Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, who passed away in Hyderabad on September 16, was one of the most innovative, inspiring and widely honoured professors of English of her generation in the country. Each one of her major books charted out a fresh field and flung open new doors of academic enquiry — The Twice-Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English (1971), Realism and Reality: the Novel and Society in India (1985) and The Perishable Empire (2000).
For the last-named book, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Prize for the best book of the year in English, thus becoming one of the four or five literary critics to have won it in the last 50 years. Her latest book, an intellectual biography of Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909), was launched in Delhi on Wednesday, as fate would have it, the day after she died.
Mukherjee began her teaching career in Patna where she had been a student and where she met and married Sujit Mukherjee, one of her professors who distinguished himself no less as a scholar, translator and later academic publisher. The two were perfectly matched in temperament as well as academic inclinations and wherever they lived, their home became a warm and welcoming social and intellectual adda.
Mukherjee taught successively at the University of Poona, Lady Shriram College, New Delhi, the newly-founded University of Hyderabad, and then back in Delhi as a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. In between she was also a visiting professor at Chicago, California and Texas. A whole legion of her devoted former students and colleagues are to be found all over the country as well as abroad.
Not only did her own work contribute to giving a new orientation to the discipline but she also helped build up institutions that would bring together senior and younger scholars and enable them to present their work and share ideas. For 12 years, between 1993 and 2005, she was the Chairperson of the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS), which under her leadership went from strength to strength, increasing its membership from under 50 to over 400.
Of the major international conferences she was instrumental in organising during this period, one was held in Shimla in 1994 and resulted in a book which she and I co-edited, Interrogating Postcolonialism (1996). The other was a grander conference in Hyderabad in 2004, in which some of the most distinguished literary scholars and theorists in the world, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha, participated, and which led to the publication of as many as three books.
A defining characteristic of Meenakshi Mukherjee both as a person and as a scholar was her simplicity. In an age of increasing scholarly jargonisation and even obfuscation, no one ever had any difficulty in following whatever she spoke or wrote. But such simplicity always went hand in hand with solid and substantial scholarship and a degree of persuasiveness that more complex ways of formulation would often have failed to achieve. She said the kind of acute things that clever people do not say.
As in her work so in her life, she was the most genial and forthcoming of human beings. Her modesty, affability and quiet charm were most in evidence when she was with young researchers and teachers who had most reason to be in awe of her. She could instantly establish a rapport with them which often turned into life-long friendships. She was a rare scholar and a rarer human being.
Harish Trivedi is Professor of English, Delhi University, and is the current Chairperson, Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS)
The views expressed by the author are personal