An aristocratic Filipina negotiates a new life for herself with an Atlanta investment banker. A Vietnam vet returns to Florida, a place now more foreign than the Asia of his war experience. And in the title story, an Iraqi Jew whose travels have ended in Queens suddenly finds himself an unwitting guerrilla in a South American jungle. Passionate, comic, violent, and tender, these stories draw us into the center of a cultural fusion in the midst of its birth pangs, yet glowing with the energy and exuberance of a society remaking itself.
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Bharati Mukherjee Told by an Iraqi Jew who is a naturalized American citizen, it is set in an unnamed Central American country in the throes of a guerrilla insurgency. The idea for the story came to Mukherjee when she was writing an incomplete novel about a Vietnam veteran who becomes a mercenary soldier in Afghanistan and Central America. Alfie became such a strong presence in the writer's mind that, as she reported in an interview with Alison B.
Carb in Massachusetts Review , he "took control and wrote his own story. Her father co-owned a pharmaceutical factory and later became director of research and development of a large chemical complex. Even as a child, Mukherjee knew she was going to be a writer. She learned to read and write at the age of three, and she later reported that as a child, the fictional worlds she discovered in stories were more real to her than the world around her. She started her first novel when she was nine or ten, and at high school in Calcutta, she started writing short stories for school magazines.
Mukherjee received her bachelor of arts from the University of Calcutta in , and a master of arts from the University of Baroda in Wanting to pursue a career as a writer and encouraged by her father to do so, Mukherjee then left India to attend the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She received a master of fine arts in , and a Ph. While studying at the Writers' Workshop, Mukherjee met the Canadian, Clark Blaise, who was also a student on the same program. The couple married in , and from to , they lived in Canada, first in Toronto and then Montreal, where they both held teaching positions.
Mukherjee became a Canadian citizen but was unhappy living in that country because of the racial prejudice she encountered. She was refused service in stores and was sometimes followed by detectives in department stores who assumed she was a shoplifter. It was in Canada that Mukherjee wrote her first two novels, The Tiger's Daughter and Wife , but her work received little attention from critics or the public.
In , Mukherjee resigned her professorship at McGill University and moved with her husband and two sons to the United States , where she became first a permanent resident and then a U. In , she was writer in residence at Emory University. She felt that being in the United States was a great relief after the discrimination she had suffered in Canada. In New York City, she was able to blend in with people on the street, and she believes that attitudes toward Indian immigration are healthier in the United States than in Canada.
Mukherjee chose to identify fully with her new country of choice, and she regards herself as an American, not an Indian-American or an Indian in exile. Mukherjee's first short story collection, Darkness , was published in Like much of Mukherjee's work, the stories deal with the experience of new immigrants to the United States. This is also the theme of one of her most popular novels, Jasmine , which was published the following year.
The title character, Jasmine, is a young Indian woman who comes to the United States as an illegal immigrant. Mukherjee has also written The Holder of the World and The Tree Bride: A Novel , as well as several nonfiction works, including some co-authored with her husband. He has temporarily left the United States because he has been involved in some shady financial dealing and is fighting extradition.
He is currently living in an unnamed Central American country, where he has just started employment on the ranch of an expatriate American named Clovis T. Ransome fled the United States with fifteen million dollars in cash that he appears to have appropriated illegally in some kind of financial scam. Alfie has attached himself to Ransome in the hope that he can gain some advantage from the situation. He is the "middleman" of the title; he manages to make a living "from things that fall. Alfie sits at the side of the swimming pool and confesses that he has a weakness for women.
He mentions that a young woman named Maria, Ransome's wife, lives on the ranch. At the pool, Alfie chats briefly with Ransome, who is waiting for his crony Bud Wilkins to drive over in his pickup. They plan to go on a deep-sea fishing trip. Ransome invites Alfie to go with them, but Alfie declines.
Maria, who has been swimming in the ocean, comes to join Alfie, while Ransome loads up the jeep with beer. Bud arrives, and he and Ransome drink beer together. Eduardo, the houseboy, loads up Bud's pickup with crates which Alfie suspects contain rifles, ammunition, and possibly medicine. Then Bud and Ransome drive off into the jungle in Ransome's jeep. Eduardo kills two ocean crabs that have found their way into the kitchen. He is upset over something, and Maria and Alfie take him to his room.
Eduardo has crates under his bed, and Alfie wonders what is in them. But Maria replies that she respects Eduardo's privacy, and Alfie should, too.
