Immigrants almost inevitably face immense challenges pursuing the American Dream–socially, economically, perhaps even internally. Such struggles are evident in the novel “Jasmine,” Bharati Mukherjee’s richly descriptive and emotionally powerful novel about a young immigrant woman. Mukherjee vividly brings to life the theme of rebirth in “Jasmine” through the use of multiple international settings and characterizations, following a young girl from her Indian childhood through her American twenties as she seeks an identity she truly believes is her own.
Mukherjee introduces the foundation for Jasmine’s metamorphoses within the first few pages, as young Jyoti visits an astrologer in her native India. Told by the old man that her future holds great sadness and turmoil, the seven-year-old protests indignantly – then falls as she runs away and cuts her forehead. The astrologer’s ominous predictions would frighten most children, but Jyoti does not flee in fright; rather, she refuses to believe such a fate awaits her, and instead, creates the hope of a better outcome for herself. Indeed, there is an immediate sense that this young girl’s wisdom exceeds her age. “It’s not a scar,” Jyoti shouts to her taunting sisters, “it’s my third eye” (Mukherjee 5). Jyoti, referencing her mother’s past stories, believed that she would become a sage with her third eye.
Jyoti is a strong girl in a village of weakness where “bad luck dogged dowryless wives, rebellious wives, barren wives. They fell into wells, they got run over by trains, they burned to death heating milk on kerosene stoves” (Mukherjee 41). Jyoti’s mother tried to strangle Jyoti the day she was born, hoping to save her fifth daughter from a desperate life. Having been figuratively reborn during her own birth, Jyoti knows she will survive. Even as a child, it is clear to Jyoti that she is not like the others in her neighborhood. With her “third eye,” she sees two options for a girl in the poverty-stricken, misogynistic Hasnapur: succumb to the surroundings or reinvent a better life. For Jyoti, the former is simply not an option. A better life surely awaits Jyoti when, at the age of fourteen, she marries Prakash, a young man with designs on a new life in America. Prakash lovingly gives Jyoti the more American, progressive-sounding name Jasmine. With this new identity, the young couple anticipates the promise of reinventing their lives; if only the violence of their Indian life had not brought the death of Jasmine’s young husband. Still refusing the astrologer’s haunting words from her youth, Jasmine realizes she must flee the disillusioned lives of her mother and the old widows; she will become the American wife of her beloved Prakash.
With her focus not on leaving India, but on arriving in America, Jasmine finds herself with a forged passport, feeling she is “the recipient of an organ transplant” (Mukherjee 103). As an illegal immigrant, however, she must accept transportation of any kind, however demeaning and filthy. This dreary, hollow existence, surrounded by other illegal travelers, brings Jasmine to the face of death once more. When attacked and raped by a demonic man–the man who ultimately brought her ashore in America–Jasmine again sees her options, but there is no choice; she must kill the man who had tried to kill Prakash’s bride. Knowing that her “body was merely the shell, soon to be discarded” (Mukherjee 121), Jasmine can be reborn. Yet the Florida Jasmine and Prakash envisioned does not resemble the “United States of India” in which she awakes. Believing she had “traveled the world without ever leaving the familiar crops of Punjab” (Mukherjee 128), Jasmine makes her way up a highway flanked by farmland, trash cans, and snarling, bony dogs. Given new life by a gruff but kind-hearted woman, Jazzy is born and sent to New York City with job prospects and the transforming advice: “Now remember, if you walk and talk American, they’ll think you were born here. Most Americans can’t imagine anything else” (Mukherjee 134). Her American name and carriage, however, is insufficient preparation for New York, with its beggars and “people like myself” (Mukherjee 140). Visiting an old teacher of Prakash’s proves even more unsettling, as she finds herself helplessly drifting back toward India, regressing back to who she once was.
