Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Is Jasmine Free?

The question Mukherjee raises about her main character and narrator, Jasmine, on the first page of her novel by the same name endures throughout the novel: essentially, is she free (in what ways and to what extent)? And it seems to me that a lot of literature, and--to be sure--a lot of women's literature, grapples with this essential question. 

"Lifetimes ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, as astrologer cupped his ears--his satellite dish to the starts--and foretold my widowhood and exile [...] 'No!' I shouted," the novel begins. The astrologer cackles, "What will happen will happen," and Jasmine whispers, "I don't believe you" (3). 

And though Jasmine (now Jyoti) says, "I was nothing," she soon retracts it: "I didn't feel I was nothing" (3, 4). We need to hang onto this Jasmine in Mukherjee's novel; it's easy to lose track of her.

Perhaps I just have Hamlet on the brain, but Jasmine, like him, questions her existence--its nature, its meaning, its significance--again and again. Also, she often references Hindu notions of reincarnation with literal and metaphorical implications. Life and death are locked in a tango. On one hand, Jasmine's existence can't matter terrifically if she's going to destroy it (or accept that it is destroyed) before remaking it: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we are so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (29).  

After we see Prakash's death in her arms and her brutal rape by Half-Face, Jasmine's seeming complacence makes more sense: "What was fated to happen would happen," she quotes the astrologer. "My mission, thank God, was nearly over" (111). Yet the self who says this will be no longer, live no more. In order to "survive," "adapt," Jasmine "rebirths" herself. Part of this transformation is seeing herself in the mirror and slicing her tongue (118). 

So have there been moments of agency, of freedom, for this young woman along the horrible way? She does feel "a buzz of power" at times, like when she faces off with the attacking dog as a girl (54). At one point, she even thinks, "Let it come. Let him pounce. I had the staff" (55). This scene is reflected again when Jasmine stabs the rapist to death through a sheet (119). 

I, for one, don't find it difficult to see or appreciate this character's extraordinary fortitude. If she has never known freedom, how does she know she wants it? Yet I think she does. 

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