‘The Middle Man’ by Bharati Mukherjee

‘The Middleman’ is told from the perspective of Alfie Judah, an Iraqi immigrant to the U.S. who is a “middleman” for illegal arms deals to rebel armies in an unnamed Latin American country. ‘The Middleman’ focuses on several themes common throughout Mukherjee’s fiction. Alfie is an immigrant with a tenuous U.S. citizenship who has become caught up in the shadier side of American imperialism. His lust for a drug lord’s mistress is in part an attraction to a fellow ‘alien’, although they are from two completely different cultures. Alfie is ultimately a character who survives in a multicultural setting in which he always finds himself as the “middleman” in business, political, and romantic conflicts.

Bharati Mukherjee was one of the first Indo-American writers to move away from the expected tropes of exoticising the East. There are no snake charmers or docile damsels in her narrative, instead what you find are flawed, complex characters determined to shed their past and assume a brand new American identity. The protagonists of these stories, like Alfie, are survivors. They are fleeing oppression, poverty, military coups and arranged marriages, determined to build a new life for themselves in an idealised version of America that they carry in their heads. The reality never quite matches their expectation and Mukherjee’s strength lies in the way she exposes the dark underbelly of extortion, violence, discrimination and exploitation that coexists with the shiny shopping malls and the happy-clappy Hollywood portrayal of American life. Mukherjee writes in a robust style without sentimentalizing the narrative. Her characters are not always likeable, but they are real and empowered in the choices they make. In this title story, Alfie recounts his escapades directly to the reader in the first person, and conveys the volatile excitement of the dreams ignited in him by what Mukherjee calls “the idea of America.”

First published in The Middleman and Other Stories, Little, Brown, 1990

‘Jasmine’ by Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee skewered the good immigrant trope in her short stories, long before it was even named. The eponymous Jasmine is an ambitious, stylish young Indo-Trinidadian woman who makes her way to Detroit via smugglers to work in a cheap motel run by the Daboos, a family from the island who had ‘gotten in before the rush’ and made good. On a drunken college reggae night in bougie Ann Arbor, she meets Bill and Lara, a professor and a performance artist, who hire her as a live-in housekeeper and nanny.  Jasmine finally begins to feel she is leaving Trinidad behind (‘a nothing place’), even as the couple’s affectations amuse her. Bill tells her about camping (‘Jasmine didn’t see the point of sleeping in tents, the woods sounded cold and wild and creepy’), Lara says ‘things like, “We’ve finally obliterated the margin between realspace and performancespace”’. Mukherjee’s largely exposition-free writing is initially disorienting. Like Jasmine, you’re in the midst of it all, trying to navigate these deftly depicted worlds. The ending of the story makes us fear for Jasmine but somehow also affirms her own sense of freedom, even if that freedom is to make potentially terrible choices: ‘She was a bright, pretty girl with no visa, no papers and no birth certificate. No nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell. She was a girl rushing wildly into the future’. 

Published in The Middleman and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1989