Gender and Intersectionality

Jasmine as a Fantasy

By Uplabdhi Sangwan, University of Delhi, India

1“I wrote poems. I was going to be the next Adrienne Rich,” says a pregnant character to the heroine of Jasmine (1990) as the former contemplates the devastating consequences of motherhood on her aspirations (Jasmine 34). This reference to Adrienne Rich inserts Rich’s thematic concerns regarding gender, motherhood, mothering, compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian continuum, amongst others, that occur in her poems and prose, into the novel Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian diaspora writer. This paper looks at choices made by the title character of Jasmine through the lens of Rich’s ideas. In Jasmine, the heroine who is brown (or “wheatish”) due to her North Indian Asian descent, contends with issues of race, class and gender as she embarks on quest for selfhood on the North American continent (33).

2The heroine’s quest is hampered by her condition of marginality that has been thrust upon her as she is what Mary Ellen Snodgrass describes as an illegal “unassimilated immigrant Asian” women with a “makeshift” life in North America (384). The Buildungsroman of this heroine begins in Hasnapur, India and concludes in America. As the story progresses, the protagonist transforms from Jyoti to Jasmine to Jane. The narrative depicts the heroine as a girl child and as a young wife in Punjab, India. Following her husband’s death in a blast caused by terrorists demanding a Sikh state, Jasmine travels to Florida as an illegal immigrant hidden in a trawler. Upon reaching Florida the captain of the ship rapes her and she murders him in turn. She is rescued and provided shelter by a woman called Lillian Gordon. She then moves in to live at Flushing Ghetto with a family of her husband’s friend called Proffesorji. Subsequently she leaves Flushing Ghetto to become a nanny for Taylor’s and Wylie’s adopted child. After Wylie leaves Taylor, he shares feelings of love with Jasmine in a park in New York. Just then Jasmine sees the man who killed her husband. She is frightened and goes to Iowa where she starts living with Bud as a partner. The novel ends with Jasmine (who is pregnant with Bud’s child after being artificially inseminated) deciding to leave him and move to California to live with Taylor.

3Jasmine’s story, according to Anita Myles in her work Feminism and the Post-Modern Indian Women Novelists in English, was received with “tremendous response and ebullience from critics and readers alike, being translated into eighteen languages due to its undaunting rendition of a “liberated woman” from a third world nation deeply rooted in traditions and dogmas” (Myles 113). The paper interrogates this rendition of a “liberated woman” and finds insufficient and limited evidence of any such liberation in the denouement. This is because the heroine’s choices do not challenge the boundaries of gender, race and class thrust upon her. As her choices are made within the very structures of gender, race and class that produce the conditions of her inferiority, these conditions ultimately are neither challenged nor dismantled in the novel. Emotional, economic or sexual alternatives that might offer respite are thus conspicuously absent in Jasmine.

4The rendition of a “liberated woman” in Jasmine is vague and insufficient on account of the inability of the heroine to break through, what Adrienne Rich insists are the political institutions of “heterosexuality” and “motherhood” (Signs 637). The novel does not destabilize notions of gender particularly as expressed through sexual practice. Sexuality, Vincent Leitch summarizes in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, is viewed in modern culture as a fundamental constituent of identity. Leitch adduces to Judith Butler’s research which following Foucault's work in The History of Sexuality (1976), drawing attention to the fact that “one’s sex and our sexual desires and activities are profound indices of who we are” (Leitch 2485). Due to the heroine's choices emotional and financial emancipation is available to her only through heterosexual relationships. Her choice to organize her life around the political institutions of “heterosexuality” and “motherhood” is despite the experience of trauma caused by violence unleashed upon her by various versions of masculinities engendered by patriarchy. These versions consider violence as a legitimate tactic to contain, confine, limit women’s freedom and assert power over her by keeping her in a state of “fear”(Smith x). Such versions are exemplified in descriptions of men in feudal Hasanpur who bring “rape, ruin, shame” on women; Sukhvinder the terrorist whose separate Sikh nation is envisioned as a space where men continue to wield control over women’s bodies through prescription of dress code the transgression of which can incite not only verbal abuses but also death; and Half-Face (Jasmine 55). The rendition of a “liberated woman” is insufficient secondly on account of the novel’s preoccupation with what Rich differentiates between the patriarchal institution of motherhood as against the private experience of mothering.

5Jasmine’s choice of heterosexual relationships, despite the attendant trauma of violence, signifies Jasmine’s preference for performance of “normative sexuality”. “Normative sexuality”, Judith Butler asserts in Gender Trouble (1990), only “fortifies normative gender” (46). These normative notions of gender are “naturalized and reified” and only “support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power (Butler 46). Butler however admits that “subverting and displacing” normative notions of gender is a difficult task as they keep gender in its place by “posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” (46). These normative notions of gender are, according to Leitch " written into our very psyches as well as into the dominant institutions of political and social life” (2485). Given this hold of normative notions of gender on the psyche, Jasmine does not even attempt to challenge the norms of gender in terms of roles and power relations. Malashri Lal, a leading scholar in women’s studies, notes that “Mukherjee’s heroine [Jasmine] carries conservative India and female socialization within her wherever she goes and never seems to climb out of the patriarchal structures of her village upbringing” (152). The narrator’s trajectory from Jyoti to Jasmine to Jase and finally to Jane recreates, according to Lal, the India of “sharply defined gender roles” through the “continued note of woman’s dependency upon man, emotionally and materially, no matter which country—India or America” (152). Jasmine’s narrator refers to all the men Jasmine enters into relationships with as her “husbands” and furthermore asserts that the protagonist assumes the traditional role of the “caregiver, recipe giver, preserver” (Lal 215).