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Solitude Experienced Inside the Group: Physical, Social, and Psychological Isolation in Bharati Mukherjee’s Wife – Jenni Valjento

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies


© 2004 Jenni Valjento

 

SOLITUDE EXPERIENCED INSIDE THE GROUP:
PHYSICAL, SOCIAL, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ISOLATION IN BHARATI MUKHERJEE’S WIFE

 

 

Jenni Valjento

 

 

1. Introduction: Migration to Nowhere

The title of this article plays on Edward Said’s well-known definition of exile in his “Reflections on Exile” (1984). Said describes this condition as “solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habitation” (359). Said makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary exile – between expatriates and refugees, for example – and the various political and socio-economic reasons for leaving the place of origin. Nevertheless, what he sees as common to these experiences is the painful loss of a native place, tradition and family (357-8), a loss which the exiled person feels when looking back to what s/he has left behind. Said focuses on two main reactions to this loss, this anguish (357), as he calls it, of not belonging. On the one hand, there is the powerful temptation of nationalism and cultural and ethnic essentialism, of resorting to “national pride, collective sentiments, [and] group passions” (359) in order to “surmount the loneliness of exile” (359). The other instinct is to compensate for the loss “by creating a new world to rule” (363), by stubbornly marking out one’s new location with one’s difference, with one’s right to refuse to belong (363). Both of these reactions and their effects on an exile’s, a migrant’s or an expatriate’s psyche, social relations and acculturation have been widely explored in fiction by migrant and minority writers. The tendency to see immigrant experience as taking place on a bipolar axis – identifying with the past and the place of origin at one end and claiming one’s difference in the present location at the other – has offered an effective narrative framework for literary representations of concepts such as home, belonging and difference in a “multicultural” Western society. However, less prominent amongst fictions of dislocation and relocation have been stories of an individual’s ability to identify neither with some specific “home” and the cultural and social attachments of the past, nor with people who presumably share his or her cultural background and experiences in the new location. How can literature represent the experience of remaining permanently in between the old and new cultural and social locations and peer groups, without rendering it solely a story of cultural, social and psychological aporia?

This essay looks at one fictional interpretation of such experience of isolation in migration, Bharati Mukherjee’s 1975 novel Wife. At the core of Wife, a portrayal of an Indian woman’s migration to the United States, is a sense of homelessness without relief. The novel tells the story of a young Bengali-Indian woman, Dimple Dasgupta, who moves from Calcutta to New York with her husband shortly after their marriage. After yearning for a chance to leave behind what she sees as a stolid, suffocating middle-class life in Calcutta, Dimple, in the end, experiences migration only as a series of paralysing social and psychological displacements, a deepening loss of control over her identity that finally leads to mental instability and her killing of her husband. In examining this story of never arriving, never completing the transition from one cultural, class and familial location to another, I focus on the novel’s portrayal of the female protagonist’s physical, social and psychological isolation both from the surrounding American society and the immigrant community. Mukherjee represents the various forms of isolation as, on the one hand, traumatic alienation from the minority group which at times overrides the individual’s experiences, but, on the other hand, as a survival mechanism that allows for familial and social identities that sustain the individual’s self-image. Furthermore, in representing the different forms of isolation on the overlapping margins of the host society and the immigrant peer group, Mukherjee not only criticises but also ironizes and thereby attempts to demystify culture- and class-specific gender norms. The aim of Wife is to narrate, not only Indian immigrant women’s presence in the private and the public space, but also the social, cultural and economic subtext for this presence, or lack of it.

2. Home Is the Place Where They Have to Keep You In: Portraying Physical Isolation and the Changing Significance of the Private Space

In Wife Mukherjee uses a young Indian immigrant wife’s experiences as a fictional framework for narrating the complexity of cultural dislocation and loss of identity. In doing so, she offers a highly critical view of late 20th century Indian middle class, especially the underlying social and economic relations of power that she sees influencing the accepted gender roles and female agency in marriage and in the Indian immigrant community. Set in the 1970s, the novel describes the willing “exile” of urban, educated Indians who come to New York for economic reasons, to work and raise money to ensure themselves a comfortable lifestyle after they return to India. Wife depicts Indian immigrant women’s lives as characterised by a fundamental paradox: as married Indian women in a foreign society, they are even more closely associated with the private space of home than in India, and yet, in the process of migration, their acts within the private space of home also gain greater public significance because of the peer scrutiny and demand for cultural cohesion within the small immigrant community.

