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Fluid Identity: what it means to be Bharati Mukherjee’s “Jasmine”

Book cover of Jasmine.

“We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the image of our dreams.” (29)

This is, for me, the most powerful sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine. In this one sentence it summarises the story of the novel by embodying the nature of transcontinental lives and living.

The main protagonist in Mukherjee’s novel has a name for every person she has ever been: she is the village girl Jyoti; Jasmine to her first husband; Jane; Jase; Jazz; Kali; Widow; Wife; and Day Mommy. These names represent not only her fluid identity, but how she the people around her perceive her identity and in some cases her culture. The only name that Jyoti ever really gives herself is Sage: a foreseer of truth and fate. The beginning of the book opens with her meeting a sooth sayer who foretells Jyoti’s future. He claims that it is fate that will guide her life, although Jyoti is not convinced and from this point she is sent off in a whirl-wind of adventure and experience that leaves her both fulfilled and drained.

Jyoti’s identity is never really defined by her alone. Her names are given to her by the different men in her lives and she seems to accept these names, going along with the flow. It is hard to say if Jyoti really comes to finding her own identity or not though, and I felt that this was a difficult question for me to answer with certainty.
Jyoti moves to the U.S.A. and finds herself to be brown and othered. She feels the pressures of meeting Western expectations and whilst she is treated with respect and love from a lot of the white people in her community, there is is somehow still a feeling of not quite belonging.

“Educated people are interested in differences; they assume that I am different from them but exempt from being one of “them,” the knife-wielding undocumenteds hiding in basements webbing furniture.”

Here we can already see that racism does not always function and work the same in each country and that there isn’t one single group of “other”. One can conclude that Mukjerjee is probably talking about Hispanic immigrants here. The issue of racism and othering is further complicated by the sheer size of the USA, where there are instances of minority groups feel safer in certain states or regions than others.

If you’re interested in learning about the issues that face Indian immigrants in the U.S.A. then this is a great book to start to expand your knowledge about race, immigration, and non-Western religions. I am a firm believer that books can have the ability to change people, and to change people for the better. This is a book that will change you. As always, share the reading love.