The Technological Hybrid as Post-American: Cross-Cultural Genetics in “Jasmine.” – novel by Bharati Mukherjee

The Technological Hybrid as Post-American: Cross-Cultural Genetics in “Jasmine.” – novel by Bharati Mukherjee – Critical Essay

John K. Hoppe

By definition a postcolonial writer, Bharati Mukherjee is no multiculturalist. She took explicit aim at the term in 1994: “Multiculturalism emphasizes the differences between racial heritages. This emphasis on the differences has too often led to the dehumanization of the different. And dehumanization leads to discrimination. And discrimination can ultimately lead to genocide.” Later she writes, “Parents express rage or despair at their U.S.-born children’s forgetting of, or indifference to, some aspects of Indian culture…. I would ask: What is it we have lost if our children are acculturating into the culture in which we are living?” (“Beyond Multiculturalism” 2C). She is plainly disinterested in the preservation of cultures, the hallowing of tradition, obligations to the past; at least, she is not interested in the nostalgic aspects of such preservation. Rather, her current work forwards a distinction between “pioneers” and pitiable others for whom attachments to personal and cultural pasts foreclose possibilities. These pioneering characters undergo personal changes in their movements from culture to culture, changes that Mukherjee characterizes in the strongest terms. In an interview from 1988, she discussed the origins of her fictional characters’ immigration experiences in her own (from Bengal to the U.S., and then to Canada before returning to the U.S.):

We [immigrants] have experienced rapid changes in the history of the

nations in which we lived. When we uproot ourselves from those countries

and come here, either by choice or out of necessity, we suddenly must

absorb 200 years of American history and learn to adapt to American

society. Our lives are remarkable, often heroic…. Although they [the

fictional immigrant characters] are often hurt or depressed by setbacks in

their new lives and occupations, they do not give up. They take risks they

wouldn’t have taken in their old, comfortable worlds to solve their

problems. As they change citizenship, they are reborn. (1988 Interview 654)

Using the category of “rebirth” for these changes avows their thoroughness and also, by opposing rebirth to “comfort,” implies a quality of anxiety and even violence therein. Mukherjee is so far from veneration of tradition that her works accept–indeed, embrace–the violence that accompanies cross-cultural revision and personal change. One of her most important and famous heroines, 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” (Jasmine 25). It is the willingness of Jasmine and others of Mukherjee’s ethnic characters to murder their past selves that enables them to actively advance into unknown but promising futures. The futures they propel themselves toward–and even help to shape–are not guaranteed to be successful, but do have the potential for personal, material and spiritual success.

By contrast, those of her characters who hold onto history, the past, and their past places in their cultures simply for the sake of maintaining its traditions are doomed to failure, stasis, and often death. Most significantly for the student of American literature, she articulates her central subjects’ productive violence quite closely with the ideology of American progress and risk–using such dearly held tropes as the frontier, the cowboy/pioneer, and the astronaut to mark her heroes and heroines. Just as importantly, however, she separates “America”–as an ideal space/temporality of continuous self-invention–from America’s dominant citizens. In revisionary-subversive response to the nativist American ideology which holds that Anglo-Americans are the blessed children and international acolytes of this American ideal, Mukherjee turns the tables. In her works, many Anglo-Americans become spiritually, emotionally, and even physically crippled, overwhelmed by the obligations of living up to America’s potent promises and traditions, while some first-generation immigrants–ethnic Americans, though she dislikes qualifying “American” in any way.–accept the dangers and take the risks necessary to make the leap into a truly new future, a leap Mukherjee figures as specifically and quintessentially American. For Mukherjee, this revisionary immigrant “American” identity is inextricably intertwined with representations and tropings of modern technology. Interestingly, the inscription of technology in Jasmine, though pervasive, has received little critical commentary, an oversight it is my aim, in the last half of this essay, to correct.

Mukherjee’s concept of violent personal, trans-cultural transformation is different from the attempts at total erasure practiced by the colonizing powers on their conquests. Mukherjee may disclaim allegiance to cultural pasts and traditions, but her characters do more than simply discard these. As in the Caribbean novelist Wilson Harris’s works, dead selves and cultures do not vanish, but are always present. Jasmine murders herself in order to recreate different selves, but she can never wholly deny, forget, or escape the previous ones. Even at the end of the novel, as she prepares to transform herself again by leaving Bud and going to California with Taylor and Duff and the baby she’s carrying, her past is with her: “Watch me reposition the stars, I whisper to the astrologer who floats cross-legged above my kitchen stove…. I cry into Taylor’s shoulder, cry through all the lives I’ve given birth to, cry for my dead” (214). They are dead, but not gone, for they can never cease to frame, warn, and influence Jasmine. As much as Mukherjee figures Jasmine as a subject who makes fleeing her past (India, her family, her fate, even her names) a virtue, Jasmine is continually evoking that past and re-fashioning it and herself. Her continuous and aggressive revision of the fate foretold in her childhood by a Hindu seer and her ability to affect it, to attain agency in its dynamics, most clearly demonstrates this simultaneity of past, present and future. This emphasis on the dynamic interplay encompassing both change and preservation leads me to place Mukherjee in the field of cross-cultural writers like Harris, who coined the phrase and uses it to emphasize “the evolutionary thrust it restores to orders of the imagination, the ceaseless dialogue it inserts between hardened conventions and eclipsed or half-eclipsed otherness, within an intuitive self that moves endlessly into flexible patterns, arcs or bridges of community” (xviii). It is this ceaseless, flexible dialogue between cultures that is at the center of Mukherjee’s work, and represents, in her view, the polar opposite of multiculturalism’s aim to stabilize difference.

