Disillusionment, reality, hope and control in The Middleman

When I read Bharati Mukherji’s The Middleman and Other stories, I could relate with the varied experiences her characters are faced with. She is a second generation Indian-American writer. And by that I mean, her family is from India and that she is not a native American. Its a very common misunderstanding of the term, “Indian-American”, it seems. Why I got interested in writing about those experiences of the fictional, yet supposedly real life characters of Mukherjee, is because of the very fact that the book is brimmed up with extreme realistic encounters of these characters with the world they lived in. I published this article in a journal but I still wanted to keep all of my writings in one dedicated place, and at the same time, share them with everyone out there. My blog seemed to be the best option. So, here we go…

In The Middleman Bharati Mukherjee presents an intriguing discourse of the ideas of disillusionment, displacement and merciless realism, on one hand, and acceptability, hope and control, on the other, in a world that is engaged in an amalgamation of various cultures and ethnicity. The people of her stories thrive between complete disillusionment and hope and thereafter create meaning that they are still able to procure from the confusion and instability around. Through personal encounters of the characters, Mukherjee depicts numerous stories that present ambiguity, as well as, purpose for the people who come to America in search of possibilities. However, in this kind of a world where there is paucity of clear meaning, the ones that survive have to be moulded into multiple worlds at the same time. In The Middleman, the protagonist, Alfie Judah, is suggestively, a “Middleman” who survives the alarums and excursions of an unstable world such as depicted, with the audacity to be a part of the vices and virtues equally well, without carrying the guilt of it.

The Middleman is the representative of a compulsive survivor who is equipped with the only instrument of survival in a world that is constantly engaged in destruction of expectations and aspirations. And that instrument is his diligence in maintaining a “balance” between experiences of displacements accompanied by a strong desire of holding on to traditions, and, at the same time, moulding into new cultures – of drastic paralyzing realism, as well as, an act of buying hope and control of one’s own life. Alfie describes his experiences of this chaos as, “There are only two seasons in this country, the dusty and the wet. I already know the dusty and I’ll get to know the wet” (3), as if there is no hope, and yet he further states, “I’ll learn the ropes” (3), in an almost Darwinian overtone, indicating to the almost certain possibilities lurking underneath. He demonstrates, not only the desire to survive, but also carries the insight of keeping the American dream alive, even though through the vices of criminality and deceit. In spite of the fact that things go swirling into the dark, yet there is no complete disillusionment for him and for other people like him. There seems to persist a compulsive sense of control and hope. It is as if even though one is subjected to the most pressing demands of the chaotic world one lives in, yet one is still able to find meaning and purpose. The American dream here is shadowed, but yet it still functions under these shadows.  

Mukherjee presents hope in the direst situations and also suggests a methodology that could work in a world like this. And that is to stay in the “middle” as Alfie does, and constantly strike a balance between the different worlds. Between the worlds in discussion, the acquired and the cultural, she negates nothing. And finally, it seems that hope, acceptance of the newness and awareness of the mechanisms of control is all that matters at the end. Alfie, Mukherjee’s victorious hero, seems to be carrying the characteristic features of a person who champions the ways of thriving perfectly well in the face of discord and chaos. He is seen thinking at the end of the story, “In the next few days when I run out of food, I will walk down the muddy road to San Vincette, to German bar with the pay phone: I’ll wear Clovis’s brave cap and I’ll salute the Indians. “Turtle eggs,” I’ll say. “Number One,” they’ll answer back.” (21). He is seen finally giving a piece of the writer’s philosophical mind, when he thinks, “There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen” (21). This thought particularly aims at suggesting that hope remains even in the most disarming situations, even at someone’s death – an existential mechanism bearing an almost optimistic view of life – a perfectly demonstrated balance between disillusionment and hope, displacement and acceptance, and, futility and meaning.

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