The overlap of the private and the public in marriage and within the home – in the concepts of “woman” and “wife” – is foregrounded from the beginning of the novel, starting with the tragicomic account of the protagonist’s efforts to secure a husband and escape the confines of her childhood home. Mukherjee makes her protagonist almost a caricature of the urban, educated, post-independence “New Indian Woman”. Even though she is a university student, from a well-to-do family, with knowledge of English and an active social life, Dimple Dasgupta looks upon marriage, the public affirmation of a woman’s symbolic value within the home and family, as the necessary validation of her female identity and a means to a glamorous life like that described in her film magazines. Dimple keeps compulsively imagining her future as a real – that is, married and legitimately sexual – woman, and dismisses “premarital life as a dress rehearsal for actual living” (W 3-4). The satirical account of Dimple’s matrimonial endeavours, including breast-enhancing exercises and Freudian hallucinations of snake-like figures, becomes a comedy of manners, through which the novel criticises, not only the patriarchal notion of marriage as the proper source of a woman’s social agency and economic security, but also women’s (Dimple’s, Mrs Dasgupta’s) complicity in it.

However, underneath the mockery of oppressive middle-class conventions Mukherjee also suggests a fundamental and fundamentally disempowering duality in the social and cultural influences which shape Dimple’s identity as a woman. The protagonist’s self-perception is presented as an amalgamation of the traditional view of womanhood and marriage as publicly sanctioned class and cultural institutions, and the modern, westernized idea of marriage as a private, emotional commitment. One the one hand, Dimple identifies with Sita, the legendary ideal of self-sacrificing Indian womanhood, but is also desperately worried about not getting “a decent husband” (W 10) with her unfinished university degree and inadequate physical attributes. On the other hand, she is fascinated by popular culture images of romantic love, yet plans to be “a good wife, a docile wife conquering the husband-enemy by withholding affection and other tactics of domestic passive resistance” (W 9). Mukherjee presents this confusion of social conventions and cultural influences as ultimately oppressive for women. Neither model of womanhood offers an agency viable in a society which invests great public symbolic value on the role of a wife but without corresponding social or economic power. Similarly, the alternation between Dimple’s dreams of marriage as bringing her freedom, love and glamorous cocktail parties (W 3) and the pragmatic socio-economic bartering taking place between the families underlines the novel’s highly critical representation of middle-class daughters and wives. Mukherjee portrays them as central to class status and social continuity yet invisible in a social system in which their agency remains a secondary concern.

The conflict between the protagonist’s drive towards a recreation of self and her position as a wife and a member of the small Indian immigrant community is illustrated in the sudden physical isolation that marks the beginning of Dimple’s life in New York. Instead of the freedom she has associated with marriage and America, her life is limited to the private space of the home much more than in Calcutta. Mukherjee invests her immigrant characters with a kind of self-excluding attitude, a desire to remain culturally and socially isolated from American society even when extracting a financially better future from it. For instance, in an almost stereotypical scene of “immigrant experience”, the combination of gender and ethnicity is presented as universally known among the immigrant group to signify a definite and particularly vulnerable cultural otherness in an Indian woman:

Meena put her feet upon the coffee table and gave Dimple household hints: wash saris in the bathtub, throw them in the dryer, fold them in half and use spray starch. “But if the washing machine is in the basement of the building, let Amit do the laundry.”
Dimple laughed at the suggestion. “I’m sure he wouldn’t do the laundry! He hasn’t washed a hanky in his life. I wouldn’t let him.”
“You want to get mugged?Women in this building – not me, touch wood – have been mugged in the basement. If you want to get killed and worse things, then go do the laundry yourself. Don’t listen to me. I tell you these people are goondas [thugs].”
“But why would anyone want to mug me?”
“It’s all the rare beef they eat. It makes them crazy.” (W 70-71, emphasis original)

Meena’s mundane anecdote, an archetypal caveat of the literal dangers of assimilation, presents physical isolation not only as a way of maintaining individual physical safety, but also as a collective norm to ensure cultural and religious purity.

