The novel Desirable Daughters belongs to that genre of American literature which deals with issues of immigrant life and cultural assimilation. There are sufficient works in this genre that represent Hispanic, African and Chinese ethnic minorities in the United States, but relatively few that speak for South Asian immigrants in general and Indian Americans in particular. Bharati Mukherjee’s work fills this void in the American literary canon. One can say that the novel is written by a woman for a women audience, as the story’s central female protagonists. There are also elements of feminist thought that is woven into the passages of the novel, although, in its entirety, the novel was not meant to propagate the idea of feminism. The rest of this essay will elucidate the important themes dealt with in the novel.
What Is Mukherjee’s Thesis
The foremost and recurrent theme of Desirable Daughters is the conflict arising from native and foreign cultures. The main characters in the novel grapple with the challenge of accommodating the American feminist culture into their traditional Indian one. But, as schools of thoughts go, these two concepts are incompatible. The conventional role assigned to women in India is the very antithesis of what American feminists espouse . For example, Tara Lata was first married to a tree in a ceremonious ritual, as a measure to mitigate the malefic aspects of her horoscope. It was earlier predicted by a Hindu astrologer that Tara’s married life would be short lived as a result of this malefic aspect. Such conceptions of marriage are mere superstitions from the point of view of feminism. The American feminist movement, which was informed by scientific, sociological and historical knowledge would never approve of such primitive practices in the name of orthodoxy. This is a typical example of the sorts of conflict that Tara Lata and her sisters confront throughout the narrative text .
The aforementioned example also brings to light the different ways in which societies are organized in India and in America. In India, the happiness of the individual is subordinate to the collective good of his/her community. More importantly, the role of women is to be supportive to their husbands in all circumstances. The individual needs and aspirations of women were not given due importance in what is essentially a patriarchal society. But the three sisters from Calcutta are no longer strictly bound by this primitive culture, for they find themselves in the midst of liberal America, where the scope of their freedom and expression is at its furthest from realities in India. Paul Brians, who has written a nuanced interpretation of the novel, makes a relevant observation:
“On the one hand, members of various minorities seek to shed the stereotypes that lump them together with others sharing the same origins and work to be recognized instead as individuals. On the other hand, they strive to recover their roots and create new group identities that can give them a sense of heritage and worth. Although these are not really contradictory impulses, and they do not cancel each other out, there is always a tension between them, and this tension is strongly apparent whenever a writer is singled out by the majority as a recognized representative of a minority struggling for self- expression.”
The three women from Calcutta grapple what to choose: their choices being an oppressive but known Indian tradition and a liberating but unknown feminist way of life. In this context, it is inevitable that some parts of their identity had to be destroyed and new facets to it developed. As these processes of self-destruction and self-construction take place in parallel, Indian American women portrayed by Bharati Mukherjee invariably seem to evolve into modern feminists . Feminist critics of the novel Desirable Daughters tend to perceive “the same distinction as a gender difference within Anglo-American bildungsroman, with the result that the genre itself is a form for examining (and symbolically reconciling) this tension within women’s texts” . An integral part of this process of assimilation for the Indian American writer, the critics argue, “is the invention of a bildungsroman that describes a subject who combines independence, mobility and outspokenness with a deep sense of affinity with familial and communal others; as a group, these texts work to affirm that both halves of this equation are American and both are Asian. 42 While others have focused on plots of second-generation separation and independence, however, my study questions the Asian American recasting of marriage plots.”
This theme is to be found in one of Mukherjee’s earlier novels Jasmine. In Desirable Daughters, as in Jasmine, the author revisits the ‘interracial immigrant romance’ from the perspective of the Indian American woman. In as much as these narratives are directed at women readers, they nevertheless serve to show how such narratives are different from that of male authors’. As part of the theme of self-construction of the characters, in Desirable Daughters we find that “the immigrant woman’s Americanization is accomplished with the help of white romantic partners, but in order to win their support the woman must submit to their alienating and sanitizing preconceptions of her, thereby renouncing the very past that renders her unique” .
Hence, in summary, through the lives of Tara Lata and her two sisters, author Bharati Mukherjee competently portrays the themes of changing identity, western feminism versus Indian tradition and self-discovery. In a way these three themes are interrelated. For example, as Tara Lata and her sisters attempt to resolve for themselves their true identities and set out to apply newly adopted values in their lives, they progress as individuals and end up discovering more about themselves. By depicting in detail the complex difficulties confronting these women, Mukherjee also illustrates the underlying vulnerabilities.
Brians, Paul. Modern South Asia Literature in English. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. Questia. 22 May 2009 . Chu, Patricia P. Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Questia. 22 May 2009 . Whitson, Kathy J. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. Questia. 22 May 2009.