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  • Written by Bharati Mukherjee
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  • Written by Bharati Mukherjee
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Written by Bharati MukherjeeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bharati Mukherjee

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On Sale: April 27, 2011
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79229-7
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

"A very fine writer, funny, intelligent, versatile and, on occasion, unexpectedly profound."
--The Washington Post Book World

"MUKHERJEE IS FEARLESS . . . DARING AND WITTY . . . Take the wild ride with Debby DiMartino from Albany to San Francisco, from lost child to masked avenger."
--The Boston Globe

"POWERFULLY WRITTEN . . . Debby has no memory of her birth parents. All she knows is that she was born in a remote Indian village, the daughter of a hippie back-packing mother and a mysterious Eurasian father, both of whom have disappeared almost without a trace. . . . Her quest for her biological parents turns into an obsession. . . . Leave It to Me . . . shows Mukherjee at the peak of her craft. . . . Mixing the Greek myth of Electra with the Indian myth of Devi, she sends Devi/Debby careening down on the Bay Area like an elemental force of vengeance."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"DEVI IS A BRILLIANT CREATION--hilarious, horribly knowing and even more horribly oblivious--through whom Bharati Mukherjee, with characteristic and shameless ingenuity, is laying claim to speak for an America that isn't 'other' at all."
--The New York Times Book Review

"STUNNING . . . An astute, ironic, and merciless insight into an aberrant version of the American dream."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Excerpt

In Devigaon, a village a full day's bus ride into desert country west of Delhi, old Hari tells of times before the "long ago" of fairy tale, when celestials battled demons and the Cosmic Spirit revealed itself in surprising forms to devotees. The story that children beg him to repeat at twilight--that smoky quarter hour most full of menace--is of Devi, the eight-armed, flame-bright, lion-riding dispenser of Divine Justice. They know that the Cosmic Spirit (assuming the appearance of gods) continually makes, unmakes and remakes the world they live in. They know that it also created goddess Devi and endowed her with the will to save and the strength to kill, and that it, charged her with the mission of slaying the Buffalo Demon who had usurped the throne in the kingdom of heavenly beings.

And in this village, named after the serene slaughterer of a demon king, the children already know the story's ending. Before twilight blackens, Devi will blow the conchshell call, and brandish in her many arms a lasso, a trident, a fire-tipped spear, a demon-splitting disc, a bow and arrows, a death-dealing staff, a thunder-sparking axe, a pitcher of water and a necklace of blessed beads, and will lead her soldiers on lionback. The Buffalo Demon, inheritor of the brute strength and physical appearance of his buffalo mother and the deceit and rage of his demon father, cunning, and magical powers, will vanquish her men. Some of Devi's soldiers the Buffalo Demon will gore to death; others he will stomp, still more fell with the tempest blasts of his panting breath, and lacerate with the whip-crack of his tail. Then he'll let loose the full ferocity of his bestial hate on the Earth itself. With his hooves, the Buffalo Demon will scour canyon-deep trenches; with his horns, he will shred the sky and scoop out mounds of soil as high as mountains; with his tail, he will churn the calm waves of the ocean into fatal hurricanes. And just as he is about to declare himself destroyer of gods and goddesses, Devi will muster the full powers of vengeance. She will fling her lasso around the demon neck, pierce, strike and slash the demon flesh, pin that demon bulk to the ground with her foot and cut off the usurper's buffalo-head.

While the children, comforted by story, curl into sleep on their bed-pallets, the Cosmic Spirit will smile on its daughter-goddess, then go back to creating, preserving, breaking and re-creating the cosmos as always.

And Devi? The Earth Mother and Warrior Goddess wipes demon blood off weapons and puts them away for the next time they are needed.



Part One

I can almost touch the diamond-hard light of stars and the silky slipperiness of leaves, almost taste smoke softer than clouds and sweeter than memory, almost feel God's breath burn off my sins.

What have I done but what my mothers did? The one who gave me birth, and the one I am just beginning to claim. Like them, I took a god of a special time and place as my guide.

My mothers, luminous as dewdrops in downlight, weightless as the wings of a newborn dragonfly, float towards me from the place where I was born. I have no clear memory of my birthplace, only of the whiteness of its sun, the harshness of its hills, the raspy moan of its desert winds, the desperate suddenness of its twilight: these I see like the pattern of veins on the insides of my eyelids.

I tell myself I must have been left unattended in the sun. Maybe the sand-yellow sun was low in the morning sky and whichever Gray Sister was charged with caring for me had been detained in the fields as the sun mounted. I don't want to believe it was an overcrowded orphanage's scheme to rid itself of a bastard half American. One murder attempt is enough. Some days while shoveling snow off the stoop in Schenectady, I have smelled heady hibiscus-scented breezes; I have felt tropical heat and humidity.

Tonight, in the cabin of this houseboat off Sausalito as curtains of flame dance in the distance and a million flash-bulbs burn and fizzle, and I sit with the head of a lover on my lap, the ferrous taste of fear invades me as though my whole body were tongue.