Jasmine tells the story of a young girl born in the village of Hasnapur, India, who undergoes enormous personal and cultural disruptions and revisions, changes which are not finished by the close of the action. A poor girl but a bright student, Jyoti is educated over the protests of her traditional father, and eventually marries a modern Indian husband, Prakash, whose dream becomes emigration to the U.S. to study and open an electronics business, a career which will include Jyoti, now re-named Jasmine by her husband. Already she has undergone major identity shifts, from feudal Hasnapur to urban Jullundhar, from her traditional cultural desire to have children early to Prakash’s contempt for those desires: “We aren’t going to spawn! We aren’t ignorant peasants!” (70), and already she feels the tensions of trying to accommodate these changes: “Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities,” she says, and “… I felt suspended between worlds” (69-70).

Soon Prakash is killed, by a bomb meant for Jasmine and hidden in a portable radio by Sikh terrorists. Jasmine vows to complete Prakash’s dream, to go to his intended school in Tampa, Florida and sacrifice herself on the campus. She manages to smuggle herself into America using false passport papers. There she is raped by her smuggler, after which she kills him and abandons her holy journey. She is befriended by an American woman, Lillian, who helps her learn to pass as an American woman and evade the INS and who calls her “Jazzy.” She moves to New York, moves in with Prakash’s old professor and becomes a live-in domestic, feeling desperately that she has moved back to Hasnapur. She gets a green card and an au pair position in Manhattan, which allows her to complete her Americanization by becoming an integral part of an American family and also by learning how to consume, which she does gleefully. However, her husband’s killer appears in New York as well, and she flees to Iowa, where she marries Bud, a rural banker, becomes Jane Ripplemeyer, and adopts a Vietnamese refugee son, Du. The novel closes as Taylor, her now-divorced former employer in Manhattan, asks her to come with him and his daughter to California, where Du has already gone. Pregnant from her time with Bud, she leaves him anyway to be with Taylor in California. Such are the bare bones of the narrative, but its unifying theme is Jyoti/Jasmine/Jane’s mutability, her adaptation to circumstances, expressed as a change from passive, traditional object of fate to active, modern, cross-cultural shaper of her future.

From the beginning, Jyoti rebels against her cultural inscriptions. A seer foretells her future, pronouncing “my widowhood and exile…. I was nothing, a speck in the solar system…. I was helpless, doomed” (1). In response she whispers “I don’t believe you,” and, claiming that a wound on her forehead is her “third eye” she proclaims herself a “sage,” rewriting her position from passive object to empowered seer. Then, swimming in the river, she happens across “what I don’t want to become,” a dog’s old, waterlogged carcass (3). This image of stasis, passivity, and rot establishes her negative horizon, the `fate’ she will succeed in avoiding. Mukherjee establishes this mortal stasis as a component of the past, and it becomes Jasmine’s goal to move away from the past at all costs, including the cost of self-knowledge, a stable identity. In many places throughout the text, Jasmine refers to herself, and her past selves, as ghosts, phantoms, or to herself as an astronaut, moving between worlds, never solidly attached to any. Often, she adopts the trope of reincarnation, describing her various identities as separate lives, lives which must be sealed off from each other: “For me, experience must be forgotten, or else it will kill” (29). She disdains her father’s obsession with the vanished past, a past in which he was a wealthy farmer, before the Partition Riots.(1) The family was violently dispossessed of their property, but her father has never been able to accept his new status, preferring to imagine himself as he was. Jasmine says of him, “He’ll never see Lahore again and I never have. Only a fool would let it rule his life” (37). In the end she is seen to continue this protean narrative, never sure what the future will bring, but always knowing that it is preferable to the past: “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 … greedy with wants and reckless from hope” (214).

It is important to note, however, that this self-determination is inflected with some of the same cultural narratives that Jasmine attempts to re-direct. Her present is a tense, contingent result of continual negotiations between her past and her future; her future self can never entirely escape her past inscriptions. In a recent article on Jasmine, “`We Murder Who We Were’: Jasmine and the Violence of Identity,” Kristin Carter-Sanborn reads Jasmine’s “shuttling between identities” differently from Mukherjee’s apparent desire to have them constructed as self-empowering. I disagree with this reading, as it de-emphasizes important elements in the text that are crucial in understanding its inscription of Jasmine / Jyoti as autonomous and independent, albeit within the parameters of certain cultural fields which I enumerate below.

Carter-Sanborn points out that Jasmine’s near-euphoric sense of her (and other immigrants’) ability to change and adapt to new circumstances is expressed in the highly ambiguous image, “We murder who we are so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams,” leading Carter-Sanborn to ask “… but of whose dreams?” (577). Under Carter-Sanborn’s reading, each change or transformation that Jyoti/Jase/Jasmine goes through, from traditional village girl to modern Indian wife to avenging killer to nurturing day mummy to `foreign’ Iowa farm wife, all occur under the control–sometimes outright, as in Prakash’s lectures on her new identity, sometimes more subtle, as with Bud’s joking references to her as the “Jane” of Tarzan movies–of others, usually men.(2) Reincarnation, the text’s central figure for these personal/subjective transformations, Carter-Sanborn believes,

…may in fact disguise the imperial subject dreaming of and violently

remaking its `third world’ Others to fit those dreams…. Bud, Taylor, and

even her first husband Prakash, whom Jasmine characterizes as a type of

Professor Higgins, call upon these [Orientalist] vocabularies in order to

speak the narrator’s name and thus remake her in the shape of their own

fantasies. (579)

This is a perceptive but, I argue, incomplete reading of Jasmine’s shifting subjectivity.

