Diasporic Consciousness in the works of Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee

Author:   Sai Diwan

Diasporic Consciousness in the works of Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee

Sai Diwan

The sociological implications of Diaspora have been incorporated into literature to produce a flourishing genre in post modernism: Diasporic literature. Although the Greek etymology restricted itself to refer to the migration of Jews post the Holocaust, the term Diaspora now encompasses the experiences of the diasporic imaginary speckled all over the world. The Indian Diaspora has been chronicled by the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, Agha Shahid Ali etc.

Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) revolves around a 17 year old widow’s strife to comprehend her husband’s romanticized conception of America and her parallel quest for identity. The ignorant village girl, Jyoti is married off to Prakash at an early age. Fuelled by radical ideas, Prakash denounces the feudal system and draws his wife into his envisioned democratic world by giving her the pseudo American name, Jasmine. This transformation introduces her to her husband’s dream of the American life. Although she shares his dream, it is not her vision. Had she followed Prakash into his American dream, she would have been his mere shadow.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s character, Hema traverses the fate that Jasmine escapes. For, second generation Bengali immigrants Hema and Kaushik, migration is not a matter of choice. As is the trend of the new Diaspora, Hema’s parents move to Cambridge in search of better economic opportunities. She nurses no strong link with her ‘homeland’ and accepts her American nationality without dispute. For Kaushik, the second move to America is linked to his mother’s impending death. Unlike in Jasmine where the ‘Trauma’ or ‘Impossible Mourning’ is the actual murder of Prakash, for Kaushik it is the consciousness of the inevitable. The trauma that triggers the move to America is the knowledge that his mother is to die.

Zizek’s idea of the Nation as the ‘Thing’ can be used to justify the escapist behavior of the diasporic imaginary. Prakash’s death breaks the illusion of an egalitarian society that he had created for Jasmine. She is stifled by the feudal structure of Hasnapur that shatters Prakash’s claims of gender equality. Thus Jasmine sees America as her calling. She seeks America in her quest for a democratic society and realization of Prakash’s envisioned world. She is charmed by the equal status that the women of American society enjoy. She sees her own standing as a notch above her position in India.

“In Hasnapur the Mazbi women who’d stoked our heart or spread our flaking had been a maid servant. Wylie made me feel her younger sister. I was family, and I was a professional.”  (175)

For Jasmine, Mukherjee marks the clear transition by rechristening her, Jase. The ‘Thing’ gives her an independent and adventurous identity. Lahiri’s character Parul (Kaushik’s mother) covets the liberation that the Thing promises. She chooses to spend her last days away from her land of birth In America, she wants to create a world wherein she is healthy and happy with her family. This echoes Frederic Jameson’s view as given by Simon Gikandi in his essay Globalization and The Claims of Postcoloniality:

The sense people have of themselves and their own moment of history may ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with its reality. (113)

It gives her an opportunity to begin afresh, without the weight of restrictions that she carried in India. However, the same experiment does not work well for her son. The recurrent displacements during his formative years leave him with an inability to form permanent relationships. Although he falls in love with Hema, he cannot bring himself to commit to her. He is on a constant search for his identity.

This is true of most experiences of the diasporic imaginary. The literature of Diaspora entails characters that find themselves in the search for their true identity. This loss of identity arises from their need to ‘belong’ to a place.

“I envy them, that.” Hema said

“Do you?”

“I’ve never belonged to any place that way”

 Kaushik laughed. “You’re complaining to the wrong person.” (320)

The diasporic imaginary is torn between the dual and often conflicting ideologies of the homeland and the host land. The vast boundaries of the Western society are a space too huge for the constraints of the Indian culture. The vacuum that thus remains makes them pose the inevitable question ‘Where do I belong?’ In his essay Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie has addressed the identity crisis of the Indian Diaspora:

Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times that we fall between two stools. (227)

The issue of the identity crisis has been cradled by Lahiri through effective citation of multiculturalism. Interpreter of Maladies (1999) deals with stories of Indian Americans and the conflict between their inherited culture and the New World that their hyphenated identity causes. In some stories like Mrs Sen’s the characters cling to the Indian culture without attempting to assimilate in the New World. In The Namesake (2003), Gogol lets go of his inherited culture to assume an American identity.

