Meenakshi Mukherjee, who passed away recently, was an enabling teacher, a path-breaking scholar and critic who had a devoted following?

Meenakshi Mukherjee, who passed away on September 16, was one of the most complete and versatile professors of English in the country, and one of the most influential and widely beloved. Over a span of four decades she made a vital contribution as both a caring and enabling teacher and a meticulous and insightful scholar. With each major book of hers, she opened a new field of literary enquiry and research and by her own example inspired others to further quarry that mine.

She attracted notice right at the beginning of her academic career when a doctoral thesis she wrote at the University of Poona was published in 1971 under the arresting if somewhat inscrutable title, The Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English. (In an obituary tribute recently, the title was inaccurately but plausibly recalled as The Twice-Told Tales.) Though the field had already been surveyed by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar in thorough detail in his masterly history, Indian Writing in English (1962), Meenakshi’s book was probably the first thematically organised and rigorously analytical study of it. It did more than any other work to make a study of Indian writers in English an acceptable academic pursuit and remains the most frequently cited book on the subject.

Landmark publication

This book covered the period 1930 to 1964 and the authors who loomed large in it were the founding trinity of the genre, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, together with the now faded figures of Bhabani Bhattacharya, Sudhin Ghose, Manohar Malgonkar and Kamala Markandaya. As we can see in retrospect, Meenakshi’s book happened to appear a decade before the Indian novel in English was born rather more spectacularly for a third time, with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and the award of the Booker prize to it in 1981.

Through the years, Meenakshi kept assiduously abreast of the new and newer novelists to arise on the Indian English horizon. She got to read Midnight’s Children in proof as she knew the publisher, and A Suitable Boy in typescript as she knew the author. But she never wrote the book which she was widely expected to write as a sequel to The Twice Born Fiction which would bring the story forward from 1964 to say 2004.

As she said in a new Preface to a reprint of The Twice Born Fiction in 2001, she did not wish to revise or supplement that classic work, for not only had the Indian novel in English become something else meanwhile but the critical discourse on it had changed no less radically. That subject now needed to be viewed in “state-of-the art theoretical frames” and in a Cultural Studies perspective, and she “did not feel she was the right person” for undertaking that vastly different project.

When she did return to Indian writing in English in her collection of essays The Perishable Empire (2000), it was not to go forward in time but rather to go back, to some of the forgotten authors and texts from the 19th century such as Bankim’s solitary novel in English Rajmohan’s Wife, two Christian reformist novels by Krupabai Satthianadhan, and the poet Toru Dutt, thus building on and consolidating earlier work done in this neglected area by scholars such as Subhendu Mund and Chandani Lokuge whom she duly acknowledged.

For The Perishable Empire she won the Sahitya Akademi award, seldom given to mere literary critics as distinct from creative writers. But as so often, the award came a little late and should have gone with greater justification to an earlier work of hers, Realism and Reality: the Novel and Society in India (1985). This was perhaps her most original and intellectually stimulating book. Moving away from the Indian novel in English, she now took up a major new theme: the Indian novel in the Indian languages. Focusing on the first fine flowering of this genre, often only too glibly regarded as a direct import from the West, she discussed here the “Nutana” (in Sanskrit, the new or novel) vis-À-vis the “Purana” (the Old, or the Indian pre-novel narrative forms) and posed a crucial question: was the Western form of the middle-class realist novel suited to the Indian reality and to our older ways of representing it non-realistically?

Sustained study

In the process, she ranged over a whole spectrum of novels from various Indian languages: Yamuna Paryatan and Pan Lakshyant Kon Gheto from Marathi, Chandrakanta and Godan from Hindi, Umrao Jan Ada from Urdu, Indulekha from Malayalam, and Anandamath, Srikant and Pather Panchali from Bengali. It wasn’t just a whistle-stop tour of the Indian novel but a sustained investigation into why the Indian novel turned out to be different from its putative model, the Western novel, and also how “to reconcile the demands of realism with the intransigence of reality.”

Meenakshi’s wide comparative scholarship here, awesome as it seemed, came under heavy fire from some eminent scholars of the Indian languages. But the fact remains that she came forward and initiated a discourse in English on a highly significant issue which many of them could not or would not have — except Sisir Kumar Das, whose single-handed History of Indian Literature in three volumes (published by the Sahitya Akademi) is probably the most magnificent work of our times in that rich area.

Fruitful fusion

With all her overtly Indian leanings and inclinations, Meenakshi had a fairly Western sense of professionalism which made her do what she could do in print as and when she could do it rather than wait for perfect fullness of knowledge. She did not adopt the alternative mode of spontaneous enunciation in the traditional Indian vachik parampara, the oral mode of direct communication, which eschews the finality of print and which therefore often disappears as soon as the audience disperses. She even wrote out in full her preliminary remarks each time she spoke or introduced a speaker, and every couple of years, on average, she produced a book, authored or (co-)edited, which will remain available as part of the discourse for years to come.

As editors of the quarterly Vagartha (25 issues, 1973-1979), Meenakshi with her no less distinguished scholar-translator husband Sujit published an exciting corpus of translations from the Indian languages, a selection from which was reprinted as Another India (1990). A volume of conference papers that she co-edited with me, Interrogating Postcolonialism (1996; rptd. 2000, 2006) made an impact internationally, probably in view of its topicality. Another book which did so was her elegant and concise volume on Jane Austen (1991) published in London, which she was chuffed to do, as she told me, for it would demonstrate that she could write equally on canonical English Literature.

Finally, what made her scholarship especially effective was the style and the tone in which she formulated it. She did not dazzle with brilliance or polemics or striking phrasing; rather, she set out to gently persuade with insights based on studious cogency and modest critical acumen. Her trademark lucidity ensured that no reader had any difficulty following her. She has left behind a whole cohort of devoted followers.

Harish Trivedi is Professor of English at the University of Delhi.