Deeply depressed by this man’s life, so similar to Jyoti’s, Jazzy knows the time has come for change. Jazzy becomes Jase, the caregiver of the precocious daughter of Taylor and Wylie, a young New York City couple. This fun, lively nickname Taylor gives her suits the former Jazzy perfectly, as she adapts quickly to her new surroundings. Her new life is America! In the high-rise apartment surrounded by vivacious young people, Jase will fit perfectly into this world, with “its ease, its careless confidence and graceful self-absorption” (Mukherjee 171). She thrives amidst this home and family, spending money frivolously and falling in love with Taylor. Jyoti, Jasmine and Jazzy would surely be stunned by such a persona. Whereas Jyoti had “burned herself in a trash-can-funeral pyre behind a boarded-up motel in Florida [and] Jasmine lived for the future” (Mukherjee 176), Jase is a modern American woman who can do as she pleases. When Wylie and Taylor divorce, completing this distinctly non-Indian scene, Taylor, Jase, and little Duff become the family Jasmine and Prakash might have been. Still, despite its bright and love-illuminated apartment, this world is soon too small. India comes flooding into New York, bringing with it past life, past death–washing over Jase in a shocking torrent. The man who killed Prakash, the man who would no doubt kill the three of them, stole Jase’s identity, right there in front of God and everyone. Indeed, Jase believe, “God’s plans have always seemed clearly laid out…I’m going to Iowa” (Mukherjee 189).
Just as Duff began her life in Iowa, Jase decides she, too, will begin life anew in Iowa. Iowa is a fine place for an American named Jane, the pseudo-wife of a banker named Bud. Here, she carries Bud’s baby and shares life with their Vietnamese-American son, Du. Thousands of immigrants before Jane might have dreamed about this life, but the Jase’s quiet death is deafening to Jane. Jane is the first person to miss who she was. Her life among miles of rolling hills and the farmers who desperately tend the land is stifling, even to the pleasant homemaker Jane has become. Jyoti returns to Jane, as she shares discomforting stories of this past life with her family. Life in this house on three hundred acres in Iowa becomes Jane’s mud hut in India; caring for her paralyzed husband becomes caring for her depressed mother. Only Du’s presence keeps Jane present. Du, who almost eerily shares the same quiet brilliance as her beloved Prakash, and whom she believes was the son she and Prakash might have had, is Jane’s lifeline. Although from two different worlds, Jane and Du share the same background: they both killed for their survival, and they were both reborn because of their intelligence and strength. The difference between them, though, was that Jane’s “transformation has been genetic; Du’s [as a Vietnamese-American] was hyphenated” (Mukherjee 222). The open life in Iowa has closed in on Jane, giving her the new life she needed. California, as it turns out, will be the America in which Jase will find life again and into which Jase’s American baby will be born.
From Jyoti, the young girl in India who defied the doom-filled astrologer, to Jase, the spirited young woman on her way to California with Tyler, Bharati Mukherjee weaves the theme of rebirth through her novel with threads of many hues. Mukherjee’s characterizations and settings are heavily laden with description, and the reader might easily believe “Jasmine” is an autobiographical work. This story of an Indian girl’s many evolving new lives, each with its own struggles, surely closely reflects the stories of thousands of American immigrants–people fleeing a country in search of a new life. It is this common simplicity, the hope and strength of humans, that helps to make Bharati Mukherjee’s “Jasmine” a novel of great merit. While there are certainly great fictional works in the science, fantasy, or mystery genres, Mukherjee has created a main character who, in addition to seeming very “real,” is a heroine: a person easily admired for her ability to persevere, to continue toward her goal, even if it means morphing into someone she isn’t along the way. Ultimately, “Jasmine” is the universal story of a human’s transformation–from Indian to American, from giving care to being cared for, from childhood to adulthood–making this an outstanding human interest story for everyone who has ever been, known, or descended from an immigrant.
Circularity and Nonlinear Narrative in ‘Jasmine’
In the 1989 novel Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee tells the story of Jasmine, an American immigrant from India who experiences life through a wide range of identities denoted by different versions of her name. Her different relationships and experiences make readers question what it actually means to be an American. In Jasmine, Mukherjee interrogates the American immigrant experience through her emphasis on Hindu ideology, most specifically reincarnation. Despite presenting these Eastern philosophies in juxtaposition with Western philosophies, Mukherjee rejects binary opposition through the novel’s form and emphasizing multiplicity of identity in the main character Jasmine.
