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THE LAST GENTLEMAN
- A life rich in experience, achievement and sheer human goodness

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The Bengali term, bhadralok, is generally translated as meaning “genteel folk”. Without question the most genteel, as well as gentlemanly, of the bhadralok intellectuals I have known was a prabasi named Sujit Mukh- erjee. He was born in 1930 in Patna, then considered by some a distant outpost of the Greater Bengal Empire. He took his first degrees in that city by the Ganga, and later studied for a doctorate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. On his return he taught at Patna and Poona before leaving the academy to join Orient Longman as their chief publisher. He worked for the firm for almost twenty years, based first in Delhi and then in Hyderabad. It was in Hyderabad that he died on the 14th of January, after a life rich in experience, achievement and sheer human goodness.

I used to say of Mukherjee that he was the only Bengali I knew who could laugh at Bengalis. Like many others of his ilk he read Desh regularly and with attention. Yet he was always amused by the magazine’s obsession with Bengal’s alleged victimization by the rest of India, and especially by Delhi. He claimed that once every year Desh ran a cover story or at least a major article with the title, “Aar koto din ei anyay…” (“For how much longer this injustice…”). The headline was portentous; but the contents of the article usually rather trivial, complaining that a Bengali cricketer had not been chosen for the Indian test team or that a Bengali writer had been overlooked (yet again!) for some literary award.

Mukherjee had numerous friends and admirers but, so far as I know, no disciples. He inspired affection and respect rather than deference. He befriended the young, and more unusually, would listen to them too. (Despite the nearly thirty years that separated us I never felt obliged to call him “Sujitda”.) In a culture riven by hierarchies of all kinds, Sujit scarcely cared about the age, gender, class or status of the individual he happened to be speaking to. Nor of their place of origin either. I have hardly met a less parochial Bengali, or a Bengali more curious about or more widely travelled in other parts of India or a Bengali whose best friends were more likely to be from Cuttack or Bangalore rather than from Calcutta.

Sujit also spoke Hindi better than any other Bengali of my acquaintance. This came from exposure to the Patna streets; meanwhile, at home, he had learnt and refined the use of his native tongue. Among his many contributions to literature are some fine translations of Rabindranath Tagore, in particular his rendition into English of Gora. While at Orient Longman, Sujit presided over a programme of translations of novels and stories from Indian languages. Among the works he helped commission were translations of Moti Nandy’s Striker and Stopper, and of Poisoned Bread, a wide-ranging and still unequalled anthology of Marathi Dalit literature.

Mukherjee’s first book was based on his doctoral dissertation. Called A Passage to America, this is an elegantly written account of Rabindranath Tagore’s reception in the land of hope and glory. Diligently using local newspapers, Sujit tracked the poet’s journeys through small- and big-town America, chronicling with care and wit the mixed reactions Tagore evoked: from open wonder to sheer disgust. A Passage to America is an exemplary work of literary history, as is a later book, Forster and Further, a comprehensive and always suggestive account of novels on Indian themes written by foreigners famous or obscure. A literary scholar I respect once told me that Forster and Further was worth a whole shelf of trendy works of post-structuralist criticism.

Teacher, translator, publisher, scholar: four distinct and rather different careers. And there was a fifth, that of cricketer and cricket-writer. As a young man, Mukherjee represented Bihar in the Ranji Trophy, batting doggedly down the middle order and bowling a handy medium-pace besides. From an early age he also read extensively in the literature of cricket. This mix of learning and experience informs the five books he wrote about the game. The best of these are the first, The Romance of Indian Cricket, published in 1968, and the last, Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer, which appeared in 1994.

Romance was a loving evocation of the players he had grown up watching and revering: Mankad, Merchant, Amarnath, C.K. Nayudu and the like. Autobiography presented sepia-toned memories of cricket in places as far apart — spatially as well as culturally — as Bihar and the east coast of north America. Yet, as M.J. Akbar observed, Sujit’s autobiography was not about cricket alone — “it is about an education, a lifestyle, a state of mind, a moment of history and, since the years bridge the transfer of power, a shift of mood”.

Sujit’s wife, Meenakshi, is a distinguished teacher and scholar herself, a pioneer in the study of the Indian novel and also an authority on Jane Austen. Like her husband she has much charm and no malice. In the early Nineties, the Mukherjees and I both lived in the New Delhi locality of Hauz Khas. We had many addas, where we spoke, of course of cricket, but also of literature, history, and Marxism. In the Mukherjees’ home, I met a range of unusual people, including Sujit’s own regular whisky buddies, the Hindi novelist, Rajendra Yadav, and the Oriya playwright, J.P. Das.

One evening, when I went over to Hauz Khas, Sujit was alone. Meenakshi was out of town, and so were J.P. Das and Rajendra Yadav. We talked while Sujit poured himself a drink — I am a teetotaller — and then another. Suddenly, in the middle of his third whisky, he asked me, in Hindi, “Kya tum off-spinner thé'”. Yes, I answered, I did indeed bowl off-breaks. “Tab ham tumko aise” — this said with a flick of the wrists and with a long stress on the first syllable, in the Bihari style — “hum tumko aiii-se mid-wicket ke upar se uttha dete.” (“This is how I would have lofted you for six over mid-wicket.”) This, I think, might have been the only boastful remark I ever heard him make.

When Sujit turned 70, Orient Longman organized a public felicitation in Hyderabad. Among the speakers were a fellow cricket-writer, a fellow translator, a fellow publisher, and a couple of old students. Also paying tribute was an old teacher, the distinguished Shakespearean scholar, S. Nagarajan. Professor Nagarajan suggested that Sujit’s character was best summed up by the definition of a gentleman in Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University. He then read out a relevant excerpt. I wish I could reproduce the excerpt here; but, since I do not have Newman’s book at hand, I must make do with an anecdote that says much the same thing.

It relates to Sujit’s translation of Gora, which was commissioned for the Sahitya Akademi by its then president, U.R. Anantha Murthy. This was the first translation into English in 60 ye-ars; moreover, the translator was known to be a wise and experienced hand. When word got around of the project, other and more reputable publishers began queueing at Sujit’s door. Penguin approached him; as did Oxford University Press, who were keen to use his work in their new series of Tagore translations.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense would have deserted the Sahitya Akademi. I certainly would have, had I been in his position. Indeed, I was deputed by one of these other publishers to persuade Sujit to come round. I told him the obvious: that his work would sell more, get more reviews, endure longer and be better produced if he abandoned a dodgy and insular sarkari publisher for an efficient and globally oriented private one. To all my arguments and reasons Sujit said, simply, that “I have given my word to Anantha Murthy”.

In literature, as in life, success comes more easily to those willing to seize the main chance and cut the necessary corners. Those were not the ways of Sujit Mukherjee. Yet he was highly regarded in each of his chosen fields in any case. His life demonstrates that old-world values are not necessarily incompatible with distinction and achievement.

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