For all official purposes, like social security cards and unemployment benefits, I am, or was, Debby DiMartino, a fun-loving twenty-three-year-old American girl. I was adopted into a decent Italian-American family in the Hudson Valley. That's the upside of adoption. And believe me, I've approached this situation, my situation, from every angle. The downside is knowing that the other two I owe my short life to were lousy people who'd considered me lousier still and who'd left me to be sniffed at by wild dogs, like a carcass in the mangy shade.

The upside and the downside of being recyclable trash don't quite balance. Debby DiMartino is a lie. Whoever my parents intended for me to be never existed. That unclaimable part of myself is what intrigues me, the part that came to life in a desert village and had the name Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter until it was christened in a Catholic orphanage. That's the part I want to remember. But there's another part I try to keep secret, the part that sings to moons and dances with stars. With everything I've done, I've tried to find a balance. It's just that Debby DiMartino has no weight, no substance. I had to toss her out.

Cherchez le garcon. There was a boy, back when I was a stubby little thirteen-year-old. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Syracuse. I had no way of knowing there'd be a growth spurt--I was adopted--I only had my sister Angie to go by, which meant I had nothing to look forward to but getting fat and a puberty that would be a settling down, and out, and not a shooting up.

Wyatt was a lanky, crinkly-blond longhair (he had the first male ponytail I'd ever seen) getting a master's in social work, and I was his project. He had that low, slow, soft voice that just cries out sex, sex, sex! and deep brown eyes that bathed you with attention without ever blinking. The voice, the eyes, they burned at a very low flame, they never flared, but they consumed me just the same. He also had my police file, and he had the power if he ever wanted to use it to fuck up my future, all of which made our relationship an exciting kind of power trip.

Celia Montoya and I used to hang out at the mall, and one day (actually, many days) the temptation got too much and we "liberated" a little candy, some tapes, some perfume and panties--no problem--then we pushed our luck at Radio Shack since nothing was cooler that year than a portable phone. I should have figured out Radio Shack of all places would have some kind of electronic alarm. And the total value of the loot was over a hundred dollars, which automatically sent us to court and gave us a police record, and some sort of correction.

Pappy had connections in court and with the police. Celia had connections, too, but all the wrong kind, and site was out of school and in a facility for girls two days after her appeal. I never saw her again. Me, I got Wyatt, and a chance to erase my record. The penalty was I would do some service, I would read some books and write something about them, I'd stay in school and improve my grades, and I'd talk my problems out in a circle of troubled girls, as we were called, led by Wyatt. I got to stay in school and no one knew about the Circle, or Wyatt.

Celia would never have made it, she would have laughed in his face, or she would have stared at the floor. A couple of other girls couldn't take it either and said Wyatt's voice drove them to drugs and housebreaking. Wyatt was the first to ask me about adoption, what I knew, what I remembered. He put a lot of stress on it, and I know it would have upset Pappy if he'd known that rehabilitation meant bringing up feelings I didn't know I had.

"I've been reading your file, Debby," Wyatt'd say, once we were out of the Circle. "How did the DiMartinos come to adopt you?"

I'd never asked, and they'd never told. Lawyers, they always said, but it had to have started with the Church, all those little pledge envelopes for missions in Asia that Mama still fills out. I knew only that they'd found me in an orphanage run by Gray Nuns.

"You're not even interested?"

"I always figured it was fate."

"Schenectady was fate?"

Wyatt took me out to the animal shelter. It was where he'd worked on weekends and high school summers. It was the place that had formed his philosophy of life. It was the only place where the Ultimates sat side by side. "Love and Death," he said. "Kindness and Killing." He thought he could be the catcher in the pound; everything depended on his keeping his orphans clean enough, making them just a little more appealing, giving them cutesy names like Barbra, walking them and running them in the park. My family always called the animal shelter the pound, and I thought of it, if I thought of it at all, as an alternate lodging between loving homes. You don't usually visualize the dog pound as the palace of love. No one ever told me they gassed puppies and kitties.



"Cuteness is all that counts," Wyatt said. "You have a bad day, you wake up with a dry nose, with dull eyes, you take a nap, you scratch your fleas--it's your life."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying you've got a chance, don't blow it. You might never have made it out of that orphanage. Someone must have seen something."

And what could they have seen in a baby girl whose unnamed mother identified herself as Clear Water Iris-Daughter, and whose father, also unnamed, was called Asian National in the adoption papers? The nuns weren't interested in my origins, they didn't care about filling in the gaps of my life; they were into good works. It was the mid-seventies and I was just a garbage sack thrown out on the hippie trail.

There's no passion in the world like that of a thirteen-year-old girl; she'll do anything for love, or what seems like love. She'll interpret anything as a little sign, she'll believe anything he says, she'll do anything to prove herself worthy of his notice. And then the time will come when site begins to feel her own power. I was only thirteen, but I was a knowing thirteen when I didn't want to hide it, and mellow-voiced Wyatt was the first man I showed it to.

Our little Circle meetings grew shorter and shorter, our trips in the country longer and longer. There were motels in the afternoon, flowery pastures, canoe trips. I could ruin him if I wanted, and he knew it. He shared his stash (which I knew he had), and before long he was praising my orphan's maturity, the integrity of shoplifting in a consumer society and of course saying that I was older than my age (at least three years for his sake, I hoped).