Thus, Dimple is identified, first and foremost by her own peer group, as a woman of colour whose speech marks her as a cultural foreigner among the intimidating, always potentially violent Americans. In other words, Mukherjee suggests that the experience of constant physical vulnerability is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, an automatic realisation of the Indians’ collective prejudices even before any actual experiences of racially motivated aggression. This is illustrated, to tragicomical effect, in the scene at a Jewish kosher deli where Dimple, in her effort to be “American”, innocently tries to buy cheesecake and is terrified by the owner’s cantankerous response, certain that she will pay for her imperfect English and cultural ignorance by being shot on the spot. She perceives her venturing into America proper as being met with the penalty of death, as warned by Meena. Therefore, her attempts to complete her arrival into the host society through two basic ways of cultural interaction, bartering and the consumption of food typical for the foreign culture, only corroborate her socially sanctioned confinement to her home, to a kind of geographic and cultural limbo between India and America. Although some of this image of America as impenetrable and hostile can be read as Mukherjee’s ironisation of the 20-year-old protagonist’s naïvety on arrival in a new culture, it also constitutes a strong criticism of the middle-class gender-bias within the Indian community as well as the everyday racial discrimination in American society. Both are based on the desire to protect the perceived cultural unity of one’s group; the effects of both are most detrimental on immigrant women.

In addition to these cultural and ethnic rationalisations underlying Dimple’s confinement to the private space, Mukherjee clearly suggests a correlation between physical isolation and an immigrant woman’s changed position in social hierarchy. This is explored particularly in the protagonist’s relationship with her husband. In Amit’s eyes, Dimple represents Indian womanhood and a certain class status and is presumably intellectually less capable of coping in a foreign environment, all of which make home her rightful arena of social existence, as it is for all the other proper immigrant wives. From the husband’s traditional male perspective, going to night school or planning to stay in the United States, as one of the Americanized Indian wives does, is abnormal, even non-Indian behaviour: ” ‘With so many Indians around and a television and a child, a woman shouldn’t have any time to get crazy ideas’ ” (W 69). Consequently, in a big city without any concrete or financial means of moving around alone, the infrequent contacts with other Indians cannot replace the presence of the extended family and the validation of Dimple’s identity in kinship and social networks. When her husband searches for and finds a job, she spends most of the time apart from him as well:

She stared at the clean, wide sidewalks, the roads stretching in every direction, children on bicycles, old people shuffling, the occasional delivery man, and wondered what Amit was doing in the city. He was angry all the time. She was glad he was out so much; it was easier to think of him, even get sentimental over him, when he was not in the room. He had never voted. He was ticklish just above the knees. He liked trams but did not like buses. Onions made him belch. At age sixteen he had written five poems. Those details had not seemed important before, but now she felt it helped explain the man who strode out of the building every morning at nine-thirty and wouldn’t be back until six-fifteen. (W 72)

The marital relationship, supposed to be a defining constituent of Dimple’s new identity and the freedom provided by her status as a wife, is reduced almost solely to the moments of the husband’s exit and entry between their home and the public space of paid labour and contacts with Americans into which the wife cannot follow. Instead of the social visibility and relevance which marriage gave to her in India, the protagonist now suffers from cultural and social invisibility and disempowerment which on the everyday level reduce her marital relationship to random details from which she tries, and fails, to piece together a recognisable reality.

Whereas in Calcutta marriage augmented Dimple’s class and familial status and afforded her at least a degree of freedom from her parents, in New York her actions as a wife reflect to much greater extent on Amit’s cultural, class and gender identity. Her expectations of a life where everything would be “brand-new” (W 42) are overshadowed by the socially sanctioned demands to uphold Indian customs within and outside the home; to show cautiousness towards other men, alcohol, and Americans; and to comply with the domestic power hierarchy that maintains her husband’s accustomed male identity. She has expected to become a subject instead of an object of the familial system by transforming from a daughter, controlled and defined by her parents and by her eligibility for marriage, into a wife shaping her future together with her husband, Amit. But the same familial structure forms the basis of Amit’s negotiation with his new surroundings in the USA, and therefore his view of his wife.

