Wednesday, April 1, 2009

False Identities

In the novel, Mukherjee’s heroine (I will refer to her as Jase) is forced to grapple with a frequent change in place and the frustration of living under with the identities and title that others have imposed on her. Each of her new “identities”, signaled by name changes, represent another leg of a journey in which she ultimately finds herself. Jase is constantly forced to deal with new places, new people, new social orders and even new relationships to her past and homelands with every new persona she adopts. In most cases, the various roles that Jase assume are imposed on her from some force outside of herself; she seems to be merely playing the parts that others have assigned her. As Jyoti, her life is dominated by her position as a woman in a traditional Indian village. Her brothers, husband and her own ambitions help her to escape the gender-based suppression of Hasnapur, but she has become habituated to her role as an inferior and she struggles with that mentality throughout the novel. Prakash tries to create an independent, passionate woman out of this “village girl” by imposing the identity of Jasmine on his wife. Jase describes his attempt at giving her a new identity saying, “He wanted to break down the Jyoti I’d been in Hansnapur and make me a new kind of city woman” (77). Later, after her horrifying first experiences in America, Jasmine takes on the role of Jase, a domestic in the Hayes household. Her identity as Jase begins as an attempt to be the person that Taylor and Wylie expect her to be –“I wanted to become the person they thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate” –but of all of the identities created for her, this is the only one that she is given the freedom, leisure, and means to develop for herself. I believe that Jase’s time with Taylor is when she is able to begin finding her true self. She even wishes that her “job as Duff’s ‘day mummy’ would last forever” (177). Her identity as Jane, imposed on her by Bud’s expectations, is not as easier for her to live up to as it requires her to be generally exotic without being “attached in occult ways to an experience he [Bud] can’t fathom” (231). Her life as Jane means a silencing of her past, and her only release from the loneliness that she feels as Jane Ripplemeyer, until the end of the novel, is her relationship with Du and the freedom of reminiscence that she gets from her non-linear narration in the novel.
Ultimately Jase chooses her true identity for herself. After a lifetime of being people other than herself (Jyoti, Jasmine, Jane) Jase decides to leave Bud, Iowa, and the last of her false identities to live with Taylor and Duff. Through this decision she is liberated from the cycle of imposed identity that she has struggled with and is finally able to escape the hold that fate and superstition has had on her throughout the novel. Jase explains her decision to leave with Taylor as a relief saying, “I have already stopped thinking of myself as Jane…Watch me re-position the stars, I whisper to the astrologer who floats cross-legged above my kitchen stove” (240).
Jase’s journey through her very different identities reminds me of one of my sister’s friends from home and her struggle with changing her name. My sister’s friend Yulia was adopted a few years ago at the age of 14 from an orphanage in Eastern Europe. Her new parents are an older Methodist couple who live a mile or two down the road from my house on a small farm. Obviously both Yulia and her parents had some cultural adapting to do. Yulia quickly learned however that the couple was generally unwilling to adapt or embrace her culture. Yulia, a practicing Catholic was expected to attend their Evangelical Methodist Church every week, and to enthusiastically participate in all church activities. Only since she’s started driving has Yulia been able to attend Catholic masses, and only in addition to her continuing participation in her parent’s Methodist community. Even more shocking though was that Yulia’s parents were adamant about changing her name, first and middle, to Julie Marie. They literally told their teenaged adopted daughter that her name was ugly and that it needed to be “Americanized.” Yulia protested for obvious reasons, and though there hasn’t been any legal name change, Yulia’s parents insist to this day on calling her Julie. The couple tells her that she should be grateful that God sent her to them and adapt to the change. Yulia has expressed to my sister how ashamed she feels that her parents won’t call her by her real name even in front of her friends. She has given suppressed much of her identity and heritage in coming to America and doesn’t understand why they would want her to give up her own name. It is something she has been struggling with for the past four years. But she has not become the person her parents want her to be. She always affirms that she is not and never will be Julie. She chooses to embrace her past, and her identity instead of the one that her parents have tried to impose on her.
Despite the pain caused by her parent’s attitude, Yulia feels empowered by her choice to remain true to the life she had before coming to America. Through her journey with her new parents she has come to embrace and love herself and refuses to compromise her integrity by changing into the Americanized version of herself that her parents demand. Similarly Jase is empowered in her final choice to leave her false identities behind and reject the power that fate and superstition have over her by leaving Iowa with Taylor. For the first time in the novel she takes charge of her own life.

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