Wyatt signed off on my parole, then dropped out of grad school. I had been a bad influence on him, he said. He decided to go to California and work for the Sierra Club or become a nature photographer. Human emotions were too difficult. But he left me with the most important prediction of my life, something that got me through high school and college, and even helps today. I was just a small, dark thing, and he said, "You know, Debby, I can tell you're going to be tall and beautiful very soon, and someday you're going to be rich and powerful." He thought he had everything to do with it.

After Wyatt left, I convinced myself that I was lucky to be all orphan. Front the families I'd been given, I'd scavenge the traits I needed and dump the rest. If a person is given lives to live instead of just one life (Mama's favorite soap), especially lives she hasn't even touched, she'll be far better off for it. Once in a junior high English class, on assignment, when the other girls were composing little rhymed Hallmark verses about love, I raged in rhyming couplets against whole peoples who brawled inside me. The poem shocked me. It throbbed with pains I had no right to feel. That was the first time I'd really cut loose.

Mr. Bullock said, "Debby, that's deep," and he forced me to read the poem out loud in class. And the kids said, "Jeezus, it could be, like, a song, Debby!," which was their highest compliment. Then Mr. Bullock asked, "Have you read Sylvia Plath, Debby?" and I said I didn't know any of the senior high girls, and he laughed. "Then you're a natural poetic talent, Debby," which sounded to me as thrilling as a new zit on the nose. He invited me to join all after-school geek club. I attended twice, but its members were weird and I could feel how easy it would be to weird out too.

Until that poem, I'd been Debby DiMartino, second daughter of Manfred and Serena DiMartino, hardworking, religious parents. In junior high, I'd looked enough like my sister Angie to pass for a real DiMartino, and I expected to ripen and coarsen early, like Mama and like Angie. But I didn't thicken like Angie did, and by my senior year, I was the tallest one in the family, including Pappy. I stayed thin, clear-skinned, dark-haired, amazed at the assertiveness of my body. The gym teacher encouraged me to think volleyball scholarships, and Angie nagged at me to try out mail-order-catalog modeling. My senior portrait was just the kind of thing that you find in People magazine at the Price Chopper, one of those bad-hair, ugly-duckling pictures of some high school cheerleader gone bad or murdered or of some eventually famous movie star.

My junior-year growth spurt ended a few months too early, leaving me a shade below five-nine. I was a tall girl in a small school, a beautiful girl in a plain family, an exotic girl in a very American town. I'd always had this throaty whisper of a voice, couldn't raise it above a satiny purr, in a family of choir singers and a town of chirpy sopranos. But I wasn't tall, beautiful or exotic enough to trust any of it, and so I made up my mind to find out if I was someone special or just another misfit. I didn't write another poem, but I began to understand about mugged identities. There was something to nature over nurture, and to the tyranny of genes. But you pay for all the knowledge you've gained. How could I explain to a Schenectady DiMartino that destiny's the bully you can't outpunch or outsmart? That the Gray Nuns, Mama, Pappy, Angie, Mr. Bullock, Wyatt, the junior high geeks and creeps I've blown off fit into the Big Picture? I need to believe in the bigger picture. Most orphans do.

Who are you when you don't have a birth certificate, only a poorly typed, creased affidavit sworn out by a nun who signs herself Sister Madeleine, Gray Sisters of Charity? And that name? No mother's name, no fathers name, just Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter meticulously copied out, taking up two full lines, when Father and Mother with long spaces after them are just ink flecks of nonexistence. What are you when you have nightmares and fantasies instead of dates and statistics? And, in place of memory, impressions of white-hot sky and burnt-black leaves? Nothing to keep you on the straight and narrow except star bursts of longing?

We thought Mr. Bullock was giving us a routine assignment, but what if a junior high English teacher with hair in his ears is an agent of destiny? He'd made us read a Robert Frost poem about a bird flying off a snow-dusted bough. "The Muse," he'd encouraged us, "notices the humblest object and the tritest movement and turns them into the gold of passion and poesy."

Mr. Bullock said he wanted for us to write about something we knew, something we knew so well that we didn't see it anymore. And so I wrote about the lacy, summertime shadows of the squat oak that Grandpa DiMartino had planted in the backyard to celebrate his escape from the Bronx--so the family story goes--the day he got the deed to the Schenectady house, and that set me thinking that the grandpa who'd planted that oak and landscaped the garden and put in the lily pond was Angie's grandpa and not mine after all. That made me hear tiny gypsy moth jaws on the tender skin of stalks, and that made me remember other leaf patterns against other horizons. I wrote another about the dogs I'd seen at the pound, pretending that I was alone and that I was a dog myself. Take me, love me, shelter me, my barking said. I felt more deeply than Debby'd ever dared let herself feel. Words ribboned out of me. And when the assignment was done, I felt cheated of places I couldn't draw and of parents I didn't miss. I blamed the poem for robbing me of what I'd never owned. It was as if a psychic with a 900 number had said to me through the poem, You're just on loan to the DiMartinos. Treat them nice, pay your rent, but keep your bags packed.

