Jasmine (1989)

by Bharati Mukherjee

Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase, Jane: The narrator of Bharati Mukherjee’s novel has had a different name each time she’s reinvented herself. And she’s only 24.

Jyoti was the fifth daughter of a poor family in rural India. Jasmine was the child bride who saw her husband murdered by Sikh extremists. Jase was the 17-year-old widow who illegally entered the United States, surviving with the help of an activist in Florida, her husband’s former teacher in Queens, and a couple in Manhattan who hired her to look after their young daughter. Jane is the pregnant common-law wife of a disabled middle-aged Iowa banker and adoptive mother of a Vietnamese refugee nearly her own age.

It’s as Jane that the narrator tells her story, shifting between present and past. Her tale brims with tragedy and violence, of which she is both victim and, in self-defense, perpetrator. That she does not accept her seeming fate distinguishes her from other girls raised in a patriarchal culture; she learns to think for herself and to follow her own urges. As the book ends, she is leaving behind her Jane role for a new life in California, making a choice of love over duty that some readers will find disloyal, but America has taught her not to rein in her freedom.

Jasmine’s is a modern immigration story—a story of becoming American and of the multiracial society America is becoming. Mukherjee doesn’t offer the new country as an out-of-harm’s-way contrast to the old; the Iowa farmers who are Jane’s neighbors are as desperate about the future as the people in her Indian village, and her American lover is a victim of violence just as her Indian husband was.

A native Indian who obtained a master’s degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Iowa, Mukherjee teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.


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