than fully human, pathetic trained monkeys, mimic men; or we are miraculous translations, Lamarckian mutations, single lives that have acquired new characteristics and recapitulated the entire cultural history of our genotype." Naipaul was an early model for Mukherjee, but her attitude toward him changed after she and Robert Boyers interviewed him in 1979. She spoke at length to me about the evolution of her relationship with Naipaul and his work. She continues to teach certain of his novels even while rejecting his worldview and politics. Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, is a writer whom she has greatly admired, going so far as to publish an homage to him titled "Prophet and Loss: Salman Rushdie's Migration of Souls" in the Village Voice Literary Supplement in March 1989
  • Bharati Mukherjee once said that every immigrant must feel powerful because he or she can reinvent one's own past. We see this happen all the time it is a unique opportunity to gain some kind of self-confidence or a better self-image. So in a sense, we are reinventing our own vision and reinventing our past.
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