Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Whole Person: Recognizing the past

Everyone has a heritage and a story. In America, with its ideals of independence, we can easily slip into seeing people as individuals without thinking about their pasts. We’ve become used to a marketplace full of commodities that arrive packaged on our shelves from factories worlds away; we purchase them without thinking about the journey that brought them to us. Likewise, our minds can slip into an innocent habit of assuming that each person who crosses our path is an individual, isolated from past time and place that have shaped him. If we see people in this way, we do not have to feel the discomfort of their shame or bear the burden of their baggage. “Ignorance is bliss,” we intone as we look past their scars and paste on a smile.
Mukherjee’s heroine experiences this response to her personal history as she interacts with some characters. She repeatedly comments on this difference between two American men she loves, saying “Bud’s not like Taylor—he’s never asked me about India; it scares him.” (12) For Bud, choosing to ignore his lover’s past is simpler than delving into her sordid history and experiencing the pains that lurk there. She explains, “Bud calls me Jane. Me Bud, you Jane…But Plain Jane is all I want to be. Plain Jane is a role, like any other. My genuine foreignness frightens him. I don’t hold it against him. It frightens me, too.” (26) Her identity as “Jane” separates her from her past lives as Jyoti, Jasmine, Jazz, and Jase. She and Bud can ignore the overwhelming aspects of her past by distancing her from all of it with a fresh identity. Others with whom Jane comes in contact show a similar aversion to her recollections of her past. Mother Ripplemeyer prefers that Jane only share stories that pertain to her life in Florida and New York, because she can relate to those in some way. Village life in India exists beyond the limits of Mother’s imagination, so Jane filters her anecdotes to portray a past that is not too disturbing for her audience (16).
As I hand out napkins to guests at the Franciscan Center, I have the choice of whether to see each person who comes through the doorway as the product of a unique set of life experiences, or simply as another face in the line. If I am tired and settle into the mundane pace of trying to serve 200-plus meals efficiently in two hours, I begin to take guest after guest at face value: yet another worn, ageless man with a cane and a slight limp, toting a tray of much-needed food. The faces blend together. I feel nothing towards them, save flashes of impatience or pity. Only when I look deeper, learning their names and imagining their daily lives, does my heart leap with compassion and even respect. Each man and woman who comes into the Franciscan Center has decades’ worth of stories, misfortunes, and experiences that have brought them to this place. I only see them once they have walked in the door, but I must not forget that they entered in from somewhere. For many of them, the streets of downtown Baltimore are an entirely different world of dangers, drug use, and nights spent on cold concrete. If I choose to ignore that, I cannot truly get to know the individuals I serve. Their lives in this other world are alien and uncomfortable to me, but they are a part of the experiences that shape these individuals. At first I thought that by ignoring their pasts, I was avoiding making assumptions or forming stereotypes about guests. While this is true, I have come to realize that by ignoring their pasts entirely, I have assumed that they have no past, which delegitimizes their experiences and their human wholeness.
Similarly, Mukherjee suggests that her character cannot simply ignore the past. Running away from her series of other identities by immersing herself in a mundane existence will not bring this woman peace and fulfillment. At the novel’s close, she chooses to leave her Iowan refuge and embrace the complex woman that years of trails have made her. “The smell of singed flesh is always with me…We have stowed away on boats like Half-Face’s, we’ve hurtled through time tunnels. We’ve seen the worst and survived.” (240) By coming to terms with this baggage, she confronts the series of identities that she has tried to suppress, finally able to “cry through all of the lives I’ve given birth to, cry for all my dead” (241). In this moment, she lets go of her isolated identity as Bud’s “Plain Jane,” the uncomplicated Midwestern American woman. Mukherjee suggests that those who have endured traumatic lives—and the people who care for them—must not ignore the past at the risk of sacrificing the wholeness of the individual.

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