“[. . . ]How about it, Dimple? A weak gin?” She felt that Amit was waiting for just the right answer, that it was up to her to uphold Bengali womanhood, marriage and male pride. [. . . ] If she took a drink she knew Amit would write it to his mother and his mother would call the Dasguptas and accuse them of raising an immoral, drunken daughter. (W 78)

Amit expects Dimple to be a good Bengali wife, taking care of her home and husband and adapting to life in American society without becoming too influenced, too Americanized. Mukherjee’s sardonic portrayal of the husband’s fastidiousness and perception of his wife as an extension of his self-image is arguably simplified, bordering on stereotypical. Nevertheless, the description of the growing physical and psychological distance between the spouses also implies a painful temporal and cultural distance from India that is not gender-specific. Although the focalisation in the narrative never allows for the husband’s perception to emerge, it is implied through the husband’s reported reactions to other Indian women, food, and Dimple’s clothes that Dimple as a wife, a personification of the familiar class and cultural circumstances, represents “home” to the husband, who is struggling to re-establish himself as “a man”, that is, to regain his economic and social significance in a new society. Therefore, Mukherjee’s criticism would seem to be directed, not only towards the expectations or limitations which men place on Indian immigrant women, but also towards the discrepancy between the conventional norm of a husband’s authority and the reality of the vast economic, social and psychological changes affecting immigrants’ lives on the margins of American society. Brinda Bose claims the following in her essay on the identities of Mukherjee’s female protagonists:

Ultimately, it is not the traditional role models that [Mukherjee’s women] reject, but the fact that they can no longer reconcile the models to their circumstances. What drives them to react with violence, then, is their frustration at other people’s inability to understand their changing needs and desires, now that they are no longer confined to the social and cultural patterns of their past (W 57-8)

Although I agree with Bose’s analysis of Mukherjee’s female characters as unable to reconcile traditional role models to their new lives in the host society, I suggest that, contrary to what Bose claims, Mukherjee is portraying women’s frustration as a result of their continuing confinement “to the social and cultural patterns of the past”. This is evident in Dimple’s mounting doubts about the basis on which Amit defines himself as the head of the household, or even a man:

It had been better, she decided, on Dr. Sarat Banerjee Road where Amit had been the boss. There she had experienced him in terms of permissions and restraints. Here in New York, Amit seemed to have collapsed inwardly, to have grown frail and shabby [. . . ] She did not trust him anymore, did not trust his high-pitched yes and no which had once seemed oracular [. . . ]She wanted Amit to be infallible, intractable, godlike, but with boyish charm; wanted him to find a job so that after a decent number of years he could take his savings and retire with her to a three-story house in Ballygunje Park. (W 89, emphasis original)

The husband’s economically inferior position, his socially embarrassing helplessness and his visible discomfort with the other, more liberal and more Americanized Indian immigrants distort the image of patriarchal strength and order, leaving the wife without the accustomed normative frame of reference. Because Amit no longer defines the limits of Dimple’s view of the world and of herself, because he cannot be trusted to perform his traditional male role and provide Dimple with a suitable future, Dimple’s own identity is left hanging in the air. The contrast between Amit’s freedom to explore American society and Dimple’s isolation from the outside world is emphasised in the description of Dimple’s latent aggression and growing mental imbalance. Without any social contacts outside the Indian immigrant community, Mukherjee seems to suggest, it is almost impossible for an Indian immigrant woman to forge an identity based on her actions as an individual: she remains always already defined by her status as someone’s wife, a part of her husband’s identity. Dimple reacts even to small things, such as Amit’s lists of English words to use at his new job, with utter helplessness and deepening depression because they represent the carelessness and inflexibility of a familial structure which does not account for her “changing needs and desires”, as Bose put it. Thus, in Dimple’s diminishing grasp of the boundaries of her self and reality, illustrated in her physical isolation, we can see the psychological conflict caused by a system of power that fails to acknowledge change in the parametres of either women’s or men’s social and psychological location. Consequently, the private space of home is not only physically but socially safer for her.

