Meenakshi Mukherjee (d. 2009)

In memoriam


Today when Indian literature in English translation and Indian-English literature are part of English Literature syllabi in Indian universities and the discourse on this literature is rich, varied and entrenched in academia globally, the passing away of Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee, teacher, scholar and dynamic organizer who pioneered this shift, requires a looking back. A Bengali student in Patna and the US, and teaching at various colleges and universities across India, Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee was enabled by her multilingualism (besides English she read Bengali, Hindi and Marathi) to perceive very early, the difference in sensibility of Indians writing in English and Indians writing in the regional languages. Along with her husband and intellectual collaborator Prof Sujit Mukherjee she brought to the field of translation, academic attention and critical insights on the one hand, while building and consolidating on the other hand a discourse on Indian English Literature.


In 1979 at the new University of Hyderabad when Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee found an opportunity to frame a course for the MA English students, she decided to include Indian language novels in English translation. The opposition to the idea of using ‘translated (Indian) texts in an English MA programme’ she had already encountered at traditional universities where the objection never seemed to apply to English translations of Homer, Sophocles and Brecht. Teaching Indian texts in translation in the English class Mukherjee found that student responses to texts were more confident when they had a first hand exposure to the culture. She critiqued the way English literature was being traditionally taught in India __ totally ignoring the context in which the text had been created and canonized, and the context in which it was being received.


Deriving partly from the interdisciplinary expansion of literature into Cultural Studies then beginning in some American and British universities, Mukherjee saw in this direction a way of bringing to English Literature studies in India the highly charged, interrogative and transforming discourse of colonialism. These are experiences she shared in her paper, ‘Mapping a Territory: Notes on Framing a Course’ in 1988. English literary studies in India were at that point set for a change as young teachers returned from the West to teach in Indian universities. Mukherjee’s paper was in fact part of a seminar, ‘The Study of English Literature in India: History , Ideology and Practice’ organized by the English Department of Miranda House, University of Delhi and subsequently published in The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India, edited by another great scholar Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan[1].

Mukherjee who travelled constantly between Indian states, universities, languages and texts and between India and the rest of the world was able to bring together the research and writing taking place in different parts of the country not only in English but in the regional languages as well. Her book, The Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English (1971) is one of the earliest attempts to come to terms with Indian English fiction as a literary phenomenon and the first comprehensive work by a single scholar. There had been a collection of essays before this, born out of the first national seminar on Indian Writing in English held at the University of Mysore in 1968. Mukherjee ruthlessly tore through ill informed and prejudiced criticism of Indian English (then called Indo-Anglian) literature. She hailed K R Srinivasa Iyengar’s survey Indian Writing in English (1962) as pioneering work and welcomed William Walsh’s ‘rigorous and uncondescending evaluation of R K Narayan’[2] in The Human Idiom (1964). The bibliography to Twice Born Fiction is a revelation of the extensive Indian scholarship already in progress but which had until then never been brought together like this. Twice Born Fiction actually started the process of canon formation and discourse building in the new genre.

Meanwhile British English texts were also receiving her rigorous critical attention. The 1991 study Jane Austen, reprinted in 1995 as Re-reading Jane Austen, while focusing critically on the feminist elements in Austen has an entire chapter devoted to how the colonies figured in the fiction of Jane Austen and her compatriots. Titled ‘To hear my uncle talk of the West Indies’, this chapter, uses the quote from Mansfield Park to explore the presentation of colonies, slavery and ‘other’ lands in Austen[3]. It alerts Indian students of Austen not to seek universal truths in British literature. This perspective continued to inform her criticism of British English texts. Her 2004 essay for a critical anthology on Frankenstein is thus aptly titled ‘The Revenge of Prakriti?’, and places Mary Shelley’s text alongside Tagore’s Gora and U R Anantha Murthy’s Samskara tracing the fine threads of the nineteenth century idea of ‘nature’[4].


Given her movement towards Indian bhasha literatures from a location within English studies, Mukherjee is in many ways a ‘comparativist’ energised by the discourse of post-colonialism. Early Novels in India (2002) are seminar papers edited by her, under the aegis of the Centre for Comparative Literature, Kerala University and sponsored by the Sahitya Akademi. In the Introduction to this volume Mukherjee shows how the essays contest the ‘clichéd premise’ that ‘the novel in India was a borrowed genre __ a direct outcome of British education’, and foregrounds the ‘complex question of plural heritage’, and ‘the multiplicity of other determinants’.[5]


Long before this, in her 1985 book Realism and Reality: the Novel and Society in India[6] Mukherjee had in fact set in motion explorations in this direction. In fact Mukherjee’s scholarship is postcolonial in essence as it shows the veins in Indian literature that have assimilated and transformed western influence rather than simply derive from it. The lengthy appendix in Realism and Reality, of major novels in the Indian languages published between 1801 and 1900 ranging across several Indian languages from Assamese to Urdu, and her acknowledgement of scholars located in Patna, Delhi, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Austin and Naihati (West Bengal) reveal the phenomenal span of her intellectual and personal universe.

Towards the end of The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (2000) Mukherjee discusses the eclectic selection of Indian texts in English departments in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe and the absence of Indian language texts in translation. The ‘best novels from India do not find a ready readership abroad’ because being ‘stubbornly local’ they ‘resist reductive readings’[7]. She argues that, though the ‘fates of the Indian novel in English, and the Indian novel in English translation might continue to be dissimilar in the global market . . . there is a potentially large domestic market to justify the present surge of translations into English’[8].


Mukherjee’s collaborations, publications and contribution to the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) are indicative of a creative symbiosis with emerging discourses in literature studies worldwide. The 2007 volume Nation in Imagination: Essays on Nationalism, Sub-Nationalisms and Narration which she co-edited along with C Vijayasree, Harish Trivedi and T Vijay Kumar is one of many joint enterprises.[9] Here is what Anjana Sharma, editor of Frankenstein: Interrogating Gender, Culture and Identity (2004) says of Meenakshi Mukherjee, “It was her readiness then to aid a young researcher find publishing space . . . it taught me that to be a true scholar one must always encourage, guide, nudge others who are also seeking to find a voice of their own . . . you showed through your own example that ideas are only exciting if they are shared”.[10]


Mukherjee leaves behind a rich legacy for academics and students of literature. Her students, readers and collaborators are assurance that this legacy is set to grow.


-- by Sanjukta Das


Published December, 2009



[1] The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India, Rajeshwari Sundar Rajan, ed. New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks,1993.230-31

[2] The Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English, Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann (India), 1974. 10-13

[3] Re-reading Jane Austen, Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi: Orient Longman Ltd, 1995.49-69.

[4] ‘The Revenge of Prakriti?’, Meenakshi Mukherjee in Frankenstein: Interrogating Gender, Culture and Identity, Anjana Sharma, ed. New Delhi: Macmillan India Ltd, 2004. 169-76.

[5] Early Novels in India, Meenakshi Mukherjee, ed. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2002.viii.

[6] Realism and Reality: the Novel and Society in India, Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1999.

[7] The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English, Meenakshi Mukherjee New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 2002. 199

[8] Ibid,202

[9] Nation in Imagination: Essays on Nationalism, Sub-Nationalisms and Narration, C Vijayasree et al, Eds. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2007. Other books in this series edited by the same authors are Nation Across the World: Postcolonial Representations (2007) and Focus India: Postcolonial Narratives of the Nation(2007)

[10] Anjana Sharma, Frankenstein: Interrogating Gender, Culture and Identity, op cit. 4. viii.


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© Parabaas, 2009