Remembering Sujit

Sujit Mukherjee, 1930-2003.  

IN the summer of 1982, life did not seem too promising! The tragic death of my mother, poet Bidyutprabha, and the imminent retirement of my father from service, added to my middle class anxiety as a temporary lecturer, in the English Department of Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.

The postman laid the mail of the day on my desk. I slit open the inland postmarked 12th June, 1982, my eyes riveted on the neat hand writing. " Dear Mr. Mohanty", the letter began, "thank you very much for your review in the Journal of Literary Studies of my book on translation. It is the first proper review that has appeared and in it you have paid the author the highest possible compliment — namely you have read through the book quite closely." The compliment, a badly needed morale booster, was followed by an expression of hope: "My book then is specially aimed at persons like you since I believe that the future of what I have called the Indo-English literature lies in the hands of the young and as yet unspoilt teachers of English literature."

The note carried the letterhead of Orient Longman Publishers. It was signed by Sujit Mukherjee, whose only acquaintance with me then was through the review copy of Translation as Discovery, as the author of the book, passed on to me by P.C. Kar (now a Professor at the M.S. University, Baroda) the then editor of the JLS.

The letter, crisply written in a dignified tone with a remarkable economy of words, captures for me most aptly the vision and critical acumen of Dr. Sujit Mukherjee, who passed away in his sleep at his Rukmini Devi Colony, Annexe House, Secunderabad, on January 14, 2003. It was the auspicious Sankranti day. According to believers, "The gates of Heaven open on this day to welcome the truly blessed."

And blessed certainly he was! All those who knew Sujit Mukherjee would testify to his qualities of the head and the heart. A man who cherished high scholarly ideals but sought no position or worldly success, he endeared himself to a whole generation of students, scholars and admirers. Recalls Tutun Mukherjee, Professor of English at Osmania University, whose father was a friend of Sujit-da's brother, Suhash Mukherjee: "It is not important how long you knew Sujit-da. You always came under the spell of his care, concern and scholarship. He was a wonderful human being, full of wit, humour and laughter. To me he was an elder brother, friend and advisor." This would be a refrain with many who visited Sujit-da and his equally distinguished spouse Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee at their SFS flat at Hauz Khas, New Delhi. Many of us received their unbounded love during our trips to the capital. Meenakshi-di then taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Sujit Mukherjee was a "Probashi Bangali", who came from an illustrious family in Patna. His father Bhupati Mukhopadhyaya was a Professor of Economics and his mother Amala Devi was a woman of strong ideals. Active in social work, she started many institutions for widows. Sujit-da had four brothers and one sister who excelled in varied professions and made up a well-knit family. Today they are all gone.

Sujit Mukherjee had his early education at St. Xaviers School, Patna and Patna College. Years later in a contribution to an excellent volume devoted to a profile of great educational institutions of India, edited by historian Mushirul Hassan, Sujit-da recalled that there were three tennis courts by the river and contemporaries included famous personalities like the current External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha.

Mukherjee obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on his dissertation: "A Passage to America" (1963). It is about the rise and fall of the Tagore reputation in the United States. By this time he was married. How did it happen, I asked Meenakshi Mukherjee. "Well, I was his student", she recalled, "It was one of those occupational hazards, you know!" Together they travelled to many towns and cities and examined newspaper archives and microfilms. Robert Miller, of the famous Cycle of American Literature fame, was his senior course instructor and thesis supervisor. He encouraged Sujit-da to take up a fresh area of study. In the1960s this was decidedly pioneering and required courage of a certain kind that bordered on the foolhardy. In 1964 he and D.V.K. Raghavacharyulu brought out a volume together on Indian responses to American Literature, a path-breaking work.

Although they had offers from the U.S., the couple decided to return to India. "There was no question then", recalls Meenakshi-di; "He wanted to go out of Patna and didn't want to work abroad. The Poona University appointment came in 1966." Professor S. Nagarajan, the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar had taken charge of the Department and Sujit-da plunged whole-heartedly into teaching from 1966 to 1970. While he taught at the University, she joined the local Ferguson College. Two daughters, Rukmini and Rohini added to their happiness. Among Sujit-da's students were Sudhakar Marathe, Latika Padgaonkar and Bikas Chakrabarty, well-known names today.

