A WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS - Meenakshi Mukherjee and her biography of R.C. Dutt

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By Postscript - Githa Hariharan
  • Published 15.11.09

Sometimes, reading a book by someone I know, I feel I am getting to know the person all over again. If the person is a friend, this is indeed a bonus, and I find myself mentally listing points for an animated discussion in the near future. But what if I can no longer talk to the friend about her book? What if the friend has gone where my reactions cannot follow her? These questions hovered at the back of my mind as I read Meenakshi Mukherjee’s new book, a biography of Romesh Chunder Dutt, entitled An Indian for All Seasons: The Many Lives of R.C. Dutt.

I knew Meenakshi Mukherjee for more than 25 years; to me, as to many others, she was Meenakshi-di. But I had not met her in the last five years. Then like an unexpected gift, I travelled to Hyderabad in September this year; and we met several times during the week that turned out to be the last days of her life.

One of those days, she took me to lunch at the Secunderabad Club. Meenakshi-di was to leave for Delhi soon for the launch of the book on Dutt, and she was excited. She was also nervous, she said, having ventured for the first time into full-fledged biography, and one closer to history than literature. We spoke a little about my new novel, which she was writing a review of. Then we made our way to the club library where Meenakshi-di had to return some books. In the library, we forgot about our own books. We looked at the new arrivals, whispering recommendations to each other. There were several books she wanted to borrow. At one point she turned to me and said ruefully, “I already have a pile on the bedside table. I shouldn’t be so greedy.”

This greed — her appetite for books — was for story and idea, people and travel, and for a range of human experience. It’s this greed, the ability and desire to engage with ideas, but above all with people, that shone throughout Meenakshi-di’s life and her life’s work. It’s what drew people to her, made them seek her out for her sound opinion on matters of literature as well as lived life. It did not make her predictable or boring, but she was always a reliable team-player, to the great benefit of her family, friends, colleagues and students.

I saw her often in a role that required her to be a member of a functioning unit. She and her husband, Sujit Mukherjee, made up something of an institution as a couple. They read and entertained, they brought people together. Part of the enjoyment of meeting them was seeing the spark between them, usually expressed through a lively exchange of words. It was clear that these two shared a deep friendship among many other things. But Meenakshi-di’s talent for people required a larger setting than the family. She was, first and foremost, a teacher — a teacher who didn’t just teach, but also liked her students, so that she was interested in every aspect of their lives. That last lunch we had together, she was asking around for haleem so she could serve it at a dinner she was planning for an old student visiting her. In the days after Meenakshi-di’s death, her friends and admirers exchanged memories of her in public and private. Among the touching tributes was one from a young woman who messaged me, “She taught my father English, she taught my mother how to cook fish. And she taught me not to bunk class.” In other words, a good teacher rarely remains within the confines of a classroom.

I am not surprised that Meenakshi Mukherjee was intrigued enough by R.C. Dutt to research his life and write a biography. Dutt had numerous identities. Social scientists remember him for his two-volume Economic History of India, and Mukherjee quotes the economist, D.R. Gadgil, who described these volumes as “in essence, a preview of what later came to be called the economics of colonialism”. For readers of Bengali, Dutt is the author of four historical novels. There are those who know him through his writings in English — my own knowledge of his work is through his abridged verse-translation versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

This successful administrator working under the British, a recipient of the title, Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire, actually became the president of the Indian National Congress in 1899. After he took early retirement from government service, he spent years in England writing and lecturing tirelessly on the “India Question”. Among the major concerns of these lectures were excessive land revenue, the destruction of indigenous industry and the frequency of famines. He also taught Indian history and translated several Sanskrit texts into English.

The fact that Dutt had such a dizzying range of interests, and led so many lives in one life, must have attracted Mukherjee, the biographer, in the first place. She writes that as she delved more into the life and works of Dutt, she began to discover “the amazing versatility of the man”. I think Dutt’s sense of balance — his being both ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ — must have also inspired Mukherjee’s admiration. Her own sense of balance ensures that while she is a sympathetic biographer, she does not gloss over Dutt’s contradictions or inconsistencies. She points out, for example, the shift in Dutt’s sympathy towards the land-owning section of Bengali society; or the “gap between the rhetoric and content” of Dutt’s letters to Lord Curzon, his plea for reform in the administrative system rather than for self-government. Mukherjee also conscientiously presents a wide and mixed range of other commentators’ analyses of Dutt’s political, economic and literary contributions.

Mukherjee sees Dutt’s life as “a prism which refracts the relationships between the West and India, colonialism and nationalism, elite and subaltern Indians, literature and history and much else”. To explore this prism, she hopes to “situate his life in the map of British India, highlighting in the process the fault lines that inevitably appear at the interface of uneven cultures”. But, above all, this is a biographer who wants to do a sensitive and thorough job of fleshing out a remarkable individual. She wants to attempt “a composite narrative” that may weave in the different lives Dutt led. The title Mukherjee has chosen for her book says a great deal about Dutt and about what she thought was admirable in Dutt. But it also says something to us about Meenakshi-di, a woman for all seasons, a woman who lived many lives in one.

Meenakshi Mukherjee’s literary criticism includes books such as The Twice Born Fiction, Realism and Reality: Novel and Society in India and The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English, for which she won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2003. She will be remembered with admiration for her literary criticism, her translations, and her teaching. Most of all, she will be remembered for showing us what it is to live a rich life, full of books, food, travel, conversations in many languages, people and more people.