English studies in India has lost one of its most lively, distinguished and important voices with the death of Meenakshi Mukherjee on Wednesday, September 16, just as she was about to fly to Delhi for the launch of her latest book, An Indian for All Seasons: The Many Lives of R. C. Dutt.
A very large number of scholars all over the country will feel her sudden demise as a personal loss, and will recall not only the example she set by her scholarship and intellect, but her charm, vivacity, and generosity in human terms.
Meenakshi Mukherjee taught in Patna, Pune, Delhi and Hyderabad, and was, for many years before her retirement, Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. She lectured all over the country and in different parts of the world, and held Visiting Professorships at several universities abroad.
She advised on many committees and boards, and was member, for a term, of the University Grants Commission’s National Panel for English and Western Languages. Most significantly, she was Chairperson of the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS) from 1993 to 2005, and also the Chairperson of the International ACLALS from 2001 to 2004. Under her visionary and inspiring leadership, the ACLALS held a very successful triennial conference in Hyderabad in 2004, the proceedings of which appeared in three volumes co-edited by her.
Mukherjee’s example and influence were decisive in shaping the field of colonial and postcolonial studies in India, particularly with respect to the complex transactions between modern Indian literatures and the West. She was that increasingly rare figure, a truly multilingual scholar at ease in several Indian languages, translating between them and English, and able to speak with authority and insight on the cross-fertilisations that led to the development of new genres in colonial India.
Her special field, one over which she exercised an unparalleled command for over 40 years, was the colonial rise of the novel, and her books, The Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English (1971), Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India (1985), Jane Austen (1991), The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (2000), and Elusive Terrain: Culture and Literary Memory (2008), as well as her essays in other edited collections, notably on ‘Epic and Novel in India’ in Franco Moretti’s two-volume set of readings, The Novel (2006), influenced generations of students and researchers, imposing, in P. Lal’s words, “intelligent order on a large corpus of unrelated or vaguely related material”.
The Perishable Empire won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2003. In a field that has — regrettably — been dominated by theorists located in the West, who never came close to matching her wide reading in several Indian languages and her understanding of the intricate mechanics of literary influence in colonial India, Mukherjee’s clarity of voice, commitment, intelligence and passion were exceptional.
Even as a controversialist — her brush with Vikram Chandra led to a memorable defence by Chandra of the imagined location and readership of Indian novelists writing in English, ‘The Cult of Authenticity’ (2000) — she was always provocative and engaged, able to bring out the best in her opponent.
In a personal exchange, she had spoken of her apprehensions about taking historians on in her latest book on Romesh Chunder Dutt. But there is no doubt that both history and cultural studies will benefit from her interventions.
With her husband Sujit, whose death in 2003 was also a profound loss for cultural studies in modern India, Mukherjee formed a partnership of heart and mind that shaped the lives of all who came into contact with them. In Patna, their hometown, where she was Sujit’s student; in Pune, where they taught for a time; in Hyderabad and in Delhi, where Meenakshi continued to teach while Sujit had a notable career in publishing and as a translator, countless students, friends and admirers visited their home to draw intellectual sustenance and to revel in the delights of conversation, food and generous hospitality. I am happy to number myself among them.
No one who knew Meenakshi Mukherjee can bear to think of her as gone from us. As we try to make sense of our complicated world, the world of small-town as well as metropolitan India, local realities and global imperatives, we are all the more in need of Sujit and Meenakshi Mukherjee’s sanity, good sense, and caring intelligence. They must live in our thoughts.
Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata