Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The BS Column: Meenakshi Mukherjee: The Death of a Critic

(This was a week of loss and funerals; and memories. Meenakshi Mukherjee taught me years ago at JNU, and helped me make the key decision to pursue freelance writing instead of a PhD; I think her acute eye saw what a misfit I'd have been in academia. We stayed in touch sporadically over the years, calling each other to discuss new books, reviews, translations, ideas. "You lead a much more productive life away from the Delhi social whirl," she told me when she moved some years ago to Hyderabad. "Most of it is distraction. I enjoy not being distracted these days."
She died of a sudden heart attack at Hyderabad airport, on her way to Delhi for a book release, in a year when she was on the panel of judges for the Shakti Bhatt prize and at 72, was humming with the productivity she'd wanted so much in her sixties. "What have you been reading?" she asked in our last conversation. I told her; she listened. "So many good books! We're lucky to have time to read, aren't we? Which ones should I buy first? Have you read this? And that?" That energy, that appetite, that freewheeling curiosity: I'll miss all of these.)


The Prospectus of the 19th century Mookerjee’s Magazine declared that, “Our Magazine will be a receptacle of all descriptions of knowledge and literature, Poetry, the Drama, vers de société, Criticism, Prose Fiction, Sketches, Philosophy, Politics and Sociology…” and so forth for another two ambitiously inclusive lines.

Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, scholar, critic and writer, who died last week at the age of 72 of a sudden heart attack at Hyderabad airport, sometimes quoted the Prospectus; in some ways, it reflected the contents and broad scope of her own formidable mind. (She gave vers de société a wide berth, but was open to the rest.)

Criticism of Indian writing in English suffers from two major problems. Much of it is unintelligible, especially criticism as practised by followers of Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, and requires the skills of an expert in linguistic forensics to decode. Much of it is invisible, relegated to obscure academic journals or to the thriving but insular seminar circuit. Very little of it is actually influential, or lasting, but Meenakshi Mukherjee’s contributions are likely to fall into this category.

There was no sense, in her presence, of reading literature as dead texts from a distant past. Her years in research, and her long partnership with her equally distinguished husband, the late translator and academic Sujit Mukherjee, gave her a holistic view of Indian writing in English that few other practitioners possessed. Meenakshi Mukherjee could trace the lineage of IWE much further back than Bankimchandra’s Rajmohan’s Wife—considered the first true novel written by an Indian in English. Through her scholarship, she offered a much more interesting history than the accepted one of a novel, imitative of its Western counterparts, that sprang out of nowhere from Bankim’s mind.

In her excavation of history, the Indian novel had been emerging in unusual form well before the 19th century. The first two books that snagged Meenakshi Mukherjee’s attention dated back to 1835 and 1845 respectively—both were works of alternate history, imagining an uprising against the British, and a future without English rule.

Years later, when she translated Lokenath Bhattacharya’s The Virgin Fish of Babughat, she was fascinated by the question of imagination. The Indian expression of it may have been influenced by magic realism, or by the European novel, but it had a different fountainhead, in her opinion. Bhattacharya’s novel, for instance, is set in an imaginary prison where the inmates have the “freedom” to explore sexuality. But it’s the guards who decide on the pairings of prisoners, and erotic exploration soon becomes just another fatigue-inducing prison ritual. The narrator of The Virgin Fish of Babughat is bound by different rules—he must commit his thoughts to paper, by order, and he is rendered frantic by the fear of losing language, the necessity of facing blank page after blank page every day.

In one of the last conversations we had, just before Meenakshi Mukherjee was supposed to come to Delhi for the launch of her biography of R C Dutt, we discussed the Indian writer’s love for fantasy, for the picaresque and for alternate histories—all these exerted a powerful fascination for the early pioneers, before the conventions of the middle-class novel took over.

It’s sad that one set of writers will remember only the skirmish between the professor and the writer Vikram Chandra, which he documented, memorably, in an essay called The Cult of Authenticity. Meenakshi Mukherjee had noted the tendency of some Indian writers in English to exoticise India unnecessarily, to produce the modern equivalent of sadhus and maharajas in an attempt to establish their authenticity.

Mukherjee picked on Chandra’s collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, as an example of this trend, for his use of words like Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha in the titles. In retrospect, she was right about the anxiety of writing India that infected a certain group of writers—and perhaps still does. But she was dead wrong in her selection of offenders—Chandra couldn’t be accused of this particular crime. When some of us taxed her with evidence to the contrary, years ago, she was delighted. “A proper argument!” she said, and settled to it with her trademark relish and acumen. Neither side succeeded in convincing the other, but we, at least, retired with a far broader sense of our literary history once she was done with her examples.

This isn’t my favourite Meenakshi Mukherjee memory, though. That would be one shared by generations of students at JNU and the many other universities where she taught: the memory of engaging with “MM” as she opened up our forgotten literature and unexplored past to us via Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, inviting us to claim Indian English, in all its richness and complexity, for ourselves. To borrow from the title of one of the many anthologies edited by her, there was another India out there, and she wanted every reader to make their own explorations of that familiar and unknown country.

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