Meenakshi Mukherjee was a fine scholar whose opinions could reach a large audience as they were not extremist and she had the skill to present her ideas in a palatable manner. Within the English academy in India she became an iconic figure with two of her influential works: Twice Born Fiction and Realism and Reality. When they came out, they were a fresh departure from the then prevalent inexactitude and particularism in Indian criticism in English. Mukherjee in those two early works combines textual, empirical and sociological analysis to foreground theoretical discussion of the respective fields. Both her books quickly became beacons to many in the English departments of Indian universities who had begun to do research on Indian writers. I remember reading them when I was doing my postgrad at Pune. I had a course in Indian literature in English translation where we studied some modern novels too. There wasn’t much criticism in English available in the local libraries on Indian language writers such as Premchand, Ananthamurthy and the like. What little was there was full of platitudes giving no insights. Reading an article was tedious as one had to search for the critical opinion among a mass of summary.
As against such ‘dull sublunary’ writings MM offered a welcome change, we felt. Her Realism and Reality enveloped the works under discussion within a broader theoretical framework. It traced historical and sociological patterns and lead back to textual features thus helping us to locate the works in a material context. Her opinions were not airy nothings, her analysis was not summarization, her discussion was not idolatry or it’s opposite. You may differ with her perception but you can at least find something to disagree which is not always a case with criticism.
MM’s later work moved in line with the theory burst. She became an important voice of the postcolonial canon especially one that questioned the status of English literary productions from India. Her familiarity with Indian language literatures other than English made her a special kind of a thinker. Many of the academics who write in English have no familiarity with the surrounding other literatures. MM brought her knowledge especially of Bangla, Hindi and Marathi literatures into her interventions into Indian English literature in her book The Perishable Empire.
She developed a subtle criticism of some Indian English writers on the ground that there is an implicit re-orientalising in their works. Such a tendency surfaces in minute ways, for example the manner in which seasons are depicted or the manner in which names are deployed. Just think: some Indian English writers in their descriptions terms such as “In India rain comes in June…” This is not an exact line from a novel but close enough (see for example Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan). This tendency to generalize rather than be specific to the location is one of the points she discusses. She had a famous spat with Vikram Chandra about his use of terms such as Dharma, Artha as story-titles. She felt that use of such terms indicate the desire to display the ‘Indianness’ to the western reader. She contrasts this with Indian language writers who, she claims, wouldn’t resort to such terminology as they do not have to exhibit their Indianness.
Vikram Chandra wrote a piece which was strident in its attack of the academicians who criticize Indian English writers for ‘re-orientalising’. He bashed the critics for being prescriptive and selective in their partiality to the Indian language writings. I believe even Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan joined issue favouring Chandra over MM, though I haven’t come across the article.
I was in Hyderabad the day she expired. I was in a seminar and she had spoken on that occasion. Perhaps her last address. She spoke on Gita Hariharan. I am sad she is no more with us.