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Identity Crisis in Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1963 words Published: 6th Jul 2017

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ABSTRACT: Immigrants have envisioned tales that exhibit experiences of independent and emerging countries. Cultures have taken up new form in the contemporary times, where the issues of Diaspora, globalization, consumerism, transnationalism cultural hyberidity and identity crisis have become new motif in the postcolonial literatures. The new issues give rise to identity crisis that evokes feelings of an individual that portrays socio-cultural setup that shows the blend of tradition and modernity. The new identity creates problems for Tara in Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee, where she is alienated, languishing in the angst and ennui of the diasporic experience, yet to carve out a niche for herself.

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In the novel, Bharati Mukherjee has struck a balance between tradition and modernity by representing past and present which is achieved through the female protagonist -Tara, who severed her links with tradition but remains tied to her native country. Tara is influenced by ancient customs and traditions, but is rooted to modern customs. She is conscious of her existential predicament which is mirrored in the epigraph: “No one behind, no one ahead the path the ancients cleared has closed. And the other path everyone’s path… goes nowhere, I am alone and find my way.” Tara is alienated from the society as she oscillated between the nostalgic fascinations of a traditional past and the romantic and adventurous allurements of the present. The diasporic qualities exhibited by Tara establish the merging of the East and West which shows the clash.

The Identity of the protagonist is highly assimilative, can adopt and accommodate herself both to her traditional Indian way of life and to her newly adopted American ethos. She tries to move away from the constrained identity and vacillates between two lives: “maybe I really was between two lives.”(251)

Tara’s reconstruction of identity is rooted in her nostalgic and romantic recollection of her past. It is based on the flux of her thoughts about the past coming to her mind in the present but in fragments, and not whole. She tried to reconstruct her identity through her diasporic experience. She was attempting to redefine the importance of her cultures through space and time. Loneliness had made Tara a little wanton and wantonness had made her very lonely. In these five years she had changed beyond recognition, but other character Bish had not changed at all.Bish is also an upholder of tradition. He prefers the values of an imagined past than those of contemporaneity.

The concept of home and migration is very much embedded in the narratology that Bharati Mukherjee presents in Desirable Daughters. It is the sense of migration which brings about a change to the identity of Padma, who has finally made New York her home, her land of choice. But her inalienable attachment to her home makes her the sustainer and preserver of Bengali tradition in America. The alien culture thus fails to subvert her traditional identity. On the other hand it only remaps nad reconstructs her cultural identity. Hence migration plays a crucial role in restricting individual identifies and cultural attitudes and perceptions.

The novel is woven brilliantly which depicts the thoughts and feelings of three Calcutta, India-born Brahmin upper-class sisters, renowned for their beauty, brains, wealth, and privileged position in society.

Mukherjee narrates their lives as they leave their conservative, sheltered childhood home, where they are inundated with culture, tradition, and values and inculcated with education by the Catholic nuns in their convent structured school and college. Two of them emigrate to America and the other relocates to Bombay, India. The three sisters, Padma, Parvati, and Tara, are born exactly three years apart from each other and share the same birthday.They are named after the goddesses’s name,hoping that they will survive and prosper in whatever they do.

“We are sisters three/as alike as three blossoms on one flowering tree. (But we are not),” says Tara, the protagonist, quoting a poem.

Desirable Daughters is the novel that takes a long time to lift itself from the surface and once it releases its themes and characters, it seems to get liberated from the trapped situation. Engrossed in Indian culture old and new, it keeps strucking down in tight little circles of detail that create an atmosphere of cramped inwardness, even suffocation. Bharati Mukherjee, like in her previous four novels and short stories, tries to portray the repression that enables the women of her culture nailed down in subservience to male desires. The feelings and emotions are discovered after exploring traditional Indian society.

The novel is based on three strikingly-beautiful sisters from a privileged Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta feel the tug between tradition and freedom as they try to meet expectations that are often wildly contradictory. The youngest, Tara Chatterjee, seems to have flown farthest from the nest. Tara is divorced from Bishwapriya (a Silicon Valley multimillionaire hand-picked for her by her father), she’s raising a “sensitive” teenaged son on her own. The depressing part is that, she works as a lowly teacher, a choice which would be unthinkable in the culture of her birth.

The story is narrated by Tara from her adopted San Francisco home, where she lives with Andy Karolyi, a strange sort of Hungarian Zen carpenter who earthquake-proofs houses. The lifestyle of the protagonist implies, a sort of free and easy hippie lifestyle, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In the novel the rebellion-gestures are merely trappings, or reactions against the gagging restrictions of Tara’s girlhood.

