A Passage from India

Bharati Mukherjee, now a celebrated writer and college professor, helps her Indian-American students find their way in the world

By Bharati Mukherjee
bharati mukherjee family picture
The writer, standing at right, with (from left) her older sister, Mira; her younger sister, Ranu; and (seated) their mother, Bina, in western India, 1986.
Photograph: Courtesy of Bharati Mukherjee

FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I arrived from India at the age of 21 as a graduate student in the University of -Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, I was, quite possibly, the most innocent, most ill-equipped and least savvy young woman American higher education had ever greeted. Heading into the Iowa winter, I still wore saris and sandals. Except for household servants, I had never spoken to a male unrelated to me. I had never handled money—we kept a servant for that—and my convent school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) had dismissed the notion of an “American” literature. Naturally, I expressed no opinion (nor did I have any that might run counter to the revealed knowledge from religion, politics, history and my father).

I realize now I had no individual identity. I was a communal creation, part of a chorus of assent that traditional Indian culture expected of its children.

I confess this neither from pride nor from shame. I was merely acting out a role, the embodiment of the perfect middle daughter from the highest caste of the self-proclaimed most exquisitely evolved state in India, West Bengal. We were top dogs in an ossified society.

It was the fall of 1961. This was the first time I had been allowed out of the family cocoon. The blue airmail envelopes from my parents arrived four times a week: practical advice for navigating life in America, from parents who’d never seen it and could not imagine the scale of a Big Ten university. My parents’ advice was reducible to a single word: preservation. Keep my in-effable Indianness utterly unchanged; maintain my innocence and my family’s honor. Don’t date, don’t look strange men in the eye and don’t initiate conversation. Come back in two years with your “scribbling” degree, and Daddy will have found you a “suitable boy.”

In India, as in most traditional societies, family is everything, and roles in it are sharply defined. Removing any part—a child refusing a marriage arrangement, a mother leaving the house and finding a job, a husband abandoning his family and his responsibility to it—has the potential for tearing everything down.

There were so many ways a young woman could disappoint her parents. Long before social media, Indian parents could track their children from 10,000 miles away. The gossip mills, the loose network of relatives and friends of relatives, the Indian boys at Iowa—that fraternity of engineering and science graduate students and postdocs—all were watching for the fall.

With no community, and certainly no way of confiding my on-campus experiences without panicking my parents, I kept my confusion and anxieties to myself. There are men in my classes. Many of them are very friendly. They stare at me. People on the street reach out to feel my sari. Americans are very welcoming. I had to figure out how to respond to such overtures. In Calcutta I had been the dutiful daughter, which meant that my father had made all decisions, big and small, on my behalf, and I had obeyed. My greatest terror (which I retain to this day) was having to make decisions on the spot. I confined my letters home to the weather, the dorm food and the comic antics of my bold Asian suite mates.

A year and a half later, I felt comfortable striding in borrowed riding boots and a Hawkeyes sweatshirt to late-night pizza outings with my female friends. I savored weekend potluck parties at the International Center, where off-campus graduate students (mostly male) from places as far-flung as Sudan, Nigeria, Taiwan and Australia introduced me to their national dishes and paid my suite mates and me flirtatious compliments. I was proud of having expanded the -Calcutta-centric social world of my girlhood. And, to my surprise, I felt flattered rather than offended by the unsolicited attention paid me by some of the male postdoctoral students at these group events. But I didn’t date. My father had found a caste- and class-appropriate Bengali “suitable boy” for me. I was assured a future of marital happiness.

First Published August 2, 2011

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