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First Indian ‘Man of Letters’ of USA was a Bengali

16 April, 2021 11:25:22
First Indian ‘Man of Letters’ of USA was a Bengali

He was the first successful Indian ‘Man of Letters’ in the United States and won a Newbery Medal in 1928. Dhan Gopal Mukerji, a graduate from Scottish Church College went on to conquer the world through letters and made a name for himself in University of Tokyo, University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University.

Born on 6 July 1890, in a village near Calcutta on the edge of a jungle called Kajangal, Mukerji’s father, whom he describes as ‘an Olympian who was lost in the world’ was a lawyer who gave up his practice due to ill health and studied music instead, while also officiating as priest at the village temple. Dhan Gopal describes his childhood and adolescence in his autobiography Caste and Outcast written in 1923 as to how he was inducted into the Brahminical tradition of his ancestors, and his experiences wandering for a year as an ascetic, as was the custom for boys in strict priestly households. However, disillusioned with the traditional role and impatient of the backward-looking element in strict Hindu society, he left the ascetic life to study at the University of Calcutta. Here, in the circle of his brother Jadugopal Mukherjee's friends, he came in contact with the ideas of the Bengal resistance. Jadu Gopal was subsequently jailed without trial from 1923 to 1927. Dhan Gopal later wrote a memoir about Jadu Gopal, titled My Brother's Face.

Dhan Gopal took his ideology with him to America where he fell in with ‘anarchists’ like himself. In San Francisco he looked about for a way to support himself and pay for his college education, and soon started writing..

In 1910, hoping to save him from police action, Dhan Gopal’s family sent him to Japan to study industrial machinery. Although he was initially fascinated with the spirit of industrialization, later he became deeply disillusioned by the assembly line method of production and proclivity towards sheer efficiency which he viewed as dehumanising, degrading and debasing. He was particularly shocked by how assembly line workers who had suffered serious accidents were quickly replaced by other workers, without consideration by the factory owners or employers for either their medical recovery, health benefits or adequate compensation. After a short stay in Japan, he boarded a ship for San Francisco.

Barely out of his teens, Dhan Gopal had absorbed enough revolutionary ideology from his peers to have been well on the way to following in his brother's footsteps and may not have left India entirely willingly. Dhan Gopal took his ideology with him to America where he fell in with ‘anarchists’ like himself. In San Francisco he looked about for a way to support himself and pay for his college education, and soon started writing. Around 1916 he wrote Sandhya, Songs of Twilight and Rajani or Songs of the Night, two books of poems, and Laila Majnu, a musical play in three acts, all published by Paul Elder and Co. of San Francisco. 

He started studying at University of California at Berkeley, but financial constraints and his political radicalism made him move on to Stanford University, from where he earned a graduate degree in metaphysics in 1914. He socialised with leftists, anarchists and freethinkers and became aware of the plight of the underclass, the white middle class, Negroes and other East Asian immigrant groups. He married Ethel Ray Dugan, an American artist and painter, in 1918, and they had a son, also called Dhan Gopal. His son popularly known as ‘Dan’ Mukerji became one of the top officials of Pan American Airlines.

In the 1920s, Mukerji moved to New York City and began his most prolific period of writing, published mainly by E.P. Dutton. Of his many children’s books, Kari the Elephant was the first to see publication, in 1922, followed by Hari, the Jungle Lad two years later and Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon in 1927. Mukerji won the 1928 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association recognising it as the year’s best American children's book. The story features a carrier pigeon, Gay-Neck: his training and care in the flock owned by the narrator, his drafting as a messenger for the Indian army in France during World War I, and his return to India where he and his handler deal with the wounds and memories of war in the seclusion of a lamasery. Mukerji’s other children’s books include Ghond, the Hunter (1928), The Chief of the Herd (1929), Hindu Fables for Little Children (1929), Rama, the Hero of India (1930, produced for the children of Dalton School where his wife taught), The Master Monkey (1932), and Fierce-Face, the Story of a Tiger (1936). 

Dhan Gopal started studying at University of California at Berkeley, but financial constraints and his political radicalism made him move on to Stanford University, from where he earned a graduate degree in metaphysics in 1914. He socialised with leftists, anarchists and freethinkers and became aware of the plight of the underclass, the white middle class, Negroes and other East Asian immigrant groups.

Among Mukerji's writings for adults are A Son of Mother India Answers (1928) (partly in response to Katherine Mayo's Mother India), Devotional Passages from the Hindu Bible and Visit India with Me (1929), Disillusioned India (1930) and My Brother's Face (1932). The Face of Silence (1926) is about the nineteenth-century saint and visionary Ramakrishna Paramhansa and is said to have deeply influenced Romain Rolland. 

The details of his later life are hazy, but there is some evidence to believe that relations with his wife entered a difficult phase at the end of his life. In spite of his many friends he felt deeply isolated and marginalised in America, as he could do very little, beyond raising funds and entertaining visiting celebrities, to further the cause of the Indian independence movement. The choices he had made in life prevented him from ever returning permanently to India, and it is possible to see his urge to write of the jungles and animals of his native land as a means of compensating for their absence. The unhappiness of his final years drove him further into spirituality, fuelled his interest in the spiritual heritage of his motherland and gave urgency to his desire to interpret and explain India to the West. On 14 July 1936, his wife, returning from the family's home in New Milford, Connecticut, discovered Mukerji had hanged himself in a closet in his New York City apartment.

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