Back then, in Schenectady, I waited for the call. Not to be a model or a poet, which was to be not extraordinary enough. The call would be to something more special, to satisfy the monstrous cravings of other Debbys hiding inside. I didn't envy Angie as I helped her into the Greyhound bound for Manhattan and her modest transformation of a Hudson Valley accent, hair color, clothes, muscle tone and skin. I knew by then that there was a life beyond the state lines waiting for me to slip into. Star Quality just plays taller and thinner and younger than it really is; second bananas just look older and fatter than they really are. All I'd have to do was be beautiful, be available, and my other life, my real life, would find me.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

Q:        Where did the idea for Leave It to Me come from?

BM:        About twenty years ago, while I was spending a year in Delhi, India, the Delhi police made big news by arresting an Asian serial killer and three of his white, hippie, women accomplices. The man was said to have befriended, then robbed and killed--in very grisly ways--tourists from Europe, the United States, and Canada. The accomplices were vulnerable young backpackers who had succumbed to the serial killer's physical attractiveness and charisma.

        I attended the trial, which was held in a cramped, dusty courtroom in Delhi. The accused man had the reputation of being a flamboyant escape artist, so the security staff was on high alert, and the tension in the small courtroom was acute. The hearings were mesmerizing. The prisoner cut a compelling figure. He was a short, slight, muscular man with fiery eyes and an arrogant manner. In spite of his heavy shackles, he dominated the hearings. For the first and only time in my life, I felt that I was in the presence of evil in that courtroom. I was repelled, outraged, frightened, and, at the same time, fascinated.

Q:        Was it difficult to write about something so disturbing?

BM:        It has taken me twenty years to transform that disturbing personal encounter with evil into a novel. Art works in mysterious ways to soothe our nightmares.

        That wasn't the only difficulty. The first draft of this novel was stolen in 1994. Burglars vandalized my Manhattan apartment and took every portable thing of value, including my laptop. I hadn't made a back-up disk. I hadn't even made a hard copy of that draft.

Q:        How did you start writing again?

BM:        I was so traumatized that for two months I couldn't face reconstructing that stolen draft. And then, on a hot July afternoon in Saratoga Springs, I experienced a miraculous emotional breakthrough. I heard Debby's voice. She spoke the first page and a half of part one. After that, Debby took over, as had Jasmine and Hannah in my two preceding novels. She surprised me. She became my alternate self, the "what if...?" self. The pace, the language, the events--all were dictated by Debby. I suppose that sounds a little crazy, but it's the way I've always written fiction.

Q:        What made you think to investigate such a disturbing, personal encounter with evil through the lens of a Hindu myth?

BM:        I wrote the story of Goddess Devi in the prologue to provide a template for reading the novel. I hoped the prologue would allow the reader to react to DebbyDevi's actions. In the myth I use, Devi the goddess slays the Buffalo Demon because she is charged with that mission by the Cosmic Spirit. The Cosmic Spirit makes her its agent for ridding the world of evil on that occasion. I intended for all of DebbyDevi's experiences to be interpreted by the reader as visitations from God. Characters like Wyatt, Frankie Fong, the blond in the Spider Veloce, and Ham operate in a larger than real way. They are guardian-corrupters; they are demigods, innocent as Greek gods, untouched by the suffering they cause. They operate outside normal laws. They don't consider the consequences that their actions have on other people's lives. Jess, Debby's biological mother, is villainous on a pettier, more human scale. She is just a flower child gone nasty.
That story of the Goddess Devi--also known as Maha Devi or the Great Goddess--is also very much a part of my personal experience. It is recited with great feeling in Sanskrit during the most important Bengali Hindu religious festival. I can still hear my father, who was a scientist and the founder of a successful pharmaceutical company, chanting this musical passage about Goddess Devi slaying the Buffalo-Demon in his clear-toned, authoritative voice.

Q:        The myth originates in India but plays itself out in the United States. Is it difficult for you to work with myth in this cross-cultural way?

BM:        Using myths in cross-cultural ways came to me quite naturally and organically. In these days of megascale diaspora, when whole peoples are crossing borders because of better job opportunities or wars, cross-cultural applications of myths seem the most appropriate way to go. Myths embody archetypes, which is why they speak to all of us no matter what our ethnicity. I don't have to be a pagan Greek in order to empathize with Oedipus. You don't have to be a Hindu Indian to recognize the part that Devi the goddess is asked to play in the struggle between good and evil. As a student of world myths, I see how much in common--in terms of emotional and moral struggles--myths from different cultures have.

Q:        Did it feel natural, then, to weave together a Hindu myth and a Greek myth in Leave It to Me?

BM:        That presented an unusual challenge. The conflict that I had to resolve in synthesizing a Hindu myth and a Greek myth in Leave It to Me was this: Greek mythology, according to scholars like Edith Hamilton, places humans at the center of the story whereas Hindu mythology places destiny at the center. My solution: Debby is convinced that she is at the center of her universe, but the reader--having started out with the prologue--is always aware of divine providence.

Q:        How does Leave It to Me rewrite the Electra myth?

BM:        Myths are renewed each time we retell them. And depending on who is doing the telling of a myth, to what kind of an audience, and at what moment in history, that myth is interpreted in new ways. Poets like Homer, Aeschylus, and Ovid could take the same story, keep the cast of characters and the plot intact, but suggest very different motivations for what the characters do.

