Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee                 

Interview with Stanford dean Scotty McLennan

Published: January 1, 2012

Hello and happy New Year! This is Becky Glover from the Stanford Alumni Association and I’d like to welcome you to our third book of the 2011-2012 Book Salon season - Jasmine. I would like to introduce our host, Scotty McLennan, who is the dean for religious life at Stanford and lecturer at the Graduate School of Business and in urban studies and ethics in society. Dean McLennan provides spiritual, moral, and ethical leadership for the university, encourages a wide spectrum of religious traditions on campus, and serves as the minister of Memorial Church. He is also an ordained minister, lawyer, and published author. His third and most recent book is entitled, Jesus was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All. McLennan is part of the inspiration for the cartoon character Reverend Scot Sloan in Garry Trudeau's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon strip "Doonesbury."


Thank you Scotty for kicking off this month’s discussion. I’d first like to ask why you chose this book?


SM: It’s just a wonderful book about the American dream, about hope, and about how to live one’s life. It looks at an Indian-American, a woman who comes from India, makes her way across half the globe to America; has both adventures and tragedies along the way, and is a very engaging character. Written by a female author, a female protagonist, I think the book will appeal to women but also very much to men. As a guy I found the men in the book fascinating. She engages with a number of male characters along the way, even changing her name as she falls in love with different men in those relationships. It’s a great story, it’s a page-turner, and it raises really important questions of morality and spirituality, and helps us think about the great questions of the meaning of life. So it’s one of my favorites.


What issues from Jasmine can you single out that readers might find interesting to discuss?


SM: Well, a lot of the book is about the issue of fate or destiny versus free will, or our ability to be free to make our own decisions. Determinism versus free will. Because of the Indian doctrine of Karma, a lot of the questions that are raised are in relation to do we reap what we sow -- from previous lives? in this life? is there instant karma? Are we in fact free to make our choices or at least to play the hand of cards we are given as we choose, or are we more or less predestined to certain end results? We were talking before we were on the air here, about my own background as a Presbyterian, and predestination as being a Calvinist doctrine. So obviously, there’s some resonance not only with Hinduism but in Christianity on that matter.


There are different selves that she becomes as she moves through her life. And it raises really interesting questions about whether we have a stable self or if we change so significantly that who we are at 30 is not really recognizable from who we were at 10, or who we are at 50 bears any resemblance to who we were in college. So those questions are of great interest I think. Love is at the centerpiece of this. What is love? What is romantic love? What is friendship? What is ultimately what I would consider to be divine love? And the nature of the American dream keeps coming up. What is it that draws people to America? How do we live here together in an incredibly diverse society without blowing ourselves apart? And why is hope so much a centerpiece of the American dream?


Will you share a passage you consider representative of the book, and talk to us about why you chose it?


SM: The passage I’d like to share is at the very beginning of the book. It may be a little long, but I’ll share this all the way through. She is such a beautiful writer as well. I won’t make any commentary at this moment; I’ll just read it...


Lifetimes ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, an astrologer cupped his ears -- his satellite dish to the stars -- and foretold my widowhood and exile.  I was only seven then, fast and venturesome, scabrous-armed from leaves and thorns. “No!” I shouted. “You’re a crazy old man. You don’t know what my future holds!” ‘Suit yourself,’ the astrologer cackled. “What is to happen will happen.” Then he chucked me hard on the head. I fell. My teeth cut into my tongue. A twig sticking out of the bundle of firewood I’d scavenged punched a star-shaped wound into my forehead. I lay still. The astrologer re-entered his trance. I was nothing, a speck in the solar system. Bad times were on their way. I was helpless, doomed. The star bled. “I don’t believe you,” I whispered. The astrologer folded up his tattered mat and pushed his feet into rubber sandals. “Fate is Fate. When Behula’s bridegroom was fated to die of snakebites on their wedding night, did building a steel fortress prevent his death? A magic snake will penetrate solid walls when necessary.” I smelled the sweetness of winter wildflowers. Quails hopped, hiding and seeking me in the long grass. Squirrels as tiny as mice swished over my arms, dropping nuts. The trees were stooped and gnarled, as though the ghosts of old women had taken root. I always felt the she-ghosts were guarding me. I didn’t feel I was nothing. “Go join your sisters,” the man with the capacious ears commanded. “A girl shouldn’t be wandering here by herself.” He pulled me to my feet and pointed to the trail that led out of the woods to the river bend. I dragged my bundle to the river bend. I hated that river bend. The water pooled there, sludgy brown, and was choked with hyacinths and feces from the buffaloes that village boys washed upstream. Women were scouring brass pots with ashes. Dhobis were whomping clothes clean on stone slabs. Housewives squabbled while lowering their pails into a drying well. My older sisters, slow, happy girls with butter-smooth arms, were still bathing on the steps that led down to the river. “What happened?” my sisters shrieked as they sponged the bleeding star on my forehead with the wetted ends of their veils. “Now your face is scarred for life! How will the family ever find you a husband?” I broke away from their solicitous grip. “It’s not a scar,” I shouted, “it’s my third eye.” In the stories that our mother recited, the holiest sages developed an extra eye right in the middle of their foreheads. Through that eye they peered out into invisible worlds. “Now I’m a sage.” My sisters scampered up the slippery steps, grabbed their pitchers and my bundle of firewood, and ran to get help from the women at the well. I swam to where the river was a sun-gold haze. I kicked and paddled in a rage. Suddenly my fingers scraped the carcass of a small dog. The body was rotten, the eyes had been eaten. The moment I touched it, the body broke in two, as though the water had been its glue. A stench leaked out of the broken body, and then both pieces quickly sank. That stench stays with me. I’m twenty-four now, I live in Baden, Elsa County, Iowa, but every time I lift a glass of water to my lips, fleetingly I smell it. I know what I don’t want to become.  ”


Scotty, thank you again for introducing Jasmine to our Book Salon community.

The Stanford Book Salon is a program of the Stanford Alumni Association