Immigrant Narratives: Divergent Paths of Identity and Belonging


Bharati Mukherjee, a renowned Indian-American author born in Calcutta in 1940, embarked on a transformative journey to the United States in 1961. Armed with an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in literature, Mukherjee crafted a literary legacy that explored the complexities of immigrant experiences in America. Notable works include "Tiger's Daughter" (1972) and "Jasmine" (1989), along with the short story collection "The Middleman and Other Stories" (1988). Currently, she imparts her wisdom in literature and fiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mukherjee's poignant essay, "Two Ways to Belong in America," originally published in the New York Times, delves into the narrative of two sisters, Mira and Bharati, reflecting the broader challenges faced by immigrants amid a congressional debate over their status.


Mira's Rooted Identity and Unwavering Allegiance

Mira, who arrived in Detroit in 1960 to pursue child psychology and pre-school education, represents the embodiment of a steadfast immigrant identity. Unlike her sister Bharati, Mira chose to marry an Indian student, securing a green card for hassle-free residence and employment.

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Over 36 years, Mira has become a nationally recognized figure in pre-school education, maintaining a passionate attachment to her Indian citizenship. Despite the changing dynamics of immigration policies, Mira adamantly resists the idea of relinquishing her original identity, envisioning a return to India upon retirement. Her story encapsulates the resilience and commitment of immigrants who build their lives on the foundation of their ancestral culture.

Bharati's Journey of Self-Invention and Cultural Hybridity

Conversely, Bharati, who joined Mira in the United States a year later, embarked on a different trajectory.

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In Iowa City in 1963, she married an American of Canadian parentage, bypassing traditional labor-certification requirements. This decision marked a departure from the centuries-old caste-observant marriage traditions of the Mukherjee family. Bharati's books have been celebrated for their unabashed embrace of cultural and psychological "mongrelization," reflecting her choice to transcend the confines of a predetermined identity. Her willingness to navigate various cultural landscapes, from blue jeans to diverse geographical locations, challenges the notion of a fixed, unchanging self.

Sibling Dynamics Amidst Changing Immigration Policies

The dynamics between Mira and Bharati, initially characterized by unspoken tensions, have evolved in response to the shifting landscape of immigration policies. As legal immigrants like Mira face increased scrutiny and potential loss of benefits, the sisters find themselves united in their struggle. Mira's frustration with the changing rules reflects a sense of betrayal after investing over three decades in contributing to the American preschool system. The looming threat of altered immigration laws prompts the sisters to question their roles and positions in a society that once welcomed them.

Impact of Immigration Policies on Personal Lives

Examining the broader implications of evolving immigration policies, it becomes evident that Mira and Bharati's narratives mirror the challenges faced by countless immigrants in the United States. The increasing scapegoating of "aliens," whether documented or illegal, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Legal immigrants like Mira, who have dedicated their lives to contributing to American society, now find themselves grappling with the possibility of diminished rights and protections. The emotional strain, described by Mira as feeling "used" and "manipulated," resonates with the broader immigrant community facing unexpected challenges.

The sisterly bond between Mira and Bharati, once characterized by unspoken disagreements, now serves as a microcosm of the broader immigrant experience. As the debate over the ethics of retaining overseas citizenship while enjoying the benefits of residing in America intensifies, the sisters navigate their roles not just as individuals but as representatives of a diverse immigrant population. The dichotomy between Mira's steadfast attachment to her homeland and Bharati's embrace of fluidity and self-invention encapsulates the multifaceted nature of the immigrant experience.

Challenges of Dual Identity and the Concept of Home

Within the framework of Mukherjee's narrative, the concept of home emerges as a central theme. Mira's unwavering commitment to her Indian citizenship raises questions about the nature of belonging and the emotional ties that bind individuals to their countries of origin. The notion of "home" transcends physical borders and legal definitions for Mira, representing a deep-seated connection to cultural roots and heritage. In contrast, Bharati's willingness to adapt and embrace cultural hybridity challenges conventional notions of a singular, fixed home. The sisters' divergent perspectives on home mirror the broader discourse on identity and belonging among immigrants in America.

Impact on Family Dynamics and Cultural Understanding

Expanding the exploration of immigrant experiences, Mukherjee's narrative sheds light on the impact of divergent paths on family dynamics. Mira and Bharati, once almost identical in appearance and attitude, now find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over immigrant status. The friction between Mira's rootedness and Bharati's fluidity extends beyond personal choices, affecting the familial fabric. The clash of perspectives reveals the nuanced complexities of maintaining cultural ties while adapting to a new environment. Mukherjee's portrayal challenges preconceived notions about the unity of immigrant families, exposing the intricate negotiations required to navigate dual identities within familial relationships.

Role of Legislation in Shaping Immigrant Experiences

The evolving legislative landscape, as witnessed through Mira and Bharati's experiences, plays a pivotal role in shaping immigrant narratives. Mukherjee's narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a movement in Congress to curtail government benefits for resident aliens. Mira's frustration with the changing rules reflects the broader implications of legislative decisions on the lives of long-term legal immigrants. The essay prompts a critical examination of the ethical dimensions surrounding legislation that impacts the livelihoods and identities of individuals who have contributed significantly to the fabric of American society.


In conclusion, Bharati Mukherjee's essay, "Two Ways to Belong in America," serves as a profound exploration of the divergent paths taken by two sisters navigating the intricacies of immigration. Mira's rooted identity and unwavering allegiance to her Indian heritage stand in stark contrast to Bharati's journey of self-invention and cultural hybridity. The evolving dynamics between the sisters mirror the broader challenges faced by immigrants in America, particularly in the face of changing immigration policies. Mukherjee's narrative offers a nuanced reflection on the complexities of identity, belonging, and the enduring impact of immigration on the lives of those who choose to call America home.

Updated: Dec 15, 2023
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Immigrant Narratives: Divergent Paths of Identity and Belonging. (2016, Jul 26). Retrieved from

Immigrant Narratives: Divergent Paths of Identity and Belonging essay
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