On the calendar in my office where I meet with students, I’ve circled in bright ink two important dates in January 2020: January 7, when my first novel will be published, and Jan 28, which marks the three-year anniversary of the death of my mentor, the novelist Bharati Mukherjee
I rarely saw Bharati without her small beloved dog, Faustine. Even in class, Bharati would prop the little Papillon onto the workshop table, and Faustine would bound from voice to voice like a spotlight, like an extension of her owner’s eyes and ears. If you entered the room late, you’d be greeted with a rambunctious bark. Is there a more elegant punishment for tardiness? Was there a more elegant writer than Bharati Mukherjee?
It’s an old-fashioned word, maybe. Elegant. But if you knew her, you’d know what I mean. If you’ve heard her speak in that voice of hers — an Indian British loftiness occasionally tethered by American slang, like calligraphy with hearts over the "i’s" — or if you’ve read her sentences, you know what I mean. Her novels and stories and nonfiction are full of grandly bricolage voices, the voices of immigrants, of people trapped and freed in the shifting no-man’s land between birthplace and home, between fate and choice. She invented people who covered ground
. She herself certainly had. Her life — from Indian wealth to Iowa laundromats, from anti-racist polemicist in Canada to Berkeley professor — is legendary. For fear of bludgeoning the extraordinary particulars with summary, I’ll leave her life to the biographers.
Instead I’ll say this: When we first met, I was a junior at UC Berkeley, freshly transferred from a community college, feeling displaced and uncertain of myself and desperate to become a writer. She could have rolled her eyes at my ignorance and earnestness. Instead, along with her husband, the writer Clark Blaise, she did the work of a mentor. She found a certain light that cast some hope on my terrible early attempts at fiction, and focused on that light, helped me learn the wattage and the shape of the bulb, even if I still couldn’t reach the lamp. Even if a metaphor like this one felt forced.
Was there a more elegant writer than Bharati Mukherjee?
She might not have laughed at that joke. She might’ve just looked at me, smiling and shaking her head with her chin between her finger and thumb — as she did once, in a memory seared into my heart, after I’d made a self-effacing joke during workshop — and said, “Chris, I love you.”
Will you indulge me in another memory or two? Once, after I’d failed to get into an MFA program, I was feeling doubtful and low (as though getting into grad school would be the end of that). Bharati and Clark took me and a friend (a fellow former student of theirs) to dinner. We went to a French bistro in Cole Valley with outdoor seating so that Faustine could join us. We drank wine. We talked about life, about love — Bharati’s and Clark’s two-week courtship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ’60s was as improbably splendid as any origin story in myth — and about books. Maybe I asked about the work they were planning to do next, because our server interrupted to ask if she’d heard right — were we writers? “They
are,” I would have said, pointing to the couple with the beautiful dog in their lap. But Bharati, in her effortless and elegant voice, answered before I could. “Yes,” she said. “We’re all writers here.”
Isn't that all a mentor is? Someone who makes an apprentice believe — really believe — he belongs at the table? As my mother, an immigrant herself, would say: “Simple is like that.” And yet, it’s the rarest luck in the world.
Soon Bharati was touring for what would become her final novel, Miss New India
, a gorgeous book about the global economy of the heart. She read one afternoon at a bookstore in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. To my surprise, she began the event by pointing out to the audience that a very promising young writer was seated among them. She called my name and asked me to wave. People turned my way, sure to notice my embarrassment. I wonder if they sensed, too, my gratitude. I’d been given again and again what most young writers never get once.
When I returned to that bookstore to read from my short story collection, Bharati wasn’t there — she and Clark had retired from teaching and moved to New York. From the same podium where she’d called my name five years earlier, I pointed her out to the small crowd anyway to thank her and — though I can’t imagine a dent in her elegance — to embarrass her.
In one interview, she described her characters as “people who are pulling themselves out of the very traditional world in which their fate is predetermined, their destiny resigned to the stars. Traditionally, a good person accepts this. But [my characters] say, ‘I’m going to reposition the stars.’”
In her life, in her writing, and in her teaching, who’s to say how many stars Bharati Mukherjee repositioned? More than most.
There’s a moment in a poem by Robert Hass, a former colleague of hers: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” Bharati died nearly three years ago, and now the distance has grown more endless. I reach across it — across myself, the writer and mentor I care to be — to remember her. I reach for her books. In one of them, I find her signature: “For Chris — Hey, I’m waiting for you to write the Great American Novel.”
For Bharati — Hey, I’m trying. I love you.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Desert Boys
, winner of the 2017 Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award. His essays and stories have appeared in The Atlantic
, Tin House
, and The Offing. He grew up in the Antelope Valley on the California side of the Mojave Desert, and earned his BA from the University of California, Berkeley. After teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he earned his MFA and won two Hopwood Awards, he’s now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His second book and debut novel, The Gimmicks
, is out now.