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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews Bharati Mukherjee

[Note: It has come to NOW's attention that an editing error in our interview with Ms. Mukherjee has resulted in some misunderstanding and confusion. A statement edited inaccurately in NOW's interview with Ms. Mukherjee implies that she believes that Sikhs were involved in fundraising activities in support of the terrorism activities of 9/11. This statement is not only untrue, but it is not one that Ms. Mukherjee made or meant to suggest. NOW regrets this error and has corrected it in the transcript below.]

MOYERS: You and your husband spent over a year investigating that tragedy, and produced this book: THE SORROW AND THE TERROR: THE HAUNTING LEGACY OF AIR INDIA TRAGEDY. I think of you, of course, as the novelist you are. And I've read some of your essays. I don't think of you, or Clark, your husband, as a investigative journalist. Why did you spend so much time on this?

MUKHERJEE: I had no idea that the book would turn out to be a detective book about who actually financed the bombing, and who were members of the five-member terrorist cell that actually pulled it off?

But it was meant to be simply about the bereaved.

MOYERS: The victims were mostly women, weren't they? I mean, you interviewed a lot of the widowers, and the survivors?

MUKHERJEE: The widowers. Yes. This was the first plane that left for India after school closings for the summer. So, the plane was packed with women and children. The good immigrants, the good Canadians, who wanted to keep up relationship with their grandparents back in India, who wanted to, you know, take dance lessons with special teachers in Indian cities.

And I might have been on that plane if I had not moved to the U.S. in 1980. I would very definitely have been on that plane. And a good friend of mine, a woman that I'd gone to college with in Calcutta, died on that plane. So, it was a very personal kind of grief for me.

MOYERS: Who were these terrorists?

MUKHERJEE: These were people of Sikh religion, who used militant tactics, terrorist tactics, in order to establish in Punjab, the state of Punjab in India, religious theocratic state for the pure Sikhs, the re-baptized Sikhs. They didn't want anyone who was impure even within their religion. And they were very, very anti-Hindu, and anti-everyone else. They were called Khalistanis, called themselves Khalistanis. And they were able to, in temples, Gurdwaras — or later on with 9/11, I realized, [Muslim terrorists] in mosques — do fundraising at an enormous scale. Terrifying scale.

MOYERS: It's uncanny how you wrote, even then, in the mid-1980's of airport security failures. Of political extremists, plotting under the guise of religion. I mean, this should have been a wake-up call for us.

MUKHERJEE: This should have been. But I think that the white establishment, at that time, in the late 80's in Canada, after this happened in 1985, and throughout the 90's in the United States, always assumed, quite wrongly, that these dark peoples with their homeland feuds will maybe raise funds here, but will take their terrorist activities back to their own countries and get their enemies back in their own countries.

It never occurred to them that maybe every American, every Canadian, could also be caught up in these conspiracies.

MOYERS: You and your husband, Clark Blaise, burrowed yourself into this world that created this act of terrorism. And you were threatened, weren't you? Several times? Didn't you receive death threats?

MUKHERJEE: Yes. We were denounced from the Sikh temples in big cities in North America, and put under death threat. And I really thought for at least two years that I was going to die a violent death at the hands of these cells.

MOYERS: These were sleeper cells in Canada?

MUKHERJEE: Yes. We didn't even know the phrase…


MUKHERJEE: …sleeper cells in those days. And actually, they had been in places like New York and New Jersey, and California, too. But…

MOYERS: Sikh cells?

MUKHERJEE: Yes. Doing THE SORROW AND THE TERROR I discovered very rich ophthalmologists, for example, in American cities who would say, "Six days of the week, I give to the U.S. government, and I earn a lot of money, and I pay my taxes if I have to. But one day a week I give to Khalistan." We tracked the money and we zeroed in on the man who financed the bombing. And after, it's taken 15 years for that man to have been detained in a Canadian, a Vancouver jail. And I don't know when the lawsuit will actually be heard in court.

