Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, who passed away recently, is to me more than a brilliant academic and critic.R.K. Narayan had analysed his own strengths: ‘I have roots in family and religion.’ Meenakshi was probably no believer; but I had sensed all along that she had roots in family and Indian culture. This impression was confirmed by a chapter she sent over a year ago from her memoirs in progress. She calls this chapter ‘Innocents Abroad’: the one theme that lights up her first American sojourn is her personal relationships, of family and friends.
In Pennsylvania where she had done her Masters, family ties proved decisive. Their attachment to India and their family, including the two sets of parents, too was a compelling force. Although they had offers from the U.S., the couple decided to return to India:
Meenakshi had married her own teacher Sujit (‘a professional hazard’, she said later to a friend). Now In ‘Innocents Abroad’ the most vibrant theme is the mutuality of the couple.
In Pennsylvania, she travelled with Sujit to many towns and cities and examined newspaper archives and microfilms to help Sujit complete his doctoral assignment in time. She travelled to take up her first teaching assignment abroad, to a small American town called Geneseo, ‘Sujit willingly taking a day off from his dissertation writing to give me moral support.
She was twenty-four.I had never been a big-city person . . . I had until that time lived a sheltered life at home in India, and had never even stayed in a hostel.
The thought gave her ‘a nervous stomach ache all through the journey. I tried to ignore it because the weather was crisp, the hillside bright with rust and gold.
’The small-town young woman went through the agony of initiation. . . . I would be staying in that unknown place all by myself for at least one academic year. Sujit was to return to Philadelphia after helping me to settle in, because he was in the last stages of writing his Ph. D dissertation and needed to be near the library there.
And then Sujit left for PennsylvaniaI suddenly felt a kind of desolation I had never known in my life. I vividly remember one day sitting alone at sunset on a hill that seemed to slope towards infinity, wondering what I was doing alone in this unfamiliar world when all those I loved were scattered elsewhere.
At Geneseo Meenakshi was a witness to history; Meenakshi also made history. An Indian, and a woman at that, was taking up a teaching assignment in a small all-white American community. She greatly enjoyed her first teaching assignment.
I stood out as the only woman in a sari in the entire campus–or in rather the entire town of Geneseo–or perhaps the entire Livingston County. I was compelled to stick to sari because the other two options for me—salwar-kameez or trousers—were not permitted. Young people reading this today will be surprised to know that there was a time in the U.S.A when women academics were not allowed to wear trousers (‘pants’) at work, and in those days of ignorance of other cultures the Americans looked upon salwar as a kind of pyjama—their word for sleeping apparel.
And she adds: But I could not, somehow, take to wearing dresses or skirts—that was something I had given up wearing even before I finished high school in Patna.
How could I make a career in a country in which my academic efforts would always be obliterated by the difference in my appearance?
But I still like to remember the place and the people as seen through the eyes of a wide-eyed twenty-four year old for whom the world was new and full of promise.
Meenakshi enjoyed the vantage of perspective.The world has certainly changed since then! English Departments all over North America now have Indian faculty members.The Postcolonial Studies field in particular seems to be dominated today by South Asian women. What they wear hardly seems to matter, and in any case all over the world people dress similarly these days. Even in India—at least in metropolitan India—there has been a total liberation in terms of clothing, and very few women under fifty would be routinely seen in a sari. Whenever I go to international conferences nowadays, I am struck by the regulation use of black among women academics all over the world, and I feel pleased to see that at least half of them have skin colours that are other than white. This great racial scrambling of the academic world, at least in my discipline, began around the seventies. Having lived through those early years of unspoken segregation, I find the change dramatic and exhilarating.
And satisfying; she had pioneered this great scrambling’.
‘Strangely enough, though, inside a classroom even then I never felt like a foreigner.’
As a teacher over the decades in India she developed into a legend.
After retirement from JNU Meenakshi turned down the offer of an extension of service; Meenakshi and Sujit went back and settled in Hyderabad.
Sometime after Sujit’s death, she wrote to me about how her loneliness was becoming difficult to cope with. When I called on her at their Hyderabad residence, the drawing-room had five or six photo prints neatly arranged behind the visitor’s sofa: all of Sujit. Her bonding with Sujit, it seems to me, was the highlight of her life.
She coped. Her own mother had come down to live with her. And she went on to write; and more than ever visit and guide various university departments in the rural South; and with Professor Harish Trivedi and team organized the most successful ACLALS conference ever in Hyderabad.
Way back in their Patna days, a concerned mother in the neighborhood brought along her young son who was spending more time on ‘writing’ than on his studies. Meenakshi talked to the young man, read the ms in progress and assured the mother that her son had it in him. This was Vikram Seth at work on his Suitable Boy.
The first time I had gone to her in 1964, at her home in Greater Kailash, New Delhi, I had gone with a sheaf of stories; her spontaneous words of praise eventually impressed Ravi Dayal, leading to the publication of my first novel. Ravi himself published my stories, using Meenakshi’s note as the blurb. In that inscription she remembered the year I had gone to her first.
Meenakshi’s cultural integrity expressed itself also in her contribution to the promotion of translations.The literary journal, Vagarth, she started only to promote translations among Indian languages. At Hyderabad University she gave the M.Phil degree to any student who translated a novel from an Indian language into English and wrote an Introduction.
In the best traditions of English teachers in India, Meenakshi was bilingual. In her list of publications, one of her more important books is always left out, (one of her students points out) because it is in Bengali. It would remain a landmark in Bengali-language literary criticism and she was personally very attached to this book. It is called Upanyashye Atit: Itihash o Kalpoitihash [The Past in the Novel: History and Imagined History], Thema, Calcutta, 2003.
Sujit had passed away in sleep at their home in Hyderabad; the book he had been reading rested on his chest. When her turn came Meenakshi was at the Hyderabad airport, waiting for the boarding call to Delhi where her latest book was going to be launched the following day. When the flight call came she had passed on, with the Self-respect of an Emily Dickinson persona.
‘Give me o God,’ goes an ancient Indian prayer, ‘Give me o God, a life without dependence of any kind, and a death without the least suffering.