3. Lines of Defence: Social and Psychological Isolation

I would argue that the novel’s portrayal of the protagonist’s social and, at the same time, psychological isolation from both the so-called “host” society and other Indian immigrants foregrounds a permanent sense of not belonging, of existing in a “no-man’s-land” between the past that is gone and the future that just never materializes. What this deepening social and psychological detachment also suggests is the protagonist’s use of, to paraphrase Said, her right to refuse to belong (363) as a defence against the changes migration imposes on her self-image and social identity.

Dimple’s social distance from American society is revealed, first of all, by her brief, random contacts with Americans, which remind her of the sudden invalidation of the social norms and hierarchies of power according to which she is used to identifying people and their actions. Having been an educated, middle-class member of a religious and ethnic majority in Calcutta, she feels only vague fear towards other American ethnic minorities: to her “gallery of monsters” (W 121) belong

huge black men in leather jackets and small dark men shouting to her in English she didn’t understand or in Spanish; Puerto Rican girls in tight sweaters and pants who looked almost like Indians except that they could mug and stab and kill. (W 121)

The fact that almost all the Americans Dimple encounters happen to be members of some ethnic minority (African-American, Hispanic, Jewish) could be read, not necessarily as Mukherjee’s statement about minority-on-minority discrimination as such, but as an ironic challenging of any homogenising or romanticising notion of cultural or ethnic “difference” as a point of convergence between different minority experiences. Instead, the unpredictable ethnic and cultural differences in American patterns of behaviour represent the same threatening randomness that Dimple finds in the violence which American newspapers constantly narrate. Her increased vulnerability, even in the private space of home, is given a physical shape in the terrifying man in her apartment building who briefly intrudes in her home, looking for the company of Asian women. The class- and caste-specific norms that used to regulate Dimple’s privacy, body and sexuality in India have been replaced by new meanings attached to her gender and ethnicity.

Dimple responds to the loss of self-confidence in her threateningly multi-faceted surroundings first by asserting the superiority of her own background. Recovering from the frightening encounter with the Jewish shopkeeper, she remembers indignantly how Calcutta salesmen

[would] do anything to please her [. . .]What was wrong with her money? [. . .] She was used to many races; she’d never been a communalist. And so long as she had money to spend no one would ask her what community she belonged to. (W 60)

The passage contrasts Dimple’s self-righteous indignation at being reduced to a symbol of ethnic bias with her unspoken desire to cling to her accustomed class-position to alleviate the shock of being categorised and homogenised on the basis of one’s ethnic difference from the majority population. This dual reaction again reminds the reader of the significance which the novel bestows on class as factor in the formation of gender and cultural identity. Dimple also fends off insecurity by attaching her ideas of America to things that appear controllable and closer to her original ideas of an American life. She stops reading the newspapers that only seem to tell of violence without any recognizable reason, and prefers instead the simplicity and unintrusiveness of television, daytime soaps and sports, in which seemingly complicated and exciting things happen within a limited, graspable framework. When she and Amit housesit for their friends, she tries to adjust to the different perception of the female body and sexuality by trying on the wife’s Western clothes and things. They become her safety blankets with which she can momentarily feel a part of the society outside.

Paradoxically, the main character’s encounters with other women, American as well as Indian, add to her social and psychological alienation even more than the contacts with strangers. When she meets one of their Indian acquaintances and his self-confident, academic American wife, Dimple cannot engage in any real interaction with the American woman but responds with helpless fury to the couple’s careless indifference to the usual Indian family conventions that Dimple has had to observe, such as marriage negotiations and duty to parents-in-law. Not much more fruitful are her contacts with some white American feminists to whom she is introduced by one of her Indian friends. To Dimple these women “all looked alike” (W 146) and their conversations about sexism, day-care centres and being exploited by housework form a striking contrast to Dimple’s very real experiences of sexist social and familial norms and the difficulty to give voice to her misery.