MOYERS: What did you learn about the mentality of the terrorist?

MUKHERJEE: Most importantly, I think it was about the fear of the religion in Diaspora. Modernization is what the group of terrorists and fundamentalists, religious fundamentalists, were afraid of.

They were afraid that girls, Canadian Sikhs, American Sikhs girls in tight sweaters and boys in fast cars, would somehow not follow the rules that the religion had set, or the society, religious society had set. And that therefore, the religious leaders would lose control.

MOYERS: That is… seems to be such a parallel between what we've learned about the terrorists who… the Muslim terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center, attacked the Pentagon, that it was the modernizing of their religion that they most despised the United States for encouraging.

MUKHERJEE: Right. I mean, I sat there in 9/11 watching the two planes hit… the second plane hit the World Trade Center buildings, and I said, "My goodness, this is on a mega-scale, a replication of what we had witnessed, experienced, discovered in the June 1985 terrorist bombing of Air India jet."

And it seems to me, though, that a lot of people don't understand that we have a very different kind of enemy with the fundamentalists than we did during the Cold War. That when the U.S. or the West was fighting the Soviet Union and it's buffer states, satellite states. They were talking the same kind of language.

And that the culture of battle between opposition, battle between the West and the Soviet was on a very different plane than what we have with the Islamic fundamentalists, where in addition to this being a great marketing opportunity for the Islamic bosses, the people who believe in Jihad. It's a wholly different language.

MOYERS: But you take for granted, don't you, because of your previous work, the presence of continuing sleeper cells in America?

MUKHERJEE: Oh, absolutely, and I think that these sleeper cells are going to proliferate in number and that the hatred, unexamined hatred against Americans and America is going to increase a hundred-fold.

MOYERS: What does all this do to the new immigrant experience?

MUKHERJEE: It certainly makes it much harder for my students from Muslim countries at Berkeley for example to feel as though they belong. This is a tilt time in our culture. And it's, you know…

MOYERS: A tilt time?

MUKHERJEE: Well, that we don't know what the rules are anymore. We don't know what is ahead of us. There's no pattern, no tradition that we can fall back comfortably on or to comfort us, that we can seize to comfort us. And so as we are improvising rules on how to behave…

MOYERS: Improvising is the immigrant's art of course. It's the means of survival. You have shown that both in your real life and in the characters of your many novels.

MUKHERJEE: I have tried very hard as a novelist to say, "Novels are about individuals and especially larger than life individuals." My protagonists are very feisty characters. And, you know, that there is no one unified story about the immigrant experience or the immigrant passage and what I hope I've done in DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS is show how fractured the responses to that whole odyssey of moving, pulling up your roots from your original country and re-rooting yourself in an adopted country is.

MOYERS: You have dealt so often with that theme of the divided soul. I guess you could only do that if you had the claims of two cultures resting on your imagination.

MUKHERJEE: Yes. You don't know how much of the old world thought patterns to get rid of or to allow to whither away, and how much of the 21st century in the United States with all its frenzy disruptions to adopt. And like myself, my characters are always in between. They are trying to balance the two and sometimes the scales tilt one way, sometimes another. But if I were finding an absolute fixed balance, I think I would be a less interesting person and a more tiresome writer. It's that constant disruption, not knowing what I want, where I belong, that feeds my energy.

MOYERS: Why did you call your book DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS?

MUKHERJEE: Because in Hindu societies, especially overprotected patriarchal families like mine, daughters are not at all desirable. They are trouble. And a mother who, as mine did, has three daughters, no sons, is supposed to go and hang herself, kill herself, because it is such an unlucky kind of motherhood to have.

And I wanted then to play in also the sexy looks of the three sisters in the book. That sex itself is the form of tool for revolution that enables these three sisters in the novel to break out and make their own lives. Some of them decide finally not to break out, and they come back to the fold. But my protagonist, whom I am very fond of, you know…


MUKHERJEE: Tara…has an arranged marriage. And her husband becomes the sort of Bill Gates of the Indian community in Silicon Valley, makes a lot of money. But she decides, this is not the lifestyle in a gated community, affluent, but fixed, that I want.