One of Carter-Sanborn’s central pieces of evidence is her reading of the scene in which Jasmine is raped by a smuggler named Half-Face, whom she then kills. Carter-Sanborn notes an evacuation of agency from the character of Jasmine as she prepares to murder him. In the shower after the rape, the glass fogs so that her face becomes indistinct, and her revenge is figured not as her own, but rather as a result of the action of the goddess Kali, as Jasmine feels herself become “walking death” (106). This transformation Carter-Sanborn labels a “dissociative state,” and claims that the recourse to the Hindu goddess “blocks access to agency” (589). As further evidence, she points to the section of Chapter Eight in which the young Jyoti kills a rabid dog, noting that in her description of the event agency transfers from the young girl to the staff: “The staff crushed the dog’s snout while it was still in mid-air” (49). Carter-Sanborn says, “It is as if the staff has leaped out of Jyoti’s hands and done its work alone; she describes the scene from the point of view of prone and helpless observer” (587). For Carter-Sanborn, agency is thus displaced at crucial moments from Jasmine elsewhere, in a pattern that has been and will be repeated throughout the narrative. Carter-Sanborn is accurate when she sees Jane/Jasmine’s chain of identities as divided, often as objects of others’ desires and agendas:

To act, for Jasmine, is to become entirely other. In an interesting

inversion of the colonial project sketched by Bhabha, Jasmine can

authoritatively impute the idea of “multiplicity” to her own character only

retrospectively … from the perspective of a woman with an all-seeing

“third eye.” … In cataloging her selves Jasmine is able to conjoin them

in the overarchihg “multiple” consciousness of the narrative. But in the

very construction of that consciousness there is no “simultaneity” or even

continuity to be found. The narrator is not the widow and the au pair; the

Iowa wife and the undetected murderer. The continuity between one of these

states and any other is either obscured or destroyed, her implicit argument

goes, by the violence of the transformative moment. She abandons agency in

this moment to her theoretical Other, and it is this Other who determines

and delivers her into new forms. (582-83)

There is no question that Jasmine does shift between identities and positions frequently. At the end of the novel, when Jane is leaving Bud to go to California with Taylor and Duff, at one discursive level Mukherjee makes an attempt to present her central character as autonomous and self-willed by having her leave Bud, with whose child she is pregnant. Here, Jane ceases obeying one form of responsibility–to Bud and their future family–and thus seems to move away from her pattern of conformity to dominant, male inscriptions of her. But here again she abandons agency in certain places. First, she thinks to herself, “I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America [choosing Taylor / California] and old-world dutifulness [Bud/Iowa]” (213-14). The verbs are significant. In the first sentence she is “not choosing between men,” which may lead us to think she will announce that her choices are actually between different categories. But the next sentence reveals that she actually is not choosing at all; she is `caught,’ passively, between paths. Further down the page she expresses her sense of the change involved in leaving Iowa this way: “… the frontier is pushing indoors …,” another image that locates agency elsewhere, outside of Jane. She is the object, not the subject of these actions. The last paragraph reinforces this sense as she says, “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” (214, emphasis added). Her human agency is first disavowed, then dispersed and abandoned altogether in the image of the natural force, inscrutable and unpredictable, entirely beyond the category of will. Carter-Sanborn is entirely correct in questioning these absences of subjective agency in Jasmine’s narratives, but she overlooks equally important parts of those episodes: their useful effects. I argue that Jasmine’s subjectivity is not “erased,” but rather that she enters new and empowering subjective possibilities, both with the aid of her originary culture’s narratives and in other ways that are articulated through the twinned tropes of “America” and high technology.

Let us return to the rabid dog episode. As the reader can see, and as Carter-Sanborn herself acknowledges, Jyoti intends to defend herself: “… even as she recognizes `fate’ in the terrifying form of the rabid jackal she resists that doom: `I wasn’t ready to die'” (586). And before crushing the dog’s head, Jyoti sets up the attack, plans her approach: “I took aim and waited for it to leap on me” (49). While it is true that the attack itself is described from a passive point of view, the effect is salutary: the dog is dead, Jyoti evades victimization. And in the other violent moments in the text, including Jasmine’s revenge on Half-Face, the shifting of agency and the ambiguity of her identity does not in any way counteract the validity or efficacy of the actions. She succeeds. In the novel’s last scene outlined above, Jasmine shifts from passive to active even within paragraphs. On the space of the last page, interspersed among the passive constructions noted earlier, Jasmine does assume a directive voice: “`I have to see Du’ I announce,” at one point, and then later “I’m not leaving Bud … I’m going somewhere” shows a clear shift of interpretation, from one which sees her as object of others’ narratives (Bud’s) to one which shifts the focus of agency back to herself. Just before leaving, she reiterates this theme: “Watch me reposition the stars, I whisper to the astrologer who floats cross-legged above my kitchen stove” (214). This formulates Jasmine as an active participant in her fate, while leaving an altered version of the Hindu fate that attempts to name her at the beginning of the novel somewhat intact; she never fully escapes, but does successfully negotiate, her various pasts.

