East Asian Immigration to the United States
Immigration to the United States from India and other South Asian countries greatly increased following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. By the mid-1970s, there were over 175,000 Indian immigrants in the United States, with four states, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, developing sizable Indian American populations. The majority of these new immigrants already spoke fluent English and adjusted well to life in the United States, becoming one of the most prosperous of immigrant groups. Many were of professional status, such as doctors, engineers, and experts in the emerging information technology. However, Indian Americans also faced incidents of racism. In New Jersey in the 1980s, a number of Indians were murdered by young white men, who deliberately targeted them because of their race and the fact that as professionals they had attained material success.
Indian Americans, as well as those Indians who settled in Canada, soon produced a generation of writers who documented their experience as immigrants. Such writers included Mukherjee, Ved Mehta, A. K. Ramanujan, Suniti Namjoshi, Michael Ondaatji, and Rohinton Mistry. These writers explored issues such as racism, nostalgia for home, and the question of identity. Should they attempt to preserve their distinct Indian identity or assimilate with mainstream U.S. culture? In “Two Ways to Belong to America,” an article published in the York Times in 1996, Mukherjee described how she had made the decision to become an American citizen and wholeheartedly embrace her new identity, whereas her sister, Mira, who had been in the United States since 1960 as a permanent resident alien, still identified strongly with India and planned to return to her native country on retirement. Mukherjee believed that the majority of Indian immigrants had attitudes closer to those of her sister than her own.
Civil War in Central America in the 1980s
Although the country in which “The Middleman” is set is not named, it clearly alludes to the situation in the Central American countries of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In El Salvador, a country marked by great social inequalities, there was a civil war in which a leftist guerrilla insurgency attempted to overthrow the government. The government was dominated by the wealthy elite, while the majority of citizens lived in poverty. Supported by billions of dollars in aid from the United States, the El Salvadoran government was ruthless in attempting to suppress the insurgency, establishing death squads that carried out assassinations of prominent individuals who spoke out against the government. Many atrocities were committed. In 1980, the archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romeroy Galdámez, was celebrating mass in a chapel when he was shot dead by a professional assassin. In another incident in the same year, three U.S. Roman Catholic nuns and a lay worker were raped and killed by El Salvadoran National Guard troops. During 1982 and 1983, approximately eight thousand civilians a year were being killed by government forces. In another infamous incident, in 1989, El Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuit brothers and two female co-workers. By 1992, when a peace was brokered by the United Nations, the civil war had taken approximately seventy thousand lives.
In Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the world, the leftist Sandinista Party government faced an insurgency from guerrillas known as the contras. The Sandinistas took power in 1979, when a revolution overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinistas legitimately won a national election in 1984, but they faced hostility from the United States and turned to the Soviet Union and Cuba for support. The United States offered aid to the rebel contras, enabling them to attack the Sandinistas from bases in Honduras. The United States also imposed trade sanctions and mined Nicaraguan harbors. In 1987, a U.S. plane carrying guns for the contras was shot down in Nicaragua.
The only survivor was an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) named Eugene Hassenfuss who was captured by the Sandinistas and later released. This incident may have been what inspired Mukherjee’s creation of the character Bud Wilkins in “The Middleman,” since Wilkins is rumored to be a former CIA agent and is involved in arms dealing. There were also allegations at the time that the CIA was involved in drug-trafficking to aid the contras. In 1990, as part of a peace agreement, the contras were disbanded in exchange for free elections in Nicaragua. In the election, the Sandinistas were unexpectedly defeated by a coalition of opposing forces. The eight-year civil war had badly damaged the country. Unemployment stood at 30 percent of the workforce, and Nicaragua’s national debt was seven billion dollars, the highest per capita debt in Latin America.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Bharati Mukherjee, Published by Gale Group, 2006