Especially interesting in Mukherjee’s interpretation of relationships between women is the fact that Dimple’s experiences with Indian women have a similarly alienating effect on her. The specific intersection of class and gender structures which also produce Dimple’s identity is revealed in Dimple’s contacts with other Indian immigrants, especially the other wives. The majority of them continue to base their identities on their relatively privileged, class-conscious attitudes towards social propriety, loyalty to one’s roots and adherence to Hindu tradition. To Dimple, their views on gender roles, woman’s place in the immigrant community and in the surrounding yet unknown American society at first seem reassuringly familiar, but soon become inadequate and ill-suited to her struggle between her old self-image and an immigrant location where the middle-class social codes and gendered division of the private and the public are at the same time ardently defended and repeatedly contested. Mukherjee describes Dimple’s growing sense of alienation and fear when faced with the other women who embrace motherhood, maintain a loyal and idealized view of India, and dismiss those among them deviating from the established social codes by their appearance, their independence or their Americanized views on femininity. Dimple is equally incapable of identifying with the few radical women in her social circles who break these unspoken norms:

Ina Mullick leaned against the cold radiator and stared at Dimple [. . .]. When Meena left the room to boil water for rice, Ina said, “What do you do all day?” which made Dimple blush. “Lots of things,” Dimple said softly. “I read a lot.” “Don’t you ever go out?” “I don’t have to.” (W 90)

Any questioning of the traditions and conventions that regulate women’s lives and the extent to which they can venture into the American society threaten Dimple’s already diminishing ability to identify herself with the immigrant group, to maintain even some social relations and a sense of self within a community.

The protagonist is shown in very few actual contacts with Americans, whom she observes as a patchwork of violence, consumerism and a casual yet at times strangely passionate attitude towards things. Although Dimple is drawn to some of these young Americans, they always remain foreign and intimidating to her, to be contemplated from afar like the Indian filmstars of her girlhood. Therefore, the discrepancy between the class and gender conventions which have formed the foundation of her self-image and the reality of Dimple’s psychological isolation and limited access to the outside world leaves her in a limbo between the immigrant community and American society. She is unable to recreate her identity so that it would correspond both to the inflexible boundaries of the social structures in this particular immigrant community and to the almost excessively fluid boundaries of American social structures. Just as she cannot relate to the feminists’ concerns, she is disturbed by the apparent ease with which other Indian wives carry on living according to the same conventions that structured their lives in India, when they seem to her to be so wholly unsuitable among the uncertainty, unpredictability and multiplicity of American reality. The alternative of espousing American values, clothing and thoughts of personal happiness, as one of the young wives does, is not something Dimple can consider, either:

“I’m sorry,” Dimple whispered. “There are some things I can’t do. Wearing pants is one of them [. . .] I just don’t want to start all this. If I wear pants to eat pizza in the winter, who knows what I’ll be wearing to eat at the Dairy Queen next summer.” (W 155)

Even if conforming to the values of the Indian community goes more and more against Dimple’s perception of reality, the America that demands real, visible choices and a deliberate espousal of an alien female identity is too much for her already threatened sense of self.

This marked disassociation from other women, of any ethnic or cultural background, both on the social level of relationships and sharing of experiences and on the psychological level of feeling affinity and emotional attachment, is dramatically countered by Dimple’s friendship and affair with an American man, Milt Glasser. The relationship that breaks all the cultural, class and familial norms Dimple has lived by represents to her an escape from the uncertainties she has faced with Indian and American women. Milt shows appreciation towards Dimple’s domestic skills without presuming that they define her whole female identity and encourages her tentative curiosity about life outside her own experience without forcing her to relinquish her accustomed self-image. Although their brief relationship is of course an impossible one, it is the only one in which Dimple is able to express and even benefit from the deep ambivalence she experiences between loyalty to her original self and the need to adjust to life in a new context, between belonging to a group and asserting her individuality. The fact that this ambivalence in Dimple cannot be reconciled with the rest of her life as an Indian wife in America is what finally leads to Dimple’s mental imbalance and her final, misguided act of self-preservation, the killing of her husband.