I read the transformations undergone in the space marked by “Jasmine” or her various names–what Mukherjee calls her “shuttling between identities”–as analogous, at the individual level, with the broader cultural dynamics Homi Bhabha observes obtain for the Other under conditions of postmodernity:

Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are

produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be

hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set

in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference,

from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that

seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of

historical transformation. (2)

It is here that I read significant analogs with Jyoti/Jasmine/Jane’s episodic leaps between identities and “worlds,” her continual negotiations with her past and its “fate” and the “images of dreams” she finds in ever more modern worlds, and in the mythologies of new places. Here Bhabha writes of the accompanying validity of tradition to be used, as Jasmine does, in working out new subjectivities that confront and surmount different and contradictory intersections of powers and cultures:

The “right” to signify from the periphery of authorized power and privilege

does not depend on the persistence of tradition; it is resourced by the

power of tradition to be reinscribed through the conditions of contingency

and contradictoriness that attend upon the lives of those who are “in the

minority.” The recognition that tradition bestows is a partial form of

identification. In restaging the past it introduces other, incommensurable

cultural temporalities into the invention of tradition. (2)

Put simply, it is Jasmine’s right and power to call upon Indian cultural and religious traditions in this new setting, in a process which transforms those traditions into active tools of power for her, altering both. It is within this context that I contend the usage of the goddess Kali actually instantiates agency in Jasmine. Or, more precisely, there occurs a calling forth, in which Kali functions as an articulation of Jasmine and vice-versa, both inscribed upon and yet also different from each other. This is evidently a tense and anxious, only partial identification, an interstitial subjectivity which cannot be wholly one presence nor wholly another. It functions, importantly, in a multifaceted border space between Jasmine’s proxy mission, the violence inflicted upon her by Half-Face’s erasure of her identity as widow and his brutal subjection of her, and the new cultural cartography of America, in a hotel that, with its “Western shower” which Jasmine “had never used … with automatic hot water coming hard from a nozzle instead of cool water from a hand-dipped pitcher,” is both torture chamber and “… a miracle…. It was a place that permitted a kind of purity” (104). Samir Dayal’s assessment of Jasmine’s identity accords with my own in emphasizing its radically unstable nature: “Jasmine instinctively grasps that self-assertion does not necessarily imply a confidence in a stable, reified self. Her struggle to maintain her precarious sense of self registers the effectivity of violence in the continual articulation of her precarious subjectivity in the world,” a subjectivity he has provocatively called “violent self-transcendence” (80, 71). Both this reading and my own emphasize the inescapable excess of cultural interaction, the borderland postcolonial subjectivities that are multiple, and never thoroughly integrated into stable boundaries.

For Mukherjee, the mutually reinforcing tropes of technology and America serve as metaphors and vehicles for a version of the “revision and reconstruction” Bhabha speaks of as defining the postcolonial identity. Technology is a continual and highly ambiguous presence in Jasmine, and its functions and associations are crucial to our understanding of the new subjectivities achieved by the text’s most highly-valorized characters, Jasmine and Du.

While technology is evident throughout the various cultural zones of the text, including even “feudal” Hasnapur, it is America that provides its most “natural” home, its most active locus. America and technology are reciprocal figures, each providing the optimum conditions and frame for the other, articulating each other along a borderline named “mutability.” The mutability of technology subtends, allows, and reiterates the protean character of America in the novel, and the mutual interaction of this continual fluidity enables and inscribes Jasmine’s own personal subjective changes. Early in the novel, Jane observes “They tell me I have no accent, but I don’t sound Iowan, either. I’m like one of those voices on the telephone, very clear and soothing. Maybe Northern California, they say. Du says they’re computer generated” (Jasmine, 10-11). Here, Jasmine/Jane’s adaptability is underlined by her similarity to the dispersed and functional voice of the computer network.

Even before reaching Iowa, in Manhattan, the scene of an important identity shift (Jazzy to Jase) and stage for further Americanization, technology accompanies and tropes the narrative’s themes. After her departure from her traditional role as domestic female in the community of transplanted, unassimilated Indians in Queens, she goes to an American friend for help. Kate Gordon-Feldstein introduces her to her pet iguana Sam, brought in from the Galapagos, who “thinks he’s a dog” (145). Sam thrives–in a Manhattan loft that had seen incarnations as a dance space and television studio before conversion into an apartment–because of a sun lamp and the pureed lettuce Kate feeds him. Holding him, Jasmine thinks “Truly, I had been reborn. Indian village girls do not hold large reptiles on their laps” (144). Both Jasmine and Sam have come a long way to meet in New York, a meeting that can only occur because technology can substitute for the Galapagos’ environment and because Jasmine has transformed identities, an adaptation emphasized by the casual incongruity of the tropical lizard’s existence in the northern city. Later, she moves into the Upper West Side apartment of Taylor, the man with and for whom she will eventually leave for California, but for whom she starts working as an au pair. Taylor’s wife Wylie shows her around the kitchen and comes to the microwave. In an attempt at multicultural sympathy, Wylie says “If you have a thing about radiation, you don’t have to use it…. You just let us know when we upset you, all right?” In reply, Jasmine says simply, “I don’t have a thing about radiation” (150). Mukherjee strongly wants to contrast Wylie’s stereotyping of Jasmine as a “primitive,” “Third World Other” with Jasmine’s actual affiliation with technology and its powers and possibilities, most notably possibilities for rapid change.

