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Meenakshi Mukherjee: A Tribute

A tribute to Meenakshi Mukherjee, teacher, writer, researcher and translator, who died in Hyderabad on 16 September.

COMMENTARY

Meenakshi Mukherjee: A Tribute

Jyotirmaya Sharma

A tribute to Meenakshi Mukherjee, teacher, writer, researcher and translator, who died in Hyderabad on 16 September.

Jyotirmaya Sharma (me@jyotirmayasharma. in) teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.

I
n September 2007, Meenakshi Mukherjee gave me a copy of Buddhadeva Bose’s The Book of Yudhisthir, translated from Bangla by her late husband, Sujit Mukherjee. As always, she inscribed the copy generously, but also added a postscript which says, “A book I have read and re-read for thirty years”. The final chapter of the book is titled “The Last Journey”, describing Yudhisthir’s mahaprasthan, where Buddhadeva Bose says this of Yudhisthir: “As a fact related by the text, we know that Yudhisthir goes to heaven. But we cannot shake off the feeling that the natural dwelling of celestial beings and brahman sages has no need of him. Instead, we need him, we who are the mortal beings of this earth.” All those who love and admire Meenakshidi would say the same of her. She belongs here, among her family, friends and students, not in some solitary, boring and sanitised idea of heaven. Her goodness and her laughter belong to this world.

In Tagore’s Gora, a novel that Meenkashi-di wrote about in a sparkling essay that served as an introduction to a new translation by Sujit Mukherjee, Sucharita discovers that people with noble thoughts can also laugh heartily. If only the fictional Sucharita could meet Meenakshi-di, all her doubts in this respect would have been dispelled for ever.

Meenakshi-di embraced life in a manner that would leave individuals half her age gasping for breath. She wrote, lectured, travelled, attended conferences, kept in touch with all her friends, gave loving care to her 93-year-old mother, and was a doting mother to her two daughters and a fond grandmother. She taught in Patna, Pune, Delhi and Hyderabad, and was the chairperson of the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) as well as the chairperson of the international wing of the ACLALS.

Meenakshi Mukherjee was a pioneer in shaping colonial and post-colonial studies, and especially the place of the novel in

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september 26, 2009 vol xliv no 39

India. She described it as “a genre nursed if not born out of a tension between opposing systems of value in a colonial society, and modified by certain indigenous pressures”. In doing so, she did not confine herself to the straitjacket of literary studies, but made regular forays into cultural history. If the

novel form remained her abiding interest and focus of attention, larger issues of national and cultural identity relentlessly engaged her attention, as also “how caste, class and gender fracture the imagined homogeneity” of the romantic idea of a unified and singular nationalism.

In 2003, her book The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English won for her the Sahitya Akademi Award. Her other celebrated works that centre on a reading of texts, especially novels, are The Twice Born Fiction and Realism and Reality: Novel and Society in India.

Her recent work, Elusive Terrain: Culture and Literary Memory, is a set of essays that delineate the ways in which questions of language, caste, gender, exile, religion, politics and memory remain unresolved in a bundle of tension that mark the challenges to plurality within the Indian nation.

Book on R C Dutt

Having finished her latest book, An Indian for All Seasons: The Many Lives of R C Dutt, in October last year, she wrote in a letter complaining that “I am not doing anything worthwhile, yet seem to be perpetually busy. Can’t figure this out. I must try and manage my time better.” But a few weeks later, the festival season left her longing for solitude. “The festival season is in full swing”, she wrote, “and even if I am not making an effort to be part of it, our house is flooded with visitors. Sometimes I long for the solitude of Berlin.” A year in Berlin, from 2007 to 2008, gave her not only the oppor tunity to write a definitive account of the life and times of Romesh Chunder Dutt, but also to examine the complex biography of a man whose life was “like a prism which refracts the relationships bet ween the West and India, colo nialism and nationalism, elite and subaltern Indians, literature and history and much else”. Some of these relationships were also part of her lifelong intellectual concerns. She called R C Dutt an Indian for all seasons: novelist, administrator, scholar of Sanskrit, translator, Anglophone moderniser, economist, political

COMMENTARY

agitator, public figure, and also one who enjoyed the company of family and friends, but was forced to spend a lot of time alone. One wonders if she was conscious of the fact that the title of her biography of Dutt is really an improvisation of the title of her essay on Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, which is called “The Novelist for All Seasons”. I want to ask her if she was conscious not merely of the similarities in the titles, but also the fact that in many ways the two men were similar, but a conversation has been cut short so very abruptly.