Having said that, I would claim that Dimple’s extreme reactions to the changing social structures that complicate her location within the immigrant experience could also be seen as deliberate breaches of the restrictive social norms. Dimple’s deviation from what would be normal behaviour for an Indian woman, wife and member of a community can be seen not only as a disintegration of identity but as a rejection of the unreliable determiners of that identity. In her essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” Chandra Talpade Mohanty stresses the importance of seeing the distinction between women’s acts in their social roles and the status attached to them, instead of defining women only on the basis of the concrete acts of mothering, being a wife and so forth (60). Similarly, when examining Dimple’s abandoning of the accustomed roles of a wife and middle-class Indian woman, we should pay attention to the implicit disruption of the status embedded in these acts instead of taking her lack of social interaction as a mere symptom of insanity. Dimple’s isolation of herself from the other Indians and her ability to find safety only in solitude is the exact opposite of her accustomed female identity in an extended family and as one of the wives in a close-knit immigrant community. Dimple detaches herself from the familial structure and the behavioral patterns it has imposed on her: instead of being a dutiful, efficient and sociable wife, she sleeps all day, gives up eating and taking care of her home, and reacts with cautious disinterest not only to the other Indian women and their domestic events but to her husband. Profoundly disillusioned by marriage and the “inertia, exhaustion, endless indecisiveness” (W 115) of life in America, Dimple stops acting out the roles sanctioned by the familial structure because they expose her both to the pressures of conforming to the immigrant community and to the permanent sense of inadequacy and frustration when in contact with American society. In Dimple’s neglect of the domestic order, routines and dedication to her husband that once constituted her self-image as a wife, one can see not only signs of madness but conscious decisions that go against the familial structure’s definitions of a normal woman – dutiful, contented with her domestic roles – , which so poorly correspond to Dimple’s life in America.

In addition to the familial structure, Dimple also reacts violently against her position within the class and gender structures. Mukherjee traces Dimple’s rather madcap attempts to escape the limits and gendered definitions of her identity which she is subjected to because of her background and position as Amit’s wife. The apartment she and Amit rent from an Indian friend and his American wife becomes the site of Dimple’s desperate experiments to be “American”, to try to relieve the frustration caused by an identity that no longer corresponds to her increasingly fragmented reality but instead renders her paralyzed and powerless in social relations. Dimple stretches the limits of her self-image by trying on the wife’s Western clothes, and by befriending and becoming infatuated with Milt, who, with his casual 1970s leftist idealism, is the exact opposite of Amit’s pedantic conservatism. When Dimple quite consciously engages in a flirtation not only with Milt but with the freedom and individualism he represents, she is very clearly breaking away from the Indian middle-class gendered division of the public and the private, male and female space. When she walks on the streets and eats out with Milt, Dimple is exercising power that normally belongs to her husband and not her; when she eventually sleeps with Milt, she removes her sexuality outside marriage, outside the normal, absolute parameters of the private. Although these contestations of the limits of her identity do not prevent Dimple from finally losing her sanity, we can see her final, almost surreal act of killing her husband with a kitchen knife as a terribly destructive yet undeniably real act of self-determination in Dimple’s life.

4. Conclusion

Many critics have seen Mukherjee’s protagonist as a tragic but inevitable victim of the psychological insecurity of immigrant life and the violent contact with American society. C.L. Chua describes Wife as the story of

a weak-minded Bengali woman who migrates to New York with her engineer husband in search of a better life; but her sensibilities become so confounded by her changing cultural roles, the insidious television factitiousness, and the tensions of feminism that, ironically, she goes mad and kills her husband (54-5).

However, to see Wife as representing the effects of migration only to an immigrant woman’s “sensibilities”, her emotional capacity, is to grossly simplify Mukherjee’s interpretation of the correspondence between socio-economic circumstances and the manifold culture- and gender-specific experiences of migration. Also, in foregrounding the artificial worldview of television and the complications of feminism as triggers to Dimple’s insanity, Chua overlooks the fact that it is not really the contact with these American social phenomena that cause Dimple’s insanity, her reactions to them merely reflect the vast contrast between American images of home, femininity and individuality and the socially accepted female identity Dimple has to maintain to be able to identify with her peer group.