Alfie sets the table, and Maria brings a tray of cheese and biscuits. She says she is hoping he will drive her to San Vincente, a small market town, in Bud's pickup. Alfie does not want to, but he agrees. He does not want to know what is in the crates that are piled up in the pickup.
The crates are labeled "fruits," but Alfie knows he has been recruited for a gunrunning operation, when all he wanted to be was a bystander.
They drive the rough road through the jungle to San Vincente. After about forty minutes, Maria tells Alfie to turn off and head for a village called Santa Simona. She says she was born there. Alfie knows Santa Simona is not a village; it is a guerrilla camp. Alfie and Maria get out of the truck and make their way to some shacks. Alfie knows that this is not the intended destination for Bud's arms shipment; the load has been hijacked.
He would have preferred that Maria had not involved him in this little adventure. A tall guerrilla soldier comes toward them; he and Maria embrace. Maria then introduces Alfie to the guerrilla soldier, whose name is Andreas. The three of them go inside one of the shacks, which is the command post for the guerrillas. Maria offers Alfie a beer, and then she and Andreas leave. Alfie opens his beer and takes it with him to the back porch.
There is a caged bird by the laundry tub, and a boy of ten is teasing it. The boy, who later turns out to be Andreas's son, asks him for gum. Alfie gives him a cheap pen to keep him quiet and returns inside to drink his beer. About an hour later, Maria returns and wakes him up. She says they have finished unloading the guns and it is time to go. Alfie, Maria, and Andreas, who is carrying the bird cage, go to the truck.
On the drive back to Ransome's ranch, Maria explains what is going on. She indicates that Bud has been killed because he refused to let Ransome in on his illicit arms-dealing business. They arrive back at the ranch, where Ransome is sitting on the love seat on the porch. Alfie asks him where Bud is, and Ransome replies that a gang of guerrillas shot him only half a mile down the road.
He wonders how he got away, but Alfie knows that the guerrillas were in Ransome's pay. Alfie observes that Ransome notices the crates are gone from Bud's truck, so Ransome knows he has been betrayed. Maria sits down on the love seat next to her husband while Alfie goes to the kitchen for a beer. When he returns, Ransome, who has been drinking heavily, is snoring.
His hand is inside the bird cage, and the bird is pecking him, but this does not awaken him. Maria asks Alfie to kill the bird.
At eleven o'clock that night, Alfie carries Ransome up the stairs to the spare bedroom and leaves him fully clothed on the bed. Alfie then returns to his room. Maria comes to him and they make love, and Maria tells him of the beatings she received from Ransome. At about three o'clock in the morning, a man rides up on a scooter. Maria thinks it is Andreas, but it is another man, a tall Indian, who enters Alfie's room. Maria says something to the man and he steps outside. She and Alfie quickly get dressed; the Indian comes back into the room with two more Indians.
They demand to know where Ransome is, and Alfie tells them. A group of guerrillas, including Andreas, open Ransome's door. Ransome is awake; he keeps cool and tries to bargain with the men.
He says they can take Maria, and he also offers them money. He says they can take Alfie, too. Andreas has three Indians and Eduardo take a large stash of dollar bills from a trunk. He says he will take Maria as well, but he does not want Alfie. While Ransome remains politely defiant, Andreas hands his pistol to Maria. She shoots Ransome, killing him instantly. After aiming the gun at Alfie's genitals, she smiles and returns the gun to Andreas.
Alfie is relieved. Maria and Andreas leave, and Alfie plans his next move. He decides that in a few days, he will walk to San Vincente and befriend the Indians there. He is sure that someone will be interested in the information he has to offer about the guerrilla camp and about Bud and Ransome.
The Management of Grief is a very powerful tale describing how people take grief differently. After a bomb blew up a plane, there were several different reactions to the news. Some accepted the fact They feel odd, out of touch with the world in which they live, yet Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India on July 27, She received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calcutta in and a master's degree from the University of Baroda in After sending six stories to the University of Iowa, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
The Middleman and Other Stories
So I like and admire the challenge. But, Mukherjee can also be irritatingly sloppy. Small examples: for her to write, "Mr. Venkatesan was beginning to feel like a character in Anne Frank's diary," is bizarre in so many ways. And was too late for her to be using "Orientals" to describe East Asians, besides which, I hate to have to say this, but as a so-called Oriental herself she should have known better. And, far too many of the stories had female Asian characters whose primary motivation was that they wanted to have depressing sex with the wrong guys. It's all too common, but a writer who can invent an Iraqi Jew who unwittingly aids a Central American revolution should have tried a little harder.