The launch of the R C Dutt biography was to be in Delhi. Meenakshi-di was nervous, especially because eminent historians were going to comment on what she thought was a “transgression” into their territory. She dismissed the suggestion that she was equally eminent, and was uncomfortable with the idea of a book launch. “My husband used to say that most books escape and only a few are launched”, she said and chuckled. I suggested that the reverse could also be true. I told her that her friends had been planning a grand launch of the book in Hyderabad. “Why do you want it”, she asked. I said we wanted to say nice things about her. “That happens only after one is dead”, she said, “and I am not dead yet”. Her mother and I grunted our disapproval of such a morbid thought. All those who knew her were aware how much this book meant to her. In writing it, she revelled in finding new sources, archival material, links and connections. When she found a new reference through a series of coincidences, she wrote with unconcealed glee: “I had always wanted to use the word ‘serendipitous’ and finally I have got the perfect occasion for it”. In venturing to write a historical biography, she was mostly thrilled at trying her hand at a new genre, but also a little apprehensive. Writing on 28 October 2007, she said: “Normally ‘Preface’ is written at the end – but I was trying to clarify for myself why I am writing this book”.

The conversation turned towards dedicating books. She said that her husband and she would discuss the dedication even before starting to write a book, primarily because they believed that books were written for people who one loves and admires. She asked me about my next book and wondered if I had thought of a dedication. I told her that it was to be dedicated to two friends, Papiya Ghosh and Sabina Sehgal Saikia, who had left abruptly. Meenakshi-di approved of this dedication. When Sabina died last year, Meenakshi-di had written saying that she knew what it was to lose close friends in quick succession. She wrote: “But do call me if you feel like talking about your friends, two such lively and vibrant persons, who died in the last two years so needlessly. I knew one of them well and the other came alive in the tributes I read today.”

I wonder who I can call after Meenakshi-di has passed on, and also wonder who is left who has even a fraction of her kindness, empathy and large-heartedness. Moreover, when the book is done, she will not be there to read the manuscript, give invaluable suggestions, and, then, end her comments with a blessing and benediction. “Actually the book ends too soon. I would have liked some more”, was how she concluded her comments last time.

Call for Project Proposals in Telecom

IIM Ahmedabad-IDEA Telecom Centre of Excellence (A PPP between IIMA, IDEA and Department of Telecom for furthering research)

This is call for project proposals from IIM Ahmedabad-Idea Telecom Centre of Excellence (IITCOE at IIM, Ahmedabad). Proposals must focus on “telecom policy, governance, regulation and management, especially marketing and customer care”. Projects should aim to provide insight into competition, regulatory and policy issues of network infrastructure and services, promise of multi-platform competition, implications for universal connectivity, pricing, sustainable competition, deployment, and innovation. Projects/papers may be theoretical, empirical, domestic, international or comparative.

Proposals may be submitted by individuals/groups of individuals working on their own or associated with institutions. The research proposals need to be e-mailed to the Executive Chair, IIMA Idea Telecom Centre of Excellence (IITCOE – iitcoe@iimahd.ernet.in). Funding on a competitive basis will be available to selected projects.

The process of the submission, selection and execution of the projects will be as follows:

  • a. Proposal submission – (October 31, 2009)
  • b. Double blind review of Proposals
  • c. A workshop for selected project proposals where the Project Initiator may be required to make a presentation on the project proposal possibly in early December.
  • d. Selection of projects based on the proposal and presentation
  • e. Handholding, guidance and phase wise deliverables
    to be determined for selected projects For further details on the project proposals:
    f. g. h. Interim project submissions – (February 15, 2010) Final project submission – (March 31, 2010) Blind review of completed projects for releasing the Email: iitcoe@iimahd.ernet.in Call: 079- 66324885
    final project amount. Visit: www.iimahd.ernet.in/iitcoe
    i. Workshop for Dissemination mid 2010.

    september 26, 2009 vol xliv no 39

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