One of the most central images of the potency of this techno-cultural doubling occurs in Jasmine’s first view of America, as she and other illegal immigrants land in the surf of the Gulf Coast:

Then suddenly in the pinkening black of pre-dawn, America caromed off the


The first thing I saw were the two cones of a nuclear plant, and smoke

spreading from them in complicated but seemingly purposeful patterns, edges

lit by the rising sun, like a gray, intricate map of an unexplored island

continent, against the pale unscratched blue of the sky. I waded through

Eden s waste: plastic bottles, floating oranges, boards, sodden boxes,

white and green plastic sacks tied shut but picked open by birds and pulled

apart by crabs. (95-96)

The map of the unknown continent etched into the sky can only remind us of the visions of the earliest European explorers, an echo reinforced by the seemingly purposeful design she reads into it. It is unknown but part of her destiny, blurry but fated, alien from and owned by the observer at one and the same time. It is an imperial vision, ironically re-written by an undreamed-of explorer, a visionary unauthorized by Western narratives of power and possession, an illegal Indian woman. It stems from the cooling towers of a nuclear plant, binding the image of the waiting continent to the field of technology and its ambiguous promises. Thus, her vision is unmistakably inflected with futurity as the scene of exploration merges with its nuclear frame. Yet this Eden is different, littered, already written over by prior conquests, including the technological; it is not the “virgin land” of her predecessors, but a thickly populated zone of confrontation. It is this subversive re-appropriation of the already exhausted American cultural narratives of newness, open possibilities, and unknown but promising futures by new, postcolonial immigrants that is, we shall see, at the core of Jasmine’s multiple narratives.

This previously unimagined re-appropriation from the margins has an important forerunner in the novel. On her way to America, Jasmine and other illegal aliens move via what she calls “phantom airlines,” in the shadows and corners of the authorized networks. The very technological/transportation linkages–international airlines, airports–that support, at one level, the global capitalism that centers the West and performs economic and ideological neo-colonial operations on the “Third World,” are also spaces of opportunity and re-fashioning for Jasmine and her fellow-travelers: “There is a shadow world of aircraft permanently aloft that share air lanes and radio frequencies with Pan Am and British Air and Air-India, portaging people who coexist with tourists and businessmen. But we are refugees and mercenaries and guest workers…. “(90). It is significant that Jasmine and her fellow “phantom” passengers are not written as being accepted into that system of legalized, valorized national citizenship available to the privileged subjects who can (like Mukherjee herself) afford it. Rather, they are “ghosts,” unthinkable and diaphanous entities taking advantage of the liminal, unauthorized and interstitial spaces that are the inevitable possibilities–the remainders, the excesses–of those pathways hurled outward to draw global Others into the sphere of power of the modern West: “What country? What continent? We pass through wars, through plagues…. The zigzag route is the straightest…. I phantom my way through three continents” (91). Her inscription as phantom in this context underlines the danger and power of her interstitial position: the phantom is dangerously less real; she would have no defense if detected. Yet, at the same time it is this liminal position that allows her to mimic the centered subjects of this international system to her advantage.

Jasmine finds even in the hotel room of her brutalization a certain comfort in the modern technology of the Western shower. Mukherjee chooses this same hotel to expand on the marvelous mutability of America. It soon becomes “something called Paradise Bay Complex: A Mixed-Use Vacation and Residence Community…hell turned into paradise–to me this seems very American” (122). Repeatedly, America is associated with swift change, passage into the future and the erasure of the past: “It is by now only a passing wave of nausea, this response to the speed of transformation, the fluidity of American character and the American landscape” (123). And even before her arrival, she and Prakash think of moving to America in terms that emphasize change and possibility: “We’d start with new fates, new stars” (77). It is this possibility for change that is the most salient feature of America for Jasmine; for many others, as we shall see, America cannot function in the same way.

The other major character whose experience of America involves taking advantage of American mutability is Du, Jasmine/Jane’s and Bud’s adoptive Vietnamese refugee son. And it is in his narrative that the strongest links between technological mutability and the promise of America are articulated. Du is linked to technology from the beginning of his appearance: “We bought ourselves a satellite dish the day after we first talked long distance to Du. There’s no telling where this telecast is coming from” (14). Du scavenges electronic parts, taking things apart and reassembling them in new ways, for unimagined purposes:

It’s not engineering. It’s recombinant electronics. I have altered the gene

pool of the common American appliance. I have spliced the gene of a Black &

Decker paint sprayer onto the gear drive of a repaired Mixmaster. I have

created a multi-use super air blower with a variable-speed main-drive…. I

didn’t have to learn it, it’s what I do. (139)

This technological mastery becomes a metaphor for Du’s ability to adapt to his new circumstances, and to have survived the war and refugee camps of his childhood.

It is in this scene that Mukherjee links this technological adaptability again with the productive violence of their marginalized pasts and, very possibly, their futures. Jasmine uses her own electrical knowledge–learned from Prakash–to help Du in one of his creations: “`I understand circuitry.’ … `I’ve also killed a man, you know,'” to which Du responds “`So have I. More than one'” (139). Plainly, for Jasmine and Du technology’s adaptable, amoral effectiveness is the most recognizable model for their own journeys, their cross-cultural negotiations. For Mukherjee, the postmodern, postcolonial subject should be like an electronic component: functional, modern, and entirely flexible.

Jasmine and Du have many foils in the novel, all of them characters whose choice of cultural values is traditional and rooted in the past. And, in a further re-appropriation of white American ideology by postcolonial ethnic characters, the authorized subjects of the American national narrative are those who fail to fulfill its destiny. Darrel Lutz, the mid-westerner, inheritor of the `heartland of America,’ hangs himself from his hog barn while the immigrants survive and push ahead, change, and grow stronger. Darrel is the clearest example in the novel of the enervating and stagnating effects of the national narrative–the same national mythology that provides opportunity for the immigrants–on its “chosen” subjects: Anglo-Americans. Darrel has inherited his father’s farm, but is clearly unsatisfied to simply propagate that legacy. In one of his first appearances in the novel, Mukherjee makes it plain that Darrel is mis-matched to his fate. We see him sitting in his father’s tractor, but he doesn’t fit it. It is “too large” for him, signaling a sort of degeneration in the stock, and a reversal of the growth trajectory required by the American national narrative. Darrel’s appearance in the out-sized tractor is more than coincidence, for Mukherjee will write Darrel’s tragic maladjustment to American mythology on the field of agricultural technology. A sign of a more willful rejection of his patrimony is Darrel’s painting over of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team logo (his father’s choice) with that of the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals’ arch-rivals. But it is a failed attempt, for the rebellion is contained within the terms of the father’s values; to choose a different team is to remain tied to the original need to choose.