Tara initiates her tale of repression in a curious way, with a legend about her namesake Tara Lata, also known as the Tree Bride — a remarkable figure who became prominent in the fight for Indian freedom. After going in for more than twenty pages, Tara then delves into telling story of her own, which seems to be dislocating in nature. She recalls the utter lack of romanticism in her marriage, in which her father told her, “There is a boy and we have found him suitable. Here is his picture. The marriage will be in three weeks.” Tara, not knowing any other way, submitted: “I married a man I had never met, whose picture and biography and bloodlines I approved of, because my father told me it was time to get married and this was the best husband on the market.”

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Mukherjee dwells on every detail of this highly traditional occurrence. The father of the child bride is a traditionalist even though he is a lawyer educated in English and English law. The groom dies of snakebite and his family blames the bride as unlucky. Greedily the father of the groom demands the dowry. But the bride’s father takes his daughter into the forest where he marries her to a tree. She becomes a woman noted for her courage and generosity. Her American granddaughter visits her home. She has the same name, Tara Lata, as the old woman and like her she has two sisters.

The contemporary woman is a divorced woman. Her ex-husband was the traditionally pre-selected bridegroom – like his former wife a resident in America – and now she lives with her lover, an American, in San Francisco. Her son introduces a young man who claims kinship as the son of her oldest sister, Padma. This is a kind of impossibility. An impossibility since her sister never had a child and a possibility since the familial relationships are so convolutedly secretive as to make the existence of the young man as her nephew plausible. It seems likely that the young man’s claim is true and that Padma, Tara’s sister, did bear an illegitimate child. This is a momentous event for Tara. As the pampered child of wealthy Calcutta parents, she was sheltered from the poverty of the city and from all but the most severe political crises. She suffers the stress now of an immigrant with a child that belongs wholly to her new country. The discovery of Padma’s child brings into focus all her inner disquiet and the need to find valid connections.

In the novel, Tara’s relationship with her two elder sisters is complicated, the flow of affection blocked by a certain formality and adherence to preset roles. Middle sister Parvati married a rich man and stayed in India, but by some miracle was able to select the suitable match for her. Parvati in her own way had established her identity, because of which it was said:”Parvati, the pliable middle daughter had done the unthinkable: she’d made a love match. … He was certainly not what brains-and-beauty Parvati Bhattacharjee could have commanded on the Calcutta marriage market.”

Even though Paravati was given right to select her right match but after that she is depicted as one who is a meek follower and gets diminished by losing her real.She writes to Tara: “I hope you aren’t doing bad things to yourself like taking Prozac and having cosmetic surgery. Please, please don’t become that Americanized.”

The third, and the eldest sister of Tara, Didi, is married to a Mehta (an illustrious family which includes the conductor Zubin) and moved to New Jersey to pursue a career in television. But again, all is not as it seems. Her lifestyle is a thin veneer laid over the dense, pressed-down bedrock of tradition. She is considered to be most glamorous of all the three sisters.

The other character Chris Dey, is represented as crisis in the novel. He is a young man who represents himself to Tara as Didi’s illegitimate son, conceived through an affair with a prominent businessman named Ronald Dey. This exposes an ugly under layer of culture to Tara, “not the India of doting grandparents, not the India of comfort and privilege, but the backyard of family, the compost heap.”

The characters in the novel are not portrayed in the liberated form, they are trapped into different set of emotions trying to carve out a new identity for themselves. Tara is projected as a character who more of a status conscious tries to uphold the values of traditional society despite falling for different allurements in the present. Her elder sister, Didi pretends hard to be a pure character but falters when gives birth to her son, which represents “misalliance”.Chris Dey isn’t really who he says he is, and in fact he feels like a device, something dropped into the story to keep things moving forward.

In the end, the novel, tries to come back from where it started, where and the legend of Tara Lata the Tree Bride, but this device doesn’t quite work either. The denouement somehow goes slack and does not yield a satisfying end to the story. The novel seems to be a family saga which could not bring out the desirable characteristics in the characters of the novel, that portrays them as a dominant in any sphere. The end is quite suspenseful and complex where the description of homeland may be magical but symbolic intention was lost.

Bharati Mukherjee depicts a liquid society in her novels, ie a society in flux. It is a society of constant flow, the flow of migrants, the flow of machines, flow of criminals, flow of power structures, flow of people and commodities. Amidst all the confusions the message was brought out clearly and it is represented as a fascinating beautifully written work of art that exhibits vulnerability that cannot be missed out.


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