Even 25 years after it was first published, the themes of this novel remain relevant: the immigrant experience of trying to assimilate into US culture and the particular experience of a young Hindu woman who chooses to defy traditional expectations and dares to remake herself. Violence, including murder, is a part not just of Jasmine’s personal story but of other women, other immigrants and other Americans she knows. Often this violence is a side effect of larger political clashes alluded to in the novel. While rather short, the story covers considerable ground: Jasmine’s life in India and the US, the partition of Pakistan, the Vietnam War, and the US farming/financial crises of the 1980s. In the end, our protagonist struggles with personal desire vs. duty, tradition vs. modernity.
From the first pages of the novel, Jasmine (born Jyoti) marks herself as a rebel.
I always felt the she-ghosts were guarding me. I didn’t feel I was nothing.
When she was seven, an astrologer made a dire prediction about her future which she refused to accept and which led to almost immediate negative consequences for her. The daughter of a traditional Hindu family forced out of Lahore during the partition, Jyoti was expected to marry young and have children, as all women in her village did. With her mother’s support, she avoided arranged marriage, pursued education and later married a man whom she loved named Prakash. Prakash renamed her Jasmine and encouraged her education and other modern notions, notions that were politically dangerous and led to Prakash’s death. Jasmine, to honor her husband, decides she will try to follow through on his dream to go to the US, although her original intent was quite traditional — to commit suicide in his honor. The horrific experience of emigrating illegally to the US, which includes more violence (rape and murder), changes Jasmine and her plans. She eventually works her way from Florida to New York, where she changes from Jasmine to Jase and becomes a nanny for a couple of academics. Jase is more adventurous than Jyoti or Jasmine, and even falls in love again, but flees to Iowa when her past rises up before her unexpectedly. In Iowa, Jase becomes Jane, pregnant and engaged to the disabled town banker Bud Ripplemeyer. Jane also becomes at the age of 24 the adoptive mother of a 14 year-old Vietnamese refugee named Du.
Throughout this novel, we see worlds collide and the ways in which those affected respond to that. People like Jasmine’s father can never accept what they have lost or learn to live happily in a new world. Jasmine encounters Indian immigrants in the US who have the same problem, and their solution is to try to recreate India in New York. Jasmine chooses to leave her “known world” but can never entirely escape it, and so the question for her is how to deal with the past and her old culture. Do you forget it, hold on to it or try to balance it? Jasmine and Du, without speaking much of it, seem to recognize this struggle in each other. Jasmine comments on the ways in which Americans “understand” her and Du’s experiences. A teacher tells Jasmine that Du is doing well at school, “considering.” Jasmine thinks,
Du’s doing well because he has always trained with live ammo, without a net, with no multiple choice. No guesswork: only certain knowledge or silence. Once upon a time, like me, he was someone else. We’ve been many selves.
In Iowa, Jasmine feels somewhat at home because she is among farmers just like in her home village, and she feels a certain kinship to Bud’s mother, who has lived through the Depression.
Mother Ripplemeyer tells me her Depression stories. In the beginning, I thought we could trade some world-class poverty stories, but mine make her uncomfortable.
The Iowa farming community is undergoing dramatic change. Family farms are going under and acts of violence are on the rise. If you lived through the ’80s, you might remember seeing stories on the news similar to those described in this novel. Jasmine cannot escape violence or her past, which rises up to meet her again in Iowa. I am caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness. Ultimately, Jasmine has to make the choice, to decide for herself how she will live her life.
I liked this novel for many reasons. Jasmine is a fascinating character, making difficult decisions on her own in frightening circumstances; she is a pioneer, a newly independent woman trying to figure out what that means on a day-to-day basis. Mukherjee presents both her immigrant characters and Americans in fair and realistic terms. While there is plenty of disturbing violence, Jasmine does meet kind and helpful people (usually women) on her journey. But even well-intentioned people cannot truly understand the experience of being an immigrant in the US. Subtle and overt racism are portrayed in ways that should be familiar to readers and might make some people uncomfortable. Given the immigration controversy we still face in the US, the hostility toward feminism, and the violence against women and minorities that continues to make the news on a daily basis, Jasmine is a relevant and provocative novel, well written and entirely engaging.