Darrel demonstrates dissatisfaction with and rebellion against his destined role as “heartland” farmer, proud husbandman of the land, in several ways. To Jane he reveals his secret desire: to sell the farm and open a Radio Shack in New Mexico. The choice of enterprise is significant, as it puts Darrel in the same general category as Du, Prakash, Professorji, and Jasmine herself, that of modernized characters who are attracted to and adept at handling electronic technology, a technological modernity viewed with suspicion by farmers who are, as Jasmine says, “the same everywhere.” Darrel also engages in legal negotiations aimed at selling the farm to a company which would transform it into a golfing range, an idea that is anathema to Bud’s notions of the proper disposition of farm lands, as well as to his respect for Darrel’s dead father. Mukherjee makes it clear that Darrel would be better off to pursue this dream. Staying in Iowa and working his father’s farm depresses him, driving him to drink heavily. One drunken evening he reveals to Jane his desire for her, and his wish that she should run away with him to the Radio Shack in the desert. In a practice which reflects both his desire to abandon his cultural narrative and his corollary desire for Jane–as she represents exotic possibilities to him–he experiments with Indian cooking, partially in hope of impressing her.

Darrel’s suicide is both a striking climax to the Iowa section of the narrative and a powerful figure for Mukherjee’s message of the dangers of tradition. Darrel in the end does not sell the farm to the golf company, partially because of Bud’s denigration of the idea but largely because he cannot bring himself to entirely reject the powerful cultural expectations and narratives that cannot validate other vocations than farming: “With ground so cheap and farmers so desperate, they’re snapping up huge packages for future non-ag use…. It breaks Bud’s heart even to mention it” (7). As a sort of compromise, Darrel devotes his energies to building a high-tech hog barn, one that can feed a great number of hogs and circulate their waste back to the fields with little labor, another enterprise for which Bud has overt disdain. But this is clearly only a partial solution to Darrel’s basic predicament; while he can attempt to modernize the farm, he is still following the path laid down by the several overlapping narratives that bind him: Midwestern “heartland” mythology, broader American agrarian/pastoral narratives, and the family history that is enforced by Bud, who functions as Darrel’s (and the county’s) surrogate financial “father.” Ultimately, the contradictions become too great for Darrel to mediate, and he hangs himself from the beams of the unfinished structure. Jasmine/Jane describes him not as a farmer but as, significantly, an astronaut, “shamed by the failure of his liftoff” (209). The astronaut imagery inscribes Darrel into the narratives of progress and futurity, but negatively; he has failed, and his failure can be traced to his guilty attachment to the farm. His father’s farm, but in many ways Iowa’s farm and America’s farm, its obligations foreclose other possibilities for Darrel, so that his attempt to start a high-tech adventure on it is doomed from the start. According to the logic of Mukherjee’s past/future, farm/frontier dichotomy, Darrel’s attempt to straddle both worlds is impossible.

Darrel’s already imagined himself in New Mexico selling Tandys: his will

has muscled out his guilt, or his destiny…. Crazy, Darrel wants an Indian

princess and a Radio Shack franchise in Santa Fe. Crazy, he’s a recruit in

some army of white Christian survivalists. Sane, he wants to baby-sit three

hundred hogs and reinvent the fertilizer/pesticide wheel. (207)

The futility of the high-tech hog operation is communicated in Mukherjee’s description of it as “reinvent[ing]” the wheel–the very cliche for useless and self-delusional action. Mukherjee’s characters cannot be half-way astronauts and prosper. Darrel’s attachment to the past, to the land and his/its cultural responsibilities, is clearly articulated on a structure of guilt and repression, leading directly to a doom that cannot be averted by technology.

Jasmine/Jane’s husband Bud is equally clearly a representative of the dangers of tradition. He is in many ways analogous to Jyoti’s own father, the gentleman farmer who refuses to accept his own loss of power and status, and therefore relevance, in the new India:

In Lahore my parents had lived in a big stucco house with porticoes and

gardens. They had owned farmland, shops…. Mataji, my mother, couldn’t

forget the Partition Riots. Muslims sacked our house…. I’ve never been to

Lahore, but the loss survives in the instant replay of family story:

forever Lahore smokes, forever my parents flee. (35-36)

Here again Mukherjee plays on the ambivalence of technology, as the horrific attachment to a past that is imagined as eternally present, a past which forms the ultimate horizon–in this case, the locked gate–of her parents’ identities is figured as a tape, immutably and inevitably repeated in a process which flattens time into an eternally present past. A tape differs from a memory or a vision in its mechanical stasis, its stifling sameness. Memories and visions may alter to renew themselves and their dreamers. But here, as with Darrel’s hog barn, technology is figuratively amenable to a useless and doomed cultural necromancy, but always to the detriment of the user.