In a very different interpretation of Bharati Mukherjee’s fictional representations of the progress from expatriate to immigrant, Maya Manju Sharma sees Wife as a kind of Hindu moral tale that cautions against the easy replacement of traditional values with Western ones that do not fit the Hindu Indian self. She focuses on Dimple’s “deliberate repudiation of a moral code for which she has no replacement” (15), her “moral and cultural suicide” (15), evident in Dimple’s adultery, murder of her husband, and especially in her self-induced miscarriage in Calcutta on the threshold of her long-awaited migration to the United States. According to Sharma, Mukherjee shows in Dimple’s demise the outcome of ignorance of authentic Hindu religious morality (17). Sharma claims that Amit’s murder, “Dimple’s divorce, Hindu style, is thus a kind of symbolic castration, a murder not so much of her inept spouse as of her own stunted womanhood” (18), stunted because of “the illusory nature of Dimple’s idea of [personal] happiness” and her ignorance of the traditional, empowering divinity in the role of a Hindu wife (16-17). However, Sharma’s emphasis on the morality of Mukherjee’s interpretation overlooks the novel’s exploration of the ways in which class, gender, and cultural and ethnic background affect Indian women’s acculturation to the United States. Furthermore, to suggest that the novel’s many-layered portrayal of the changing social production of female identity is merely an arbitrary backdrop to a story of moral degradation presupposes a homogenising notion of Hindu Indian women as subject to the same social expectations and norms regardless of their geographical, cultural or political location.

Mukherjee’s portrayal of an Indian-American woman’s location in New York in the 70s reveals a central yet relatively fixed position within the immigrant experience. In depicting the expectations set on women as providers of continuity and social cohesion through marriage, motherhood and their support of the traditional patriarchal family, Mukherjee shows how the very importance of women’s roles within the family and community makes it less acceptable, or indeed possible, for women to disrupt the boundaries of their particular social and psychological locations. In the novel, Dimple’s position within the immigrant experience makes her more susceptible to the changes and conflicts in the familial, class and gender structures. Because of her key position as a perceived upholder of class-specific familial stability and continuity, her ways of reacting to and functioning in community and society are profoundly affected by the shifts and tensions in the systems of power upon which the accustomed social structures have been constructed.

If Said’s definition of an exile as anyone prevented from returning home (362) is true, then Dimple Dasgupta is the ultimate example of one. Salman Rushdie has described a migrant’s double vision, being at the same time both an insider and an outsider in a society (“Imaginary Homelands” 19). However, in Mukherjee’s novel the “double vision” comes from the protagonist’s twofold physical, social and psychological isolation, from being an outsider both in relation to American society and other Indians, always caught in the middle. As much as this double detachment threatens her accustomed sense of self, it also pushes her to fight the fragmentation of her identity, until the violent end. What Mukherjee does not explore in Wife are the various reasons why both the American society and the minority community, from their opposite perspectives, prefer to see unity and cohesion where there perhaps are none. Perhaps this reflects the real lack of attention to those left oscillating between the two ends of the process of migration, those who, in accordance with the definition of “dimple” given at the beginning of the novel, leave only “a slight surface depression” on the larger phenomena of diasporic movements and the changing concepts of belonging.

 

E-mail: jenni.valjento@phnet.fi

WORKS CITED

Bose, Brinda. “A Question of Identity: Where Gender, Race, and America meet in Bharati
Mukherjee” in Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed.) Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives.
New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Chua, C.L. “Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction of V.S. Naipaul and Bharati
Mukherjee” in Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed.) Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in Mohanty, C. T., Russo, Ann and Torres, Lourdes (eds). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Wife. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1975.

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile” (1984) in Russell Ferguson et al. (eds.) Out There:
Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures
. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary
Art; Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1990.

Sharma, Maya Manju. “The Inner World of Bharati Mukherjee: From Expatriate to Immigrant” in
Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.) Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands” in Imaginary Homelands:Essays and Criticism 1981-
1991
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