What I took from the Electra myth was the seriously dysfunctional family. The Electra myth comes out of the stories about the House of Atreus. You get endless, vengeful, in-family adultery, cuckolding, betrayal, murder, the dismembering of little children, and even a bit of cannibalism. I know, I know, Greek mythic tales are full of violence! The mother-father-daughter triangle is at the core of the original myth. In my novel, I found myself working with three separate such triangles, because Debby has a biological father, an adoptive father, and, in Ham, a lover who she wishes had married her mother and so had become her natural father.

Q:        You recognize the violence in Greek myths. Leave It to Me is just as violent. Why?

BM:        As in the original Electra myth, my mother-father-daughter characters are not afraid of committing mayhem. DebbyDevi pulls off a couple of disturbingly violent deeds. For me, the important question is whether DebbyDevi is a callous arsonist and killer or a facilitator of divine justice.

I also wanted the violence to be emblematic of the violence in the real world. Just one small example: These days we can't board a plane without going through a metal detector. As in real life, some of the violence in the novel is caused by malevolent people. But there's another kind of violence that intrigues me more. I'm thinking of earthquakes, tornadoes, typhoons, floods, wildfires. Debby is violent in the way that such forces of nature are. The Gray Nuns who rescued her must have guessed this since they named her Faustine after a typhoon.

Q:        Leave It to Me explores Devi's struggle to discover her identity as she crosses cultural boundaries. Has this been a personal struggle for you?

BM:        The themes my writing explores are the making of new Americans and the consequent two-way transformation of America. These themes have thrust themselves into my fiction because of my personal daily experiences as a naturalized American citizen.

Q:        What were those daily experiences when you first entered the United States?

BM:        Shortly after entering the United States, I married Clark Blaise, a fellow graduate student at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, during a lunch break in a lawyer's office in September 1963. I have a dangerously impulsive streak! It was only a week into married life that I realized the long-term consequences of our five-minute wedding. Suddenly I felt stranded in a country that I didn't know. I felt frighteningly alone and miserably displaced. I was coming out of an extremely old-fashioned, patriarchal Brahmin family and leaping into a United States that, at the time, was exuberantly experimenting with civil rights, women's rights, sexual permissiveness, and drugs. It took me fifteen years to recognize that I preferred to make my own traditions, to choose my own "homeland," rather than be given an ancestral village.

Q:        You once said of yourself: "I didn't want anyone to know where I fit in, so I could be whoever I wanted to be, anywhere, and I could keep moving." Did making your own traditions mean maintaining a certain flexibility?

BM:        I came out of a society in which identity was fixed from the moment of birth. I was who I was because of the family, class, caste, and language I'd been born into. Communal identity was the only identity that mattered. There was no tolerance of individual quirkiness or rebellion. Those who dared marry outside their caste lost their original caste, and losing caste was a very big deal. In fact, any Bengali who moved out of the state was patronized as being a "not-quite" Bengali. When I was growing up in Calcutta, upper-middle-class Bengali Brahmin women were not supposed to have ideas and opinions of their own. My mother, who was married off to my father when she was in her mid-teens, had to put up with verbal and physical abuse from her in-laws because she believed in education for girls and insisted on sending us to the best girls' school in the city. For me, empowerment meant escaping the identity I had been assigned by my tradition-bound community. I think of myself as being composed of a series
of fluid identities.

Q:        Does Debby view her own very fluid identity as similarly empowering?

BM:        Debby comes to the same discovery about the self being protean by the end of her adventures, but she starts her journey from a very different place than I did. I knew only too well what genes had gone into my making, what cultural values and historical events had shaped my thinking. Debby is an orphan. She has to find out not only who exactly her biological parents were, but what part, if any, they have contributed to her personality. In terms of race, being part white, part Pakistani, part Vietnamese, she feels at first that she can't claim any ethnic group as her own the way that her Italian-American sister can. The whole world has gone into the making of Debby. She has to learn to look on that as miraculously freeing.

Q:        Does the struggle to define and defend your own identity in the United States continue to be as intense for you as when you first entered the country?

BM:        The struggle is as intense, but it is about something entirely different. Now I don't think of myself as an Indian stuck in an alien country, because I happen to have fallen in love with an American. I have lived in many countries, but now I feel emotionally and intellectually most at home in the United States. I have chosen to be an American citizen. As an American of Hindu Bengali origin, I hope I am bringing a whole new perspective to the public debate about what it means to be an "American."

Q:        Would it be fair to describe your own attitude toward contemporary America in Leave It to Me as clearly critical?

BM:        I have a clear-eyed love of the United States. I have chosen the United States as my "homeland" because I believe in the democratic ideals that are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I love the ideals embedded in these two instruments, and because I love these ideals, I speak out--in essays and through fiction--when that idealism is corrupted.

Q:        Do you think of Vietnam as a moment in which that American idealism was corrupted?

BM:        I am convinced that the United States' perception of itself was permanently changed when it lost the Vietnam War. I arrived as a student in Iowa when John F. Kennedy was president. All my American friends, even as they were making the shift from the plaid-skirts-and-white-blouses staid correctness of the fifties to the long-lank-hair-and-sandals-and-heavy-eye-makeup permissiveness of the sixties, acted on the assumption that the United States was the greatest country in the world. My friends had grown up confident that America was the most powerful nation in the world. The last days of the Vietnam War, when network television played and replayed the frantic evacuation of American troops, threatened that assumption.