Bud is not guilty in his relationship to the community, as Darrel is, but he too has paid a price for his involvement with the farm society. He was shot by a farmer who went mad as a result of changing conditions, economic tensions and changes not accounted for in the heartland cultural narrative of hard work and decent reward. Perhaps understanding Bud’s exposed position as banker, and central node of this culture’s “social symbolic orders,” Jasmine/Jane wants to tell him “Don’t make moral decisions for Darrel…. Bud gets too involved. It almost killed him two years ago” (16). Bud remains fixed to a static conception of the farm community, despite the fact that the community itself is changing against his wishes. Bud’s ex-wife, Karin, runs a help hotline for the desperate, a modern remedy to the problems of new times that are still only dimly understood. “Something’s gotten out of hand in the heartland,” says a mental health consultant of the depression, shootings, and rising divorce rates the area is suffering (138). White supremacy is on the rise, as are one-world conspiracy theories. Even the heartland is coming unsettled, but Bud’s solution shows his devotion to traditional wisdom: “You’ll see, it’ll rain” (9). Bud is crippled by a deranged farmer’s bullet; his desire to organize the community’s finances and land according to a stable narrative has not paid off.

Another group of characters who function to show the dangers of devotion to tradition are the Khalsa Lions, Sikh terrorists who eventually plant the bomb in the radio that kills Prakash, though it had been meant for Jasmine, as she does not conform to traditional dress codes. They are unmistakably symbols of cultural conservatism:

There was a new Sikh boys’ gang, the Khalsa Lions, who liked action. Khalsa

means pure. As Lions of Purity, the gang dressed in white shirts and

pajamas and indigo turbans, and all of them toted heavy kirpans on

bandoliers. They had money to zigzag through the bazaar on scooters, but

since they were … farmers’ sons, we assumed the money for scooters came

from smuggling liquor and guns in and out of Pakistan. In villages close

enough to the border, smuggling was not an unacceptable profession. (42)

Three things are significant here. The dedicated warriors for religious and cultural purity have no compunction about using motor-scooters, nor the transistor radios they will later use to kill Prakash. Second, as farmers’ sons they bear immediate comparison to Darrel and to Jasmine’s own father, the bitterly dispossessed farmer; as Jasmine says, farmers are the same everywhere, and Mukherjee’s identification and equivalence of them begins to write the futile devotion to the past and its already-ossified materials in physical/geographical terms. The farm is the site of the past, the unhealthy space of repetition and stasis. Third, the Khalsa Lions’ liquor and arms-trafficking activities, though outside the bounds of their strict religious dogma, nevertheless are necessary for the prosecution of those codes in the villages. And Mukherjee makes clear the specific terms of existence of the Khalsa Lions are conditioned by their proximity to the border; this proximity is what instantiates the attempts to push back that border, to return the here-and-now to an untroubled center, attempts which rely upon the very cultural and commercial hybridity they despise.

In Mukherjee’s inscription, the Khalsa Lions’ devotion to tradition is murderous, and that of the Iowans’ is self-destructive and suicidal. Jasmine and Du are constructed to adapt, to change, to mediate the overlapping but often contradictory spaces of the postmodern world, and it is their ability to do this which establishes them as “Americanized”: “My transformation has been genetic; Du’s was hyphenated. We were so full of wonder at how fast he became American, but he’s a hybrid, like the fantasy appliances he wants to build” (198). It is on the basis of this interpretation that I differ again from Kristin Carter-Sanborn, who finds Mukherjee’s double construction of Jasmine as `multiple’ and as American to be impossible:

…Her flirtation with “multiplicity” ironically resolves itself into a

domestic and domesticated fantasy, a classic American dream of

assimilation. Disguised as a call for revolution in our very understanding

of the processes of identity in contemporary America, the narrative’s

lessons reveal a desire to invest American identity itself with presence

and authority. Thus the novel may more than anything demonstrate the very

impossibility of an integrated subjecthood in the framework of Western

notions of independence and individual accomplishment. (582-83)

On the other hand, I argue that it is precisely Jasmine’s non-integration–her ability and willingness to take up and cast off cultural, religious and other roles as she needs to, in pursuit of a potentially utopian future–that marks her, within the terms of the text, as most identifiably American. Mukherjee demonstrates that the most successful “selves” are mutable, shifting, postmodern nexi of various negotiated, contingent positions. It is the various farmers’ inability to negotiate change and temporality, their fantasies of the land as permanent and therefore their own identities as fixed by that vision, that doom them to failure, futility, or death. Rather, Mukherjee forwards the useful mutability of technology as her metaphor for successful subjectivity, and technology is powerfully situated in the domain of the idea of “America.” In this way, Mukherjee falls in line with a long tradition of writers who mythologize America as endlessly productive, and adds to the utopian tropology familiar from the earliest writings of the Age of Conquest a renewed emphasis on the powers of the machine. And like her pioneering forbears, Jasmine’s actions show the disregard for conventional morality’s finer points that flows from the doubled espousal of transformative violence and utilitarian technology.

Keeping in mind Mukherjee’s understanding of this New World interplay of place and character, I read Jasmine as a textual production whose thematics propose precisely that new, contingent positionality that Bhabha has in mind when he describes the cultural significance of postmodernism and the postcolonial world’s evaporating boundaries:

The wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness

that the epistemological “limits” of those ethnocentric ideas are also the

enunciative boundaries of other dissonant, even dissident histories and

voices–women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed

sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history

of postcolonial migration…. (4)

The sign of Jasmine’s flexibility is her ability to appropriate the “pioneer/explorer” rhetoric that had belonged to Anglo-Americans but which, in this novel has become an ossified and impossible cultural weight for its intended heirs. Jasmine and Du re-combine, reappropriate, and re-invent cultural traditions and subjectivities in new combinations, imagining the land as wilderness/frontier/open possibility imaginatively and thus claiming it for their use, in a mutated and shifting echo of the process the European settlers used as they imaginatively emptied and re-wrote the New World to serve as their destiny. Mukherjee described the necessity for this process for her immigrant characters: “There isn’t a role model for the `Jasmines’ or the `Dimples.’ They have to invent the roles, survive and revise as best as they can” (1990 Interview 23). Jasmine’s postcolonial, ethnic characters are post-American, carving out new spaces for themselves from among a constellation of available cultural narratives, never remaining bound by any one, and always fluidly negotiating the boundaries of their past, present, and futures.

