Monday, February 10, 2020

Dr Sujit Mukherji

It was in 1958. I was in M.A. Previous. The PG English Dept was in Darbhanga House overlooking river Ganga. A tall, lanky newly-appointed lecturer, with eyes mostly glued to the lectern, was trying his best to impress us with his scholarship on  Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Though much of that wisecracking exposition of the discursive and bizarre novelist tended to drift over our heads. But outside the classroom, Sujit Mukherji (SM in our timetable) was a familiar figure in the campus, the most genial friend of his students, an avid cricketer, and the wittiest, the most jovial figure among teachers in the campus. As I have recalled later here, I had already met him once at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadagwasla, Pune, and he was very genial towards me, in particular, for that reason.

Only a couple of weeks back, we had his 17th death anniversary. I had in my computer files a memorable obituary tribute by Dr Sachidanand Mohanty, then Professor of English in University of Hyderabad, an excerpt from which I quote below, adding some reminiscences of my own at the end. Dr Mohanty’s tribute was originally published in the Literary Review of the Hindu on Feb 2, 2003, soon after SM’s demise in Hyderabad where he had finally settled down, after serving a long stint with the publishers, Orient Longman. Dr Mohanty wrote in his tribute:

“Dr. Sujit Mukherjee 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, “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. 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.
“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….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.

“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, (1968); Towards a Literary History of India, IIAS (1975); Forster and Further, (1978); Translation as Discovery and Other Essays,    (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, (1991); Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer (1996); Indian Essays on American Literature, Co-edited with K.Raghavacharyulu,     (1996); An Indian Cricket Century, edited with Ramchandra Guha, (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 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.”
Meenakshi (Mrs Mukherji) was one-year my senior. After teaching us only for a few months, SM went to Pensylvania for his Ph D, and soon thereafter, in December, 1959, I too joined my lectureship at Munger. In his recently published autobiography Relentless , Yashwant Sinha, also my friend at Patna University in those halcyon days, writes in the early pages of his book about an interesting interlude regarding his brief unsuccessful love affair with Meenakshi and, soon thereafter, as an ironical denouement, his receiving the embarrassing invite for the latter’s marriage with SM. Though, in retrospect, it appears, God often disposes in His superior wisdom, as the Mukherjis, in time, proved to be the most eminent scholarly couple Indian English academia ever had.

I now recall an earlier meeting in December, 1955, with SM at the NDA, near Pune, where I had gone to attend the passing out parade of my friend J K Benipuri, my childhood friend, and second son of the famous Hindi writer, Rambriksha Benipuri. After doing his MA, for a while SM had joined NDA as English Instructor, and was very happy to host a lunch for us there, as we were all from Patna where he belonged. It was a little later that he had joined Patna University as lecturer, and taught us in our MA classes. His marriage with Meenakshi had taken place during that very time; perhaps, in 1959.

I met him and Meenakshi next, years later in the mid-eighties, in their Hauz Khas flat in Delhi, and also in his cabin in Sahitya Academy where he was working as editor of A Dictionary of Indian Literature. Both in his flat and at his Sahitya Academy office, we had a lot of memories to share of the Patna University days, with Meenakshi joining more eloquently in the discussion. In those days, I was editing a research journal CONTOUR, and both Meenakshi and SM were very happy to receive its published numbers. Meenakshi also agreed to be on its Editorial Advisory Board. In his cabin, SM talked to me for quite a while about my father, Acharya Shivapoojan Sahay, and his important contributions to Hindi language and journalism.

In the last phase of his life, the couple went back to Hyderabad, where SM, even after his retirement from Orient Longmans, served that organization as a Consultant Scholar till the end of his life.

I have fond memories of both Meenakshi and Prof. Sujit Mukherji, as eminent scholars of in the field of multi-lingual literary studies and translation. Surfing on the net, I also came across an obituary article on Meenakshi by Sanjukta Das where she writes: “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… Mukherjee leaves behind a rich legacy for academics and students of literature. Her students, readers and collaborators have the assurance that this legacy is set to grow.”

I pay my homage to the scholarly couple from Patna who have done memorable service to the cause of Indian English studies in India, particularly in the field of inter-language discourse.

Photos : Courtesy Google Images
Special acknowledgement to Dr Mohanty & The Hindu for the obituary excerpt.