Q:        Does Leave It to Me challenge the reader to think about Vietnam in a new way?

BM:        We are aware of how the Loco Larrys were victimized by the war. But I see Devi and her generation as the unacknowledged victims of that war. Ham and Jess acted without much regard for consequences. Devi involuntarily suffers the consequences of their actions. Devi asks, "What about us, Vietnam's war-bastards and democracy's love-children? We're still coping with what they did, what they saw, what they salvaged, what they mangled and dumped on that Saigon rooftop that maniacal afternoon." What Devi tries to do is make Ham and Jess's generation aware of the moral consequences of their actions.

Q:        Is this why you offer such a vivid depiction of Haight-Ashbury?

BM:        I felt that I had to use the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco and Berkeley as the main setting for Leave It to Me because this area was where the "hey!--no consequences" kind of culture started when Ham and Jess were young, and it resulted in the birth of Debby and the dumping of her like "a garbage sack on the hippie trail." The choice of setting was deliberate. My intention was to have Debby, as Devi, bring moral accountability to these places. I live in The Haight and I teach at Berkeley. I know the geography and the mentality of these places at a gut level.

Q:        How did you begin to write?

BM:        I used to create stories in my head when I was three years old. These stories were so real to me--the characters so intense, the settings so graphic--that I hated having to come out of them to play with neighborhood kids. I'm not sure when I started writing them in notebooks. The earliest manuscript of mine--a manuscript that my mother found--was several chapters of a novel that I started in English in London when I was nine. It was about a child detective. My first published story appeared in a school magazine when I was twelve. It was written from the point of view of Julius Caesar. The second one, published when I was thirteen, was written from the point of view of Napoleon...

Praise

Praise

Leave it to Me combines the journalist’s grasp of contemporary culture with the magic realist’s appetite for myth . . .

"Leave it to Me is wittily billed as ‘the Electra story . . . re-imagined for our time,’ and it’s true that it’s a tale of murderous female jealously between generations. But that’s only the beginning. . . . Devi is a brilliant creation–hilarious, horribly knowing and even more horribly oblivious–through whom Bharati Mukherjee, with characteristic and shameless ingenuity, is laying claim to speak for an America that isn’t ‘other’ at all."
The New York Times Book Review

"MUKHERJEE IS FEARLESS . . . DARING AND WITTY . . . Take the wild ride with Debby DiMartino from Albany to San Francisco, from lost child to masked avenger."
The Boston Globe

"POWERFULLY WRITTEN . . . Debby has no memory of her birth parents. All she knows is that she was born in a remote Indian village, the daughter of a hippie back-packing mother and a mysterious Eurasian father, both of whom have disappeared almost without a trace. . . . Her quest for her biological parents turns into an obsession. . . . Leave It to Me . . . shows Mukherjee at the peak of her craft. . . . Mixing the Greek myth of Electra with the Indian myth of Devi, she sends Devi/Debby careening down on the Bay Area like an elemental force of vengeance."
–San Francisco Chronicle


"STUNNING . . . An astute, ironic, and merciless insight into an aberrant version of the American dream."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Dazzling . . . [A] sharp look at the 1960s’ legacy of eroded idealism and scarred kids . . . Mukherjee gives Devi a hip, snappy, ironic voice to describe a world in which nature–and destiny–transcend nurture and no one feels remorse or responsibility."
–New York Daily News

"A psychedelic journey through the meaner side of San Francisco’s free-loving past . . . Leave It to Me challenges us to sympathize with an angry young woman whose overwhelming sense of entitlement leads her to play judge and jury, devouring all in her quest for a new identity."
People

"With poignancy and wit, Mukherjee makes present-day San Francisco the setting for the age-old story of the foundling in search of her parent and herself."
Booklist

"Engaging."
–Kirkus Reviews

"A very fine writer, funny, intelligent, versatile and, on occasion, unexpectedly profound."
–The Washington Post Book World
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Reader's Guide copyright © 1998 by The Ballantine Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc.

About the Guide

"Mukherjee combines the journalist's grasp of contemporary culture with the magic realist's appetite for myth....Her book is a hybrid of history and gossip, of high and low culture."

--The Boston Globe

"In Leave It to Me, Mukherjee takes the themes she has previously explored a step further. Destroying the concept of ethnicity altogether, she creates a complex new, transnational definition of self....Devi will know who she is no matter what or whom she has to destroy. But the discovery does not prove to be easy in a region where ethnic boundaries slide over each other like snakes in a basket and many people have discarded the names they were born with....The novel becomes a meditation on the Indian concept of karma and the Greek idea of destiny."

--San Francisco Chronicle

"Some readers will see in it visionary vengeance on American hubris, a triumph of alien genes, Devi as a force of nature. Yet it also seems to contain a mocking attack on the very notion of speaking for outsiders. Devi suffers from multiple personality disorder--and what's more Western than that?...Devi Dee...merges fearlessly with the human flotsam and jetsam....When she identifies with people she steals their life stories, or at least the bits she wants. She's a psychic scavenger."