And so, she lights out on her own, divorces this poor man in a headstrong fashion, and she goes into the Upper Haight area of San Francisco where I live. She moves into my apartment, and she takes on a lover, live in lover, who is a Hungarian-American, ex-biker, ex-hippie, and current Buddhist Zen retrofitter, taking care of retrofitting earthquake-prone houses in San Francisco. And…

MOYERS: Love was always the first product of globalization, right?


MOYERS: But she says, Tara says, talks about, "The most refined radar system in the world, the Hindu virgin protection." Tell me about that.

MUKHERJEE: I had never walked on the street alone when I was growing up in Calcutta, up to age 20. I had never handled money. You know, there was always a couple of bodyguards behind me, who took care if I wanted… I needed pencils for school, I needed a notebook, they were the ones who were taking out the money. I was constantly guarded.

And I'd never been in a room with a male not related to me prior to coming to the coeducational classroom in Iowa City. It was that kind of, even a lustful look would not only dishonor me, but would also dishonor my father.

MOYERS: You would have felt right at home in the Baptist culture in Texas in the 1940's and 50's.

MUKHERJEE: All right.

MOYERS: What was it that enabled you, a very young woman, to say to your patriarchical father that you were not going to take his blueprint for your life? You were not going to come back from writer's school in Iowa and marry the man that he had chosen for you.

That you were going to take your own future by the nape of its neck and make it for yourself.

MUKHERJEE: In some ways, it was hormones. I feel in love with a guy and because he had blue eyes and he was a nice guy. And I hadn't seen blue eyes before that. And I was lucky. Someone up there protects me.

And I've always thought that there are no accidents in life, and that all coincidence is convergence. And so, somehow my desire, unacknowledged desire to be a permanent member of the new world where I was having to make the rules up as I went along coincided with my falling in love with someone so totally outside the Brahmanic pale of civilization…

MOYERS: The caste system of India.

MUKHERJEE: Totally the caste system of India.

MOYERS: All coincidence is convergence? I mean, that sounds very Presbyterian.

MUKHERJEE: It's Presbyterian, plus it's also the fractal theory in mathematics. And that every little curve in a bay, let's say little inlets, the shorelines, every little dip and jut is somehow planned because of other forces.

And the whole, I really am very moved, though I'm coming at it out of the Hindu traditions. I'm very moved by chaos theory, and that sense of energy. That quantum physics. We don't really, in Hindu tradition, have a father figure of a God. It's about cosmic energy, a little spark of which is inside every individual as the soul.

MOYERS: A Universe charged with deity.

MUKHERJEE: Yes. Or charged with deity. And if you didn't want the deity, then a Universe charged with energy. And that constantly builds, maintains itself for a while, and then disintegrates, and then starts all over again.

But because most of us can't deal with visualizing energy, the, I guess scholars, or priests, down over the centuries had created a whole soap opera of gods with all their soap opera of domestic squabbles, and attentions.

MOYERS: And you have in the fly leaf of your book this Sanskrit verse. Read that for me.

MUKHERJEE: "No one behind, no one ahead. The path the ancients cleared has closed. And the other path, everyone's path, easy and wide, goes nowhere. I am alone, and find my way." This was a very important verse, Sanskrit verse that I'd discovered by way of Octavio Paz, being translated by an American translator and literary critic, Elliot Weinberger.

And the book of Octavio Paz poems, in which this occurs, was given to me by a Bolivian graduate student at the University of California Berkeley. That, to me, is globalization.

MOYERS: It is.

MUKHERJEE: You know, how I say I have inherited the whole world's legacies. I'm gonna claim all that inheritance from everywhere in the world.

MOYERS: The book is DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS. Thank you very much for joining us Bharati Mukharjee.

MUKHERJEE: Thank you, Bill.