BOOK REVIEW / Throwing off those migrant blues: Marianne Brace talks to Bharati Mukherjee, a novelist who wants to squeeze the universe into a single clause

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The Independent Culture
Many writers can only work in cloister-like conditions. Not so Bharati Mukherjee. 'I never have my CNN off, it's on the whole day,' she says. 'I don't want to be out of range of television. I'm constantly bombarded by information - Somalia one second, Haiti the next - I need that constant pounding. I couldn't write without television. I need to have the world in my room.'

Perhaps it isn't so surprising. In Mukherjee's new novel The Holder of the World (Chatto, pounds 14.99), data plays a key role. At one extreme there's the narrator's painstaking detection and research, as she physically pieces together the life of a New England Puritan. At the other her boyfriend, a computer scientist, is amassing a comprehensive database for one day, 29 October 1989, using every available source.

Mukherjee first became known here with her spirited, prize-winning short story collection, The Middleman. Her novel Jasmine followed. She quickly established the collision of the First and Third Worlds as her territory. Mukherjee writes about present-day pioneers, and their frontier of trailer parks and motels. Instead of Scandinavians and Russians she gives us Afghans and Sri Lankans. Instead of breaking the sod they hustle their way as mail-order brides, refugees and gun-runners.

The bravado of people with nothing to lose and everything to gain is reflected in the energy of the writing. Mukherjee's prose moves with the aggression and pace of a multi- ethnic television cop show.

Having 'the world in her room' was part of Mukherjee's upbringing. Daughter of a wealthy Brahmin industrialist, hers was the traditional extended family. 'There were about 45 people crowded into one floor of our house in Calcutta. Family life was lived in public - there were no secrets.'

Despite the hubbub, or perhaps because of it, Mukherjee found her own space to read. At eight she was tackling Gorky and Dostoyevsky in translation, appropriating their characters - 'they felt like Bengalis'. She also enjoyed hearing her grandmother recite the great Hindu epics, Rawayana and Maha Sharata.

Her writing was encouraged as a harmless pursuit. ('If I'd been a son and wanted to be a writer that would have been a nightmare.') When, much later, an African American professor visited her family in Calcutta, he recommended the University of Iowa's creative writing course. 'Had the guy said Mississippi, I would have had a totally different trajectory in life.'

The convent-educated 20-year- old's idea of the United States came from 'faded copies of Silver Screen and Photoplay. I thought of America as Natalie Wood and Bob Wagner sprawled on the edge of a Hollywood swimming pool biting into the same red apple'. Instead she found herself in wholesome Iowa among 'hairy-chested fiction writers.' Raymond Carver was a contemporary. So was Clark Blaise, whom she married one lunchbreak after two weeks' courtship, and accompanied to Canada.

In 1973 Canada accepted 5,000 Ugandan Asian refugees, and Mukherjee slapped up against racial hatred for the first time in her life. Spat at, ignored in shops, thrown out of hotels and roughed up in a subway, she longed to leave. With their marriage 'under extreme strain', the couple decided to uproot.

With their move to the US came a marked change in Mukherjee's work. She had already written two good novels, The Tiger's Daughter and Wife. Both address the crippling effects of lost identity. In the first, expatriate Tara revisits Calcutta and cannot reconcile her new life with her old; in the second, immigrant Dimple suffers isolation and terror in New York.

'All this was done before the phrase 'immigrant fiction' was invented. There was no audience for my books. The Indians didn't regard me as an Indian and North Americans couldn't conceive of me of a North American writer, not being white and brought up on wheatgerm. My fiction got lost.'

Having become a naturalised American, Mukherjee shook off those expatriate blues and focused on characters who weren't just economic refugees but dreamers, immigrants who 'reposition the stars' rather than cower beneath them. And she tried to find a language for the information-overloaded, incredibly speeded-up lives of those who come from Third World countries. 'I wanted to squeeze the universe into a single clause.'

In The Holder of the World Mukherjee squeezes three cultures and three centuries into one book. With its leisurely rhythm and colourfully descriptive passages it's a new departure again.

Hannah, a 17th-century Salem puritan, ends up in India honoured with the title Precious-as-Pearl by the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb. The idea came to Mukherjee when she discovered an Indian miniature of a European woman in full Moghul dress. She was intrigued. 'What made European travellers in the 17th century leave their familiar surroundings and go out so far? I saw her as a sliver of myself.'

In some ways it's The Middleman in reverse. Hannah leaves one world for another when she accompanies her husband, a factor with the East Indian Company, to the Coromandel Coast. The dominant culture is Muslim; 'the hustlers, pioneers and buffoons are the white traders'.

The novel also allowed Mukherjee to take on the popular belief that 'American culture is uniquely European in origin'. Her research - which took 11 years - revealed the influence of Asia. For example, even Yale's founder spent time as a factor on the Coromandel Coast.

Hannah is of her time but transcends it. 'Just as the alienness of the US made it possible for me to discover who I was, that's what the Coromandel is doing to Hannah.' Circumscribed by gender, by caste and by aristocratic privilege, Mukherjee has 'slowly blown those boundaries away'. Her message is 'the need for cultural cross-pollination, so that in this diasporic age, we are constantly redefining national identity.'

(Photograph omitted)

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