--The New York Times Book Review

"Mukherjee is inspired here in connecting the residues of 1960s culture: the self-described idealists who used civil disobedience as a road to selfish excess; the scarred veterans of Vietnam; and, between them, the damaged children of that generation. She's especially adroit in recalling the Berkeley counterculture and capturing its later expression in the alternative lifestyles and self-serving rationales with which ex-hippies defend their current lives. Her most impressive feat, however, is in rendering her self-destructive heroine with brilliant fidelity to the American vernacular. Profane, brash and amoral, Debby/Devi is not likable, but she is recognizable and true."

--Publishers Weekly

"This is the Electra story updated. The apocalyptic bloodbaths in which Devi consummates her furious revenge on her parents are every bit as vicious as those that befall the House of Atreus. But Mukherjee's singular achievement is to suffuse them with an almost slapstick, cartoon sensibility that is disturbingly contemporary in its detachment from both reality and morality."

--New York Daily News

"Everyone keeps inventing themselves, playing roles in which 'movie lines merge with memories.' Who isn't waiting for the call to something more special?"

--Booklist

About the Author

Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India. Shortly after India won Independence from Britain, she, with her parents and two sisters, left her Brahmin Bengali life in Calcutta for Europe where she traveled, schooled, and learned English. Returning to Calcutta in 1951, she attended an English-speaking convent school before taking her B.A. in English at the University of Calcutta in 1959 and her M.A. in English and ancient Indian culture at the University of Baroda in 1961. In the fall of 1961, she left India to pursue her education in the United States where she attended the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop on a P.E.O. International Peace Scholarship. After being awarded an M.F.A., Mukherjee began her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. She completed this degree in 1969, an accomplishment which, she has suggested, finalized her separation from the "world of passive privilege" of her youth: "An M.A. in English is considered refined, but a doctorate is far too serious a business, indicative more of brains than beauty, and likely to lead to a quarrelsome nature." During her tenure at the University of Iowa, Mukherjee met and married fellow writer Clark Blaise. Mukherjee and Blaise are the parents of two sons, Bart and Bernard. In 1966, Blaise encouraged their move to Canada where they lived for the next fourteen years. Settling in Montreal, Mukherjee taught English at McGill University and published her first two novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1972) and Wife (1975). She and Blaise coauthored a work of nonfiction, Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), which chronicled their experiences during a sabbatical year spent together in India. Although professionally successful during these years, Mukherjee was burdened by the prejudice she encountered. As she wrote in her 1981 Saturday Night article, "The Invisible Woman," shortly after leaving Canada: "In Montreal, I was, simultaneously, a full professor at McGill, an author, a confident lecturer, and (I like to think) a charming and competent hostess and guest--and a house-bound, fearful, aggrieved, obsessive, and unforgiving queen of bitterness. Whenever I read articles about women committing suicide...I knew I was looking into a mirror." Mukherjee left this atmosphere of prejudice in 1980 to return to the United States where she continued her teaching career with positions at the University of Iowa, Skidmore College, Queens College, New York, and Columbia University. During these years she published two collections of short stories, Darkness (1985) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, as well as her third novel, Jasmine (1989). She and Blaise coauthored their second work of nonfiction, The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), an investigation of the 1985 Air India bombing. In 1989 Mukherjee was awarded a Distinguished Professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. While teaching at Berkeley, she has completed her latest two novels, The Holder of the World (1993) and Leave It to Me (1997), and has commenced work on a third collection of short stories as well as her sixth novel.

Discussion Guides

1.         What attitude does Leave It to Me take toward adoption? How do you feel when Faustine/Debby/Devi abandons the DiMartinos so early in the novel?

2.         When Debby starts her search for her "other life, [her] real life," Serena DiMartino tells her daughter that her biological father had a police record. Debby recognizes that a police record will help her find her bio-parents:
        "That's a break for me, Mama. If they had a police record, that's something to go on."        
"Being a criminal is a break? What kind of talk is that?"
        "Just kidding, Mama. You brought me up to be decent."        
The dialogue suggests that Debby's search for her bio-parents might prove to be "indecent." Does it? How does Debby feel about abandoning stable Schenectady society to embrace the Haight's counterculture? How do you feel about it?

3.         In the first conversation between Ham and Devi, Ham remarks, "You have to come up with just the right name....Names count." In what ways do names count in Leave It to Me? Why are names constantly being changed? mispronounced? misunderstood? Originally named Faustine "after a typhoon," Debby renames herself after a Hindu goddess, Devi. Why? What impact does changing her name have on her identity?

4.         Despite this interest in her own name, Devi seems to seek out employment in which her name and identity simply don't matter. First, she works as a telemarketer for Frankie Fong where she "tried out thirty personas" nightly. Later, she works for Jess DuPree's Leave It to Me knowing that "A ME doesn't have personal problems. A ME doesn't have a life." Why does Devi want these kinds of jobs? Does this work bring her closer to or drive her farther away from discovering her real identity, her real "me"?

5.         Why is the novel titled Leave It to Me? What is left up to Devi to accomplish? Does she accomplish what she needs to?