The search for identity has been best enumerated by Bharati Mukherjee in Jasmine. Jyoti, the vulnerable teenager is nudged on to become Jasmine. The free American society makes Jasmine the bold Jase. However, accosted by love, Jase flees to Iowa to become the cautious Jane Ripplemeyer.

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 Univeristy Club today. (127)

Diasporic literature is strained with the imperative presence of melancholia. This stems from the concept of home. As much as Jase or Jane does not want to go back to being Jyoti, memories of Hasnapur flood her mind. The Trauma of the death of her husband is the principal trigger to her migration and sows the seeds of nostalgia for India in her. However, the melancholia does not evoke any wish to return to her homeland. Jasmine solely wishes to return home. The question is where lies home, and what is home? Is it the physical space one inhabits or the symbolic conceptualization of where one belongs? Jasmine flees to Iowa, and is pregnant with Bud Ripplemeyer’s child. However, she cannot bring herself to make a home with him. For her, home is Manhattan, with the sweet innocence of Duff and the quiet promises of Taylor.

For second generation immigrants, home is quite a dilemma. They cannot relate their diasporic experiences to their own memories of a time before migration. Their memories of the ‘homeland’ are fragmented.

Hema: ‘I didn’t know what to make of you. Because you had lived in India, I associated you more with my parents than with me.’

For Hema, it happens to be Rome. Born in Cambridge, she has no intimate association with India. America gives her a nationality, but she strikes her roots in Rome, drawing from it on each visit, knowledge of her self. The reader finds Hema congregate her life in Rome: the past, the present and the future; her escapade with Julian, her involvement with Kaushik and the anxiety of the arrangement with Navin.

The metaphor of ‘roots into unaccustomed earth’ is especially applicable to Kaushik. Since his mother’s death, he attempts to remove himself from every place that had felt her presence. He convinces himself that ‘As a photographer his origins were irrelevant.’ The only place that comes to matter to him is the Rome he toured with Hema. As if to reiterate his belief, fate washes over his design to take up permanent residence in Hong Kong.

The culmination of both books is beautifully crafted. Jasmine breaks away from the conventional structure of Diaspora and poses itself as a possibly happily-ever-after. However, even when she decides to flee with Taylor and embrace love, the reader feels that her journey hasn’t had a justified conclusion. Jasmine’s quest for her identity continues.

The final story in the triology, Going Ashore switches from the Second Person to the Third Person Omniscient point of view. After the strong bond established by the first two stories, the sudden change is quite unsettling. However the last vestiges of any link between Hema and Kaushik have faded, and thus there is no reason for either character to hold on to the other. The last part of the story switches to Hema’s perspective. Kaushik has come to mean so much to the reader through Hema that to have the news of his death delivered through a Third Person would be belittling his character. Lahiri is shrewd. She makes the reader tell himself about Kaushik’s death. Hema only confirms the loss. ‘We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind’. And we know he’s gone.

And that we could not have had it another way. For the lost generation with hyphenated identities, a manifestation of their larger sense of loss is a channeling of the emotions. As for the readers, we are left with a sad, knowing smile. For as Yeats put it, ‘What was it that the poets promised you/ If it were not their sorrow?’


1.      Mukherjee, Bharati Jasmine Virago Press Ltd, London, 1990.

2.      Lahiri, Jhumpa Unaccustomed Earth Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 2008.

3.      Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 Granta Books, London, 1991.

4.      Diaspora: Concepts, Intersections, Identities Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2011.

Cited Works

1.      Gikandi, Simon Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality, 2001.

2.      Mishra, Vijay Diasporas and the Art of Impossible Mourning, 2000.

3.      Rushdie, Salman Imaginary Homelands, 1991.

4.      Stock, Femke Home and Memory, 2011.


Sai Diwan completed her B.A. in English Literature from St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Her contact Emaill:[email protected]

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