The nonlinear format of the novel adds to its mythology and reflects that life and death are not viewed as opposites, but as parts of the cycle of reincarnation. Generally, Western novels tend to be written linearly and chronologically. Instead, Mukherjee writes Jasmine’s story in a circular way rather than a standard linear story, which adds to the Hindu traditions emphasized within the actual content of the novel. The beginning and end of the novel are very different; however, they remain connected through a thread that Mukherjee weaves throughout: the image of the astrologer. The novel opens with Jasmine narrating: “Lifetimes ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, an astrologer […] foretold my widowhood and exile” (3). While readers know nothing of her life yet, Jasmine puts temporal distance between the person she was then with the person she currently is by beginning with the phrase “Lifetimes ago.” It also implies that Jasmine has lived through many lifetimes, which readers find out that she figuratively has lived through many lives. Because she opens the novel with this encounter with the astrologer, Mukherjee frames the novel immediately, sets up the Hindu themes of fate and reincarnation, and gives cultural context. At the end of the novel, Jasmine narrates: “Watch me reposition the stars, I whisper to the astrologer who floats cross-legged above my kitchen stove,” which brings back up the image of the astrologer and ties the end of the novel back to the beginning (240). This gives readers a sense of circularity, both in form and content. Jasmine’s narration and commentary on life reinforces the sense of circularity. By depicting the narrative as a circle instead of a line mirrors the motif of reincarnation, which is pervading in every aspect of the novel.
Mukherjee’s depiction of Jasmine’s cyclical identity transformations emphasizes a nonlinear, non-binary process that challenges Western conventions of thinking about life and death. Despite the fact that reincarnation in Hinduism is seen as a literal birth, death, and rebirth of a person’s soul, Mukherjee uses this concept figuratively throughout Jasmine to interrogate the immigrant narrative. When discussing her adopted son Du’s immigration experience with his teacher Mr. Skola, Jasmine explains to the reader: “We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams” (29). The use of the word “murder” in conjunction with “rebirth” evokes an immediate life-death-rebirth connection in readers’ minds, reminiscent of the Hindu belief of reincarnation. For both Du and Jasmine, immigration is not an overnight experience; it is a constant experience, an evolving experience, and it requires pain (“murder”) in order to reach the promises of “dreams.” Immigration is an act of death and rebirth; thus, immigration is a figurative reincarnation. Jasmine understands this and attempts to communicate it. While at lunch with Mary Webb, who asks Jasmine about Hinduism, reincarnation, and past lives, Jasmine tells Mary that she is “sure that [she has] been reborn several times, and that yes, some lives [she] can recall vividly” (126). While Mary believes in a more literal reincarnation of a soul, Jasmine recognizes her own figurative reincarnations she has undergone during her singular life. At the end of the novel, she references the multiplicity of these lives and deaths: “I cry into Taylor’s shoulder, cry through all the lives I’ve given birth to, cry for all my dead” (241). Jasmine recognizes her different past lives, all of one soul, all of one essence.
By giving Jasmine new names at different stages of her life, Mukherjee creates stark differences between Jasmine’s changing identities; Jasmine’s feelings of disconnection to these different identities, or different people as she sees it, reflect her continual cycle of figurative reincarnation. Mukherjee uses Jasmine’s different names to reflect her new identities. Perhaps one of the most drastic changes in Jasmine’s story is when she becomes Jasmine instead of Jyoti. She reflects on this: “[Prakash] wanted to break down the Jyoti I’d been in Hasnapur and make me a new kind of city woman. To break off the past, he gave me a new name: Jasmine. […] Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities” (77). Here, Jasmine recognizes that Jasmine and Jyoti are not the same person as she notes that she must “shuttle between identities” as if she is two separate people. She also refers to her old name as “the Jyoti,” which sounds less like a name or a proper noun and more like an object, thing, placeholder. At this point, it is not a name, but a thing of the past that she is completely disconnected from. This disconnection that Jasmine feels is emphasized through her use of the third person when referring to herself in the past. She does it again with the nickname Jase: “I whisper the name, Jase, Jase, Jase, as if I am calling someone I once knew” (215). The use of the third person continues here. The phrase “someone I once knew” emphasizes that to Jasmine, Jase is a separate entity from her current self, just as “the Jyoti” is separate, and thus displays the same disconnection as before. Jasmine has an awareness of this ongoing disconnection; she narrates: “Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine, Duff’s day mummy and Taylor and Wylie’s au pair in Manhattan; that Jasmine isn’t this Jane Ripplemeyer having lunch with Mary Webb at the University Club today” (127). The use of continual third person creates distance and stark differences between identities. The end of a name is a symbolic ending of a life; the beginning of a new name is a rebirth.
In Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee challenges Western modes of understanding through emphasizing a circularity of life: through the novel’s form, content, and Hindu philosophy. She rejects binary opposition though Jasmine’s multiplicity of identity, interrogation of the relationship between life and death. Through her wonderfully rich prose, Mukherjee interrogates the complex experience of an American immigrant in an authentic way.
Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York: Grove, 1989. Print.
Janie and Jasmine and Gender, Oh My
Gender and sexuality have become so deeply rooted into society that we apply them to most anything without ever giving it a second thought. The portrayals of gender in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine are prime examples of how gender identity crisis and sexual awakening happens to everyone regardless of culture. The main characters Janie and Jasmine both live in rural, less than ideal living conditions compared to others around them. Janie is a rather submissive character in a world of mostly misogynistic men. Jasmine grows up in a culture where women are treated as property of men. The experiences of these two women are similar. Tea Cake and Prakash, respectively, are both able to bring out the best qualities in their wives. Unfortunately, gender discrimination is something that will probably never go away. Still, women such as Janie and Jasmine are able to lower the intensity of the discrimination that they face by changing the spaces they are in and the people in which they decide to include in those spaces.
Janie, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, is perhaps the most aware about how certain spaces will have different impacts on how she is treated by men. Hurston relies heavily on the distinction between the back porch and the front porch (Pattison 12). The novel begins with Janie telling her life story to Pheoby on her back porch (Hurston 5). Janie also engages with a game of checkers with Tea Cake on the back porch (Hurston 95). The back porch has come to symbolize a space where Janie is not subject to gender discrimination and can just be herself. The front porch on the other hand is a space in which the men of Eatonville can interact and talk about masculine subject matter (Pattison, 12). Here, Janie is expected to be soft spoken and obedient to her husband Joe. She is not allowed to engage in meaningful conversation with the men and certainly is not allowed to express her opinions. This oppressive treatment by Joe is something that Janie had been forced to come to terms with and then later expel from her life. Janie finally realized that she had been mistreated when Joe was sick, which she clearly expressed to Joe moments before he died (Hurston 86). This epiphany for Janie offered a great sense of relief and liberation for her. Janie wore black to mourn although she was not really sad and she has gained so much leisure time to spend with Tea Cake. This relationship which develops into Janie’s third marriage acts as a turning point for the novel. Janie has successfully overcome the misogyny of both Logan and Joe. She is able to spend time with Tea Cake and do things that she truly wants to do, not ones which she feels obligated to do. Janie does not gripe about spending time on the muck or facing a hurricane, because she would rather be with Tea Cake than anyplace else on earth. Although Tea Cake does show a little bit of patricharcial authority of his own, the fact that Janie is able to overcome his assertive masculinity shows that Janie has gained power and autonomy as a woman.
These uses of gender can also be related to the ways in which gender is discussed regarding Jyoti in Jasmine. Although given the name Jyoti at birth, she has come to claim multiple identities including; Jasmine, Kali, Jazzy, Jane, and Jase. These identities portray her progression in becoming a self sufficient woman who is assimilated into Western culture. The difficulties cast onto her given her situation demonstrate her ability to overcome adversity and objectification. Jyoti was burdened with the foreshadowing of a future of widowhood and exile at the age of seven (Mukherjee 3). Although young, Jyoti refused to accept the fate predicted by the astrologer. She took this information with a grain of salt and decided to make the most of her young life without letting gender become an inhibitor of her goals and aspirations. Jyoti worked harder than her brothers in school and had ambitions of becoming a doctor. This caused an altercation to ensue with her father because he did not believe that women were capable of such professions (Mukherjee 51). However, this did not discourage Jyoti. Jasmine was born through Prakash’s high hopes for his young wife. He saw both beauty and potential in Jasmine that others in her life had failed to recognize. Prakash says, “You are small and sweet and heady, my Jasmine. You’ll quicken the whole world with your perfume” (Mukherjee 77). This becomes something that Jasmine will carry with her for life and she will try to live up to her late husband’s expectations of her. Kali comes to life following the scene in which Jasmine is raped in America by her companion Half Face. The rape is horrifically graphic and leaves Jasmine caught between suicide and revenge. Thankfully, she chose the latter option and performed her revenge in the most fear evoking way possible. Jasmine assumes the role of Kali, slices her tongue open with a knife, and drools blood onto Half Face immediately before stabbing him in the neck (Mukherjee 118). This act of murder shows that Jasmine was willing to do anything to protect herself and to cut oppressive men from her life. Jazzy is the persona created by Lillian Gordon in order to make Jasmine appear to be more American (Mukherjee 133). This is done be changing Jasmine’s attire to a tee shirt and a pair of running shoes in order to accomplish an American look. In order to create the attitude, Lillian takes Jazzy the the shopping mall and teaching her how to act and to ride an escalator for example (Mukherjee 139). Jane is born in Iowa and is married to Bud. The novel concludes with Jase leaving Bud and going to California. Critic Anu Aneja states, “Jasmine is a character constantly in the process of fabrication whose making involves the unmaking of the past” (73). With every new identity comes an increased awareness of her gender and her ability to succeed within a patriarchal society. In many regards, Jasmine has proved to the reader that she was able to overcome the trials and tribulations foretold to her as a young child.