6.         When Devi reveals to Frankie Fong how little she knows about herself, she makes a statement intended for Frankie, but heard only by the reader: "I want you to know that we've both invented ourselves." What does Devi mean? Later in their relationship, Frankie actually turns Devi into a secretary, while Devi recognizes that she has "made [Frankie] up out of needs I didn't know I had." Is identity always "invented"? What are the dangers of inventing identity, one's own or someone else's?

7.         Devi tries to leave her Schenectady past behind when she enters California. However, the individuals she meets seem vaguely familiar. Gabe, a neighbor, "looked like Wyatt, and kind of talked like Wyatt, too." Devi immediately recognizes that Ham Cohan's film series is a "rip-off of Flash's Boss Tong of Hong Kong." Is Gabe a second Wyatt? Is Ham a second Flash? Is Devi able to abandon her past, or is this entrance into California a reincarnation not only of herself, but of her past as well?

8.         While working at Leave It to Me, Devi encounters several individuals who, unlike Frankie, seem to know exactly who they are. Devi's describes Stark Swann as a man who is comfortably "the center of his universe." Devi seduces and drugs Stark in order to carve "an endearment on his left buttock: CW. My homage to my neighborhood graffitiste, Cee-Double-You." "CW" expresses Devi's critique of Swann's tendency to see (Cee) only a reflection of himself (Double-You) in everyone he meets. She insists that her revenge is an act of the "real women." What does she mean by "real women"? Does Devi achieve real woman status in the novel? Does this mean that she does in fact have an identity that cannot be manipulated by someone else?

9.         Devi hires Fred Pointer to point the way to her parents. The evidence that piles up to prove that her parents are Jess DuPree and Romeo Hawk seems officially convincing: conversation transcripts, death notices, court records, a photograph, passports. Romeo claims his daughter immediately. Jess, however, denies her relationship to Devi to the novel's end. Is Devi ever able to feel certain about her parentage? Are you?

10.         "When you inherit nothing, you are entitled to everything: that's the Devi Dee philosophy." Devi's search for her identity reveals remarkable similarities between herself and her bio-parents. Devi and Jess both seduce the same man, work at the same job, and drug inconvenient lovers with Mandrax. Devi and Romeo wield the same cleaver to violent ends. Are these similarities a result of Devi's inheritance or her entitlement? Is she responsible for her actions? Do you excuse her because of her parentage, because of the actions of her bio-parents, or not at all?

11.         Sex complicates Devi's relationships with her bio-parents. What impact does the fact that Jess and Devi share a lover have upon Devi's attempts to relate to Jess as a mother? Why does her bio-father, Romeo, enter Devi's life dressed as a woman? Why does he undress "with the taunting efficiency of a professional stripper" to reveal to his daughter that he is actually a man?

12.         Devi believes that her search for her own identity was "started" by a poem. She discovers her bio-Dad by reading "poetic pensees," and believes that she hears the story of her conception while listening to Jess quote an Emily Dickinson verse: "My beginning....I've just heard my beginning." Later Devi realizes that her life reflects a "romance novel off a rack" more than an Emily Dickinson poem. Still, her identity seems to reflect literary productions: poems, romances, movies. How does Devi discover her identity through literature? Do you think of Devi as a real person or as a literary creation--a myth/fantasy?

13.         In the prologue of Leave It to Me old Hari tells the children a bedtime story in which the Hindu goddess Devi slays the Buffalo Demon. Despite the disturbing violence of old Hari's tale, the children are "comforted by story" and "curl into sleep." They aren't troubled by the violence because they "already know the story's ending," and because it is story and not reality. The novel is just as violent as the prologue. Are you troubled by the violence of the novel, or does it leave you, like the children, comforted? In what ways does the violent prologue foreshadow the novel?

14.         Why does Leave It to Me include a catalogue of acts of violence, seemingly unrelated to the story, that reads as realistically as a newspaper?

15.         In the promotional material that introduces Devi to Romeo Hawk, Devi discovers a potent one-liner: "Destruction is creation's necessary prelude." What does this mean? Does the violence in Leave It to Me lead to creation?

16.         Devi travels to Berkeley to find her bio-parents, but once she arrives she realizes that she can't enter "that Berkeley" in which Ham and Jess live. Devi suggests that it is the Vietnam War that separates "that Berkeley" from the place she visits: "Vietnam wasn't a war; it was a divide. On one side, the self-involved idealists; on the other, we the napalm-scarred kids"? How does the war shape Devi's experiences? Do the war veterans--Loco Larry, Pete Cuvo, Chuck Stanko--act in ways that she can or can't understand? Why does she ally herself with the napalm-scarred kids? Do her actions demonstrate this alliance?

17.         Ham's houseboat is called Last Chance. What last chance does it represent? Does Devi lose this last chance or take advantage of it at the conclusion of the novel?

18.         Only the conclusion reveals that the novel begins exactly where it ends: "in the cabin of this houseboat off Sausilito as curtains of flame dance in the distance and a million flash-bulbs burn and fizzle, and I sit with the head of a lover on my lap." Why does the novel begin at its ending? How does this impact the way you think about Devi's experience?


  • Leave It to Me by Bharati Mukherjee
  • September 14, 1998
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Ballantine Books
  • $19.00
  • 9780449003961

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