The novel, Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee, spans three major geographic places. In the beginning is India. In between India and Iowa is Flushing and Manhattan, New York. The novel ends as the title character is on her way to California. In each of these places, the novel’s protagonist has different names as she adds onto herself the effects of the physical, economic, political, and cultural conditions she encounters. The sum of these effects is relevant for her to adopt changed behavior patterns. In India, as Jyoti, and as a seven year old, her future was foretold.
She would, said the fakir astrologer near the village of Hasnapur, become a widow and an exile. The astrologer struck here and she fell against a twig that scarred her forehead for life. Her sisters worried, as all the Hindu family would worry, about the scar reducing her changes of marriage. This physical injury only entered play in her interactions in India. Another physical encounter in India was with a dead dog in a stream. Once touched, the dog released a stench. At twenty-four, in Iowa, she recalls the stench – “every time I lift a glass of water to my lips, fleetingly I smell it.
I know what I don’t want to become. ” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 5) She did not want to remain known as one of nine her father had raised on thirty acres. She envied Vimla who “lived in a two-story brick house with real windows” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 15). Jyoti lived in a mud hut. But Vimla killed herself early in her marriage after her husband died – “The villagers say when a clay pitcher breaks, you see that the air inside it is the same as outside. Vimla set herself on fire because she had broken her pitcher; she saw there were no insides and outsides.
We are just shells of the same Absolute” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 15). Jyoti’s shell remained unbroken in India, New York City, and Iowa. Also remaining was the desire to hoard water sorely needed at times in her village in Punjab. Her mother hoarded water and thought it cruel that God sent Jyoti’s family from a comfortable life in Lahore to a mud-hutted village. The Partition Riots had occurred as people were uprooted because Pakistan was coming into being out of the former India. Her father wanted the Lahore life to come back. It never could be, another pitcher had been broken.
Ghosts and spirits came in the dark at nightfall. Her family had no electricity to keep them out. Jyoti liked chores but wanted to remain in school longer than had her sisters. A chance to marry off Jyoti, at thirteen, to a passable groom was scotched by her mother (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 48). For her support, her mother was beaten by her father, but Jyoti remained in school. In addition, she remained convinced that for one’s life there was a mission, if only “to move a flowerpot from one table to another” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 60).
Her mission became to marry Prakash who knew English and knowing English was to want the world, as she did. Prakash talked of vengeful and catastrophic Indian politics with her brothers. The Khalsa Lions made bombs. Sukhwinder threatened to kill Hindu women; all Hindu women were whores, he said. Her husband –to-be, Prakash, spoke harshly to Sukhwinder. Prakash had dignity, kindness, intelligence. He was a modern man, a city man. He was to be called by his first name. Jyoti struggled against tradition to do this. Also, in order to come from the past, he gave her a new name : Jasmine.
She then had two identities – Jyoti and Jasmine. For Jasmine he wanted a real life in America with him doing engineering in “Tam-pah” Florida, “making something more of his life than fate intended” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 85). Meanwhile they could do electronics repair as Vijh and Wife or Vijh and Vnjh. They were living a fantasy. The fantasy ended when Sukhwinder and his bomb carrying accomplices, the Khalsa Lions, placed a bomb near Jasmine that killed her husband. She then was on a mission. She would go to American to complete the dream of Vijh and Wife.
There, in Florida, she was raped and she killed the rapist. She was known as Kali for a very short time. After Florida, she arrived in Flushing, New York . She was there five months in an Indian ghetto. She could not take the wanting anymore (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 142). She slept on a mat, an illegal person, accustomed to American clothes, in T-shirt and cords looking like a student. She fraternized only with Punjabi-speaking Hindu Jats . Her widowhood was confirmed. In this fake traditional Indian environment, her chance at motherhood and married life had ended.
The Indians there wanted VCRs, air conditioning, lots of food, and other Indians. With no green card and gaining weight, she was losing her English while in America. She was deteriorating. She was away from the past but blocked from the future. She felt herself to be in a prison doing unreal time. It was too much. She wanted out. To get a fake green card costing thousands of dollars, she sold her cut hair that was not ruined by shampoos, gels, dyes, and permanents. She got one hour from Flushing to be in a loft holding a marine iguana.
She felt truly reborn since “Indian village girls do not hold large reptiles on their laps” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 163). The iguana’s owner would introduce Jasmine to Taylor and Wylie Hayes and their daughter, Duff. Jasmine would be the au pair for Duff. The friends of the Hayes’ thought Jasmine was Iranian or Pakistani or Afghan, then Indian. Experience for them was to be used as knowledge. For Jasmine, experience could kill and must be forgotten. Taylor worked in subnuclear particle physics and thought Jasmine’s notion of a god assigning your every split second of existence as total anarchy or absolute futility or fatalism.
Taylor’s child could immediately relate to adults, was on a first name basis with these adults, and did interrupt their conversations. Such a child’s behavior in India was a no-no. Taylor was broadly democratic, entirely American and Jasmine would become American with the Hayes. Jasmine, called Jase by Taylor, was enchanted by Taylor’s ease and confidence. She wanted to be as she thought they saw her – “humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate” (Mukherjee, 1989, p. 171). Jase was paid, in dollars, to be with Duff. This astounded Jase.
Duff was adopted. This was an all together a strange idea to Jase. She had only encountered genetic children before. From Duff, Jase learned about the stores, the neighborhood, and shopping. Jase did not want, and thought it odd, that Duff should sleep alone. Duff also helped Jase with learning English. Jase also learned English from what she heard on the street, from TV, and at dinner with the Hayes. Because of Duff, Jase was a caregiver not a servant and she thought herself to be of their family with professional credentials.
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