The further that Jasmine moves westward, the intensity of gender discrimination that she faces becomes lower and lower. Dale Pattison of Texas A&M University describes Janie of Their Eyes Were Watching God as, “a figure of feminine empowerment” (9). She left an oppressive masculine space in favor of a simpler and less critical one on the muck and the back porch with Tea Cake. Aneja says that Jasmine, “is presented initially as an unformed mass of stereotypical values and beliefs. Through the multiple losses of her identity, or rather lack of one, she finally seems to obtain a sharper definition, and an identifiable personality” (75). This transition shows Jasmine’s movement from an object of society to a self sufficient subject. The moment when this becomes most evident is when Jane leaves Bud and assumes the identity of Jase and goes to California with Taylor. Jane describes this event, “I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old world dutifulness” (Mukherjee 240). This shows that Jasmine has come to put her own needs before those of any man in her life. As it has been made evident, Janie and Jasmine alike are both challenged with the circumstances of a gender identity crisis. This isn’t to say that they are having a difficult time acknowledging that they are both women. The crisis develops out of their confusion as to what role they play as women in their situations within the culture in which they find themselves. Janie has moved from a presumably racist Southern community to the entirely African American community of Eatonville. With this move, she had to learn how to better overcome misogyny within her race. Once she finally figured out her role in society, her world was shaken up once again when Joe died and she decided to leave with Tea Cake.
Jasmine struggled immensely with her role as a woman in India. She grow up in a household with Pitaji who believed that women were not capable of achieving greatness such as that of a doctor. She was comfortable with the bond that she formed with the other women in her village because they were all victims of the same circumstance. Jasmine believed that she finally had her role established with Prakash until he was taken from her in death and she found new purpose by seeking to carry out his legacy. Janie and Jasmine both were enlightened with the experiences of intense sexual awakenings. Janie often came back to the pear tree and her first sexual desires and curiosities being addressed. Janie talks about the time that she received her first kiss and how Nanny gave her a lecture about what it means to be a woman. Likewise, Jasmine recounted her sexual preservation and Prakash’s wishes to keep her pure, until this is spoiled by the rape that she is exposed to in America. No matter how badly Jasmine wanted to have a child with her husband, he thought that it would be better if she waited since she was so young. Unfortunately the sexual awakening that Jasmine faced was not ideal and this helped to shape the outcome of the novel.
Some of the events that took place in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jasmine occurred beyond Janie and Jasmine’s control. Janie could not manipulate the opinions of men within her society in regards to women. Jasmine did not have any means of preventing Prakash’s murder or the rape that she would endure in The United States. However, these women were both able to make the most of their troubling situations and find a way to achieve peace and happiness.Janie decided early that Logan Killicks was not the man that she was meant to marry. She refused to spend her life with him and be miserable. When Joe Starks came to town, he presented a new hope for Janie and she chose to run off with him. Janie took control and avoidable a terrible life with Logan for a tolerable life with Joe. Once Janie realized that Joe was more interested in his image rather than her, she decided to spend time alone in the store and eventually enjoy the company of Tea Cake. With Joe dead, Tea Cake offered a ray of sunshine that Janie could not resist. Similarly, once Prakash died, Jasmine decided that she could not bare to spend time in India any longer without her husband. She made a conscious decision to migrate to America and seek out a better life for herself. After being raped, she regained the upper hand by murdering her abuser. She stayed with Lillian and Professori temporarily, she decided to marry Bud, and then later decided to leave him for Taylor. Jasmine has very much found a way to maintain control of her own life.Janie and Jasmine were both aware of the discrimination that they were bound to face in their unfortunate situations. However, they both found ways to lower the intensity of the discrimination that they faced by choosing the spend time with less misogynistic men and more women who shared similar experiences. They decided to leave regions that were full of gender bias for areas that were more open minded and accepting of them. In these ways, both women were able to escape from their abusers through a simple change of locale and the associations that they held.