Let me underline that the foregoing analysis should not be mistaken for a celebration of Mukherjee’s own enthusiasm for the amoral and romanticized Americanization-via-technological-subjectivity that it uncovers. I find the criticisms of Mukherjee’s problematically postmodern postcolonials offered by scholars such as Fred Pfeil and others highly persuasive.(3) In various ways, all these critics object to Mukherjee’s mis-representations of the real circumstances of postcolonial subjects within cultural, economic, literary and ideological relationships between “First” and “Third” worlds. To (unavoidably) grossly oversimplify, these writers critique the way Mukherjee’s texts, in the words of Anindyo Roy, “elide the deep contradictions built within the space of postcoloniality … [her aesthetic] forms are clearly indicative of the stabilization and commodification of a colonized culture by a postcolonial writer whose own authorial gaze corresponds to that of the Orientalizing West” (128-29). Such critiques may be, I believe, profitably supplemented by a fuller appreciation of the importance of figures of technology in her aesthetics. Mukherjee is unambiguous about her desire to be considered an American writer, not an Indian or Indian-American one.(4) And, as I have shown, Jasmine forwards a powerful linkage between an immigrant’s personal progress and assimilation into a technologized America and an Americanized technological identity, a technological subjectivity that clearly has everything to do with the operations and contradictions of the new relationships of global capital.


(1.) The Partition Riots, in Spring-Summer 1947, were widespread violence between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh resulting from the political partition of Pakistan from India. For a fuller discussion, see Arthur Lall, who describes the impact: “…the partition led to over a million deaths, a refugee problem whose dimensions pale that of the Middle East refugee situation, and a property loss that has been too large ever to assess accurately” (136).

(2.) Other critics of Mukherjee’s immigrant characters understand fully that the “fluid identities” she celebrates involve stresses and anxieties, but have not read a lack of agency therein, as Carter-Sanborn does. Gurleen Grewal comes closest to this view, finding Jasmine’s sati-motivated voyage to America both psychologically and culturally unrealistic. I am indebted to Carmen Wickmarange’s very useful 1992 article, “Relocation as Positive Act,” on Mukherjee’s connection of immigration with violence and empowerment. E Timothy Ruppel’s essay notes that “Jasmine is a novel that resists closure and suggests a strategy of continual transformation as a necessary and historical contingent ethic of survival” (182). Also see Brinda Bose (“There is a simultaneous fracturing and evolving of identity going on here, in terms of both ethnicity and gender, which is true of the experience of multiculturalism” (57)); Arvindra Sant-Wade and Karen Marguerite Radell, Samir Dayal; and Pushpa N. Parekh for various useful approaches to this view of identity in Mukherjee.

(3.) See Anindyo Roy, Alpana Sharma Knippling, Debjani Banerjee and Gurleen Grewal.

(4.) On her disavowal of “immigrant author” status, see, for example, her 1988 “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximialists.”

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. “Locations of Culture,” Introduction to The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Bose, Brinda. “A Question of Identity: Where Gender, Race, and America Meet in Bharati Mukherjee,” in Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993. 47-64.

Carter-Sanborn, Kristin. “`We Murder Who We Were’: Jasmine and the Violence of Identity,” American Literature, 66:3 (1994). 573-93.

Dayal, Samir. “Creating, Preserving, Destroying: Violence in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” in Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993. 65-88.

Grewal, Gurleen, “Born Again American: The Immigrant Consciousness in Jasmine.” in Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993. 181-96.

Knippling, Alpana Sharma. “Toward an Investigation of the Subaltern in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories and Jasmine.” in Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993. 143-60.

Lall, Arthur. The Emergence of Modern India. New York: Columbia UP, 1981. Mukhjeree, Bharati. “Beyond Multiculturalism.” Des Moines Register 2 Oct. 1994, 1C+.

–. “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximialists.” New York Times Book Review 28 August 1988: 1, 28-29.

–. Interview. The Iowa Review 20:3 (1990) 7-32.

–. Interview. The Massachusetts Review (1988): 645-54.

–. Jasmine. Fawcett Crest: New York, 1989.

–. The Middleman and Other Stories. Grove P: New York, 1988.

Parekh, Pushpa N. “Telling Her Tale: Narrative Voice and Gender Roles in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., New York: Garland, 1993. 181-96.

Pfeil, Fred. “No Basta Teorizar: In-Difference to Solidarity in Contemporary Fiction, Theory, and Practice.” Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Eds., Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1994. 197-230.

Roy, Anindyo. “The Aesthetics of an (Un)willing Immigrant: Bharati Mukherjee’s Days and Nights in Calcutta and Jasmine.” Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. Emmanuel S. Nelson, Ed., New York: Garland, 1993. 127-42.

Ruppel, F. Timothy. “`Re-inventing Ourselves a Million Times’: Narrative, Desire, Identity, and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” College Literature 22:1 (1995): 181-91.

Sant-Wade, Arvindra and Karen Marguerite Radell. “Refashioning the Self: Immigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee’s New World.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (1992): 11-17.

Wickramange, Carmen. “Relocation as Positive Act: The Immigrant Experience in Bhrati Mukherjee’s Novels,” Diaspora 2:2 (1992): 171-200.

John K. Hoppe, after two years of adjunct teaching in the Boston area, switched to a career in writing and design in the software industry. This work, though lacking the many professional and personal rewards of the part-time English instructorship, has its compensations.

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