Bharati Mukherjee, acclaimed writer and UC Berkeley professor emerita of English, died Jan. 28 at 76 from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis and cardiomyopathy.
Born in Kolkata, India, Mukherjee came to the U.S. in the 1960s and became famous for her groundbreaking honest depictions of India and the immigrant experience in her many novels, short stories and essays. Some of her works include the novels “Jasmine” and “The Middleman and Other Stories,” for which Mukherjee won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988.
“India suffered so much exoticism, and if you didn’t play the exotic game in the publishing world, you were sort of blockaded,” said Clark Blaise, Mukherjee’s husband. “She was the one who made India a familiar place, and she was the one who made America look like an odd place.”
Blaise, who is also a writer, said he first met Mukherjee in 1962 during graduate school in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Blaise recalled Mukherjee’s bravery, single-mindedness and honesty as the qualities he most admired in her.
Amitabha Basu, a lecturer in the campus South and Southeast Asian Studies department, saw her as a pioneer in the field because of her exposure to both Indian and American life.
“She was at one point unparalleled because (her writing) stemmed from her direct experience,” Basu said. “The whole picture she conveyed to me was (an) amalgamation of East and West.”
As one of the few American writers depicting India in the 60s and 70s, Mukherjee faced pushback from an agent who said stories about India would not appeal to an American audience.
“She changed everything,” Blaise said of Mukherjee’s impact on American literature, which Blaise said is now dominated by immigrant narratives.
In addition to her time as a UC Berkeley professor, Mukherjee taught at various other institutions throughout her life, including McGill University, Columbia University and Queens College. She came to UC Berkeley in 1989, where she taught creative writing in the English department before retiring in 2013.
According to Blaise, Mukherjee took great pride in her teaching and left a profound impact on her students throughout her time as a professor.
“From all reports the students loved her back,” said Charles Altieri, a campus English professor, in an email. “Hard not to do because of her intricate and capacious sense of irony combined with gentle tenderness toward the whole process of discovering the world as source of delight.”
Blaise emphasized that Mukherjee greatly influenced her students’ writing, some of whom later went on to become published authors. Since Mukherjee’s passing, Blaise said he has received hundreds of letters from her former students, including many who attended UC Berkeley.
“I’m sure she would have liked to see Berkeley again,” Blaise said. “She held Berkeley in very high esteem.”