Why did Sujit-da quit teaching? "Well," reminiscences Meenakshi Mukherjee, "he found that the syllabus was largely irrelevant, while the proficiency of most students in the language was rather poor. An offer came from Orient Longman and with this Sujit-da entered another significant phase of his career, namely, publishing. He joined as a publisher, became the Chief Publisher, then joined the Board of Directors of Orient Longman. And after retirement he served as a consultant." In 1971 a post was created in the North, and the couple moved to Delhi. Meenakshi-di joined Lady Sriram College, and in 1979 she moved to the University of Hyderabad, English Department. Fortunately, the Central office of Orient Longman too shifted around this time to the Deccan.

At Orient Longman, Sujit-da oversaw practically the whole of the publishing programme, although clearly his forte was translation, literature and culture. Recalls Priya Aderkar, his junior in the company, currently a consultant: "He loved to publish. He showed a great devotion to scholarship and loved books with academic integrity. He was specially drawn to regional literature." Adds Sheila Kurian, the current Marketing Manager of the company: " He started an in-house newsletter, called the OWL." Incidentally, the Mukherjee drawing room at Hyderabad also boasts a lovely collection of owls, as visitors would notice.

Sujit-da had a strict sense of loyalty to his organisation. "He would not even drop me at the Oxford University Press, when I had a manuscript with them," recalls Meenakshi-di. "He would say, `non-OUP editors seen at the OUP doorstep would be mistaken and held suspect.'" For him Orient Longman remained a lifelong commitment.

As a publisher, Sujit-da pioneered the translation series, the "Sangam Books" in the1970s, his own interest going back to the 1950s when he translated Rabindranath, published in Visva Bharati Patrika. A translation of Bengali poet Nirendranath Chakrabarty called Naked King and Other Poems followed. He issued a paperback translation of Iravati Karve's Yuganta, which was a huge success. His Translation as Discovery (1981), was a landmark in the field and Meenakshi-di recalled that he had almost finished Translation as Recovery at the time of his passing.

The corpus of academic and other works by Sujit Mukherjee who himself was a fulltime publisher is truly remarkable. Besides the titles mentioned before, there are numerous others: The Romance of Indian Cricket, Orient Longman paperback, 1968; Playing for India, Orient Longman, 1972; Towards a Literary History of India, IIAS, 1975; Between Indian Wickets, Orient Longman paperback, 1978; Forster and Further, Orient Longman, 1978; Translation as Discovery and Other Essays, Orient Longman, 1981; Some Positions on a Short History of India, CIIL, 1981; The Book of Yudhistir, by Buddhadev Bose, translated by Sujit Mukherjee, Sangam Books, 1986; A Dictionary of Indian Literature, Orient Longman, 1991; Three Companions by Tagore, translated by Sujit Mukherjee, Orient Longman, 1992; Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer, Ravi Dayal, 1996; Indian Essays on American Literature, edited with K.Raghavacharyulu, ASRC and Popular Prakashan 1996; Matched Winners, Disha, 1996; Gora by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Sujit Mukherjee, Sahitya Akademi, 1997; An Indian Cricket Century, edited with Ramchandra Guha, Orient Longman, 2002.

Cricket too was a passion. Rukmini recalls her father playing cricket in Patna in his long-sleeve shirts. "Tennis, swimming, travel and his love for the outdoor are what we remember the most about father", she said. He played for the Ranji Trophy. At Patna, he was a legend. In the U.S., where people did not play cricket, Sujit Mukherjee travelled and represented the East Coast. In his Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer, he profiled the role played by small towns of India.

In an obituary note emailed from Australia, the distinguished Sri Lankan couple Brendon and Yasmine Gooneratne recalled that among their acquaintances, Sujit Mukherjee stood out by the qualities of his head and heart. Yasmine said that it was her singular good fortune to meet the ideal literary editor. Today as I look nostalgically back at the letter I received way back in 1982, I think of the myriad dimensions of this extraordinary personality that was Sujit Mukherjee: his razor-sharp intelligence, imaginative apprehension of literature, balanced assessment of complex issues, his support for projects pioneering in character... I also think of his joie de vivre, his impatience with claptrap and pretentious behaviour, his sense of humility and total absence of academic arrogance, his encouragement to the younger generation and spirit of consideration — qualities rare in today's academic and publishing world.

I can do no better than recite the moving lines sent by the Gooneratnes from Australia:

They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead, They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed. I wept as I remembered how often you and I Had tied the Sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

(Translation of Callimachus Epigram 2, 1858)

Sachidananda Mohanty is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Hyderabad.