Source : The Hindu – Sunday Magazine – Sachidananda Mohanty
Dhan Gopal Mukerji was writing diaspora fiction in the 1920s, long before the concept became fashionable
Indian-American authors might be all the rage today but they were a rarity at the beginning of the 20th century. But there was one man in the 1920s writing children’s books in America with clearly Indian themes and settings.
He was Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936), a writer largely forgotten today. Eminent Stanford critic Gordon H. Chang describes Mukerji as a person who “holds the distinction of being the first author of Asian-Indian ancestry who successfully wrote for American audiences about Indian life”.
Dhan Gopal was born on July 6, 1890, in a village on the outskirts of Calcutta. His early education was in schools set up by Scottish missionaries; eventually he went to the University of Calcutta, where he displayed a special flair for English. The memories of his serene childhood would serve him well in his later turbulent years.
An intellectual life
Dhan Gopal greatly admired his elder brother Jadu Gopal, who was part of the militant nationalist movement in British India. Although Jadu seems to have played a crucial role in the immigration of his younger brother, what Dhan Gopal did exactly to make his way to American academia remains ambiguous. Chang says there are two versions, one heroic and another more practical, and both seem to have been encouraged by Dhan Gopal himself. According to the first, “Heeding his brother, Mukerji escaped by diving into the Ganges in Calcutta and swimming out to seek refuge aboard a Dutch ship, which happened to be bound for Japan.”
To his family, he said that “he may have worked as a laborer in Idaho harvesting sugar beets, and somewhere along the way, his charm, intelligence and English language ability impressed the foreman, who encouraged him to leave the fields to get a higher education.” Whatever the case, Dhan Gopal entered the University of California in August 1910, one of the few of his compatriots to do so.
Dhan Gopal’s fame has to be measured against the fact that there was a fair bit of discrimination at this time against Asian-Americans, which had culminated in The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act. Dhan Gopal probably survived by largely keeping himself confined to academics, unlike his celebrated countrymen Sailen Ghosh and M.N. Roy, who were part of the Indian freedom struggle in the U.S.
Although sensitive to race relations, Dhan Gopal never allowed racial prejudices to affect him. His books for children were mainly his own versions of tales he had heard in India, filled with nostalgia for a life he had left behind. They were hugely successful.
One of them, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, won the 1928 Newbery Medal, awarded for the best children’s literature of the year. He also wrote non-fiction, poetry and translations, which were published in prestigious forums such as The Century Magazineand The Atlantic. The first part of his 1923 autobiography, Caste and Outcast, deals with his India experience, in particular his rebellion against the Brahminical tradition of his family (‘Caste’), while the second section (‘Outcast’) is about how he felt in America.
As Dhan Gopal’s publishing fortune declined, he often came into conflict with his editors, publishers and literary agents. But he continued with his lecture tours, and even wrote a rejoinder to the hostile account of India by Katherine Mayo in a book called A Son of Mother India Answers. While it was well received in critical circles, it was not a commercial success. This, combined with personal difficulties, made him seek refuge in the Ramakrishna Mission, but he ended up taking his life in New York at the age of 46.
Dhan Gopal is one of the earliest cosmopolitan Indian modernists who travelled abroad and wrote from there. His stories, rooted in Indian myths and folklore, brought his native world view to a culture that was notoriously insular. He married an American and had friends from across the globe — Will and Ariel Durant, Romain Rolland, Witter Bynner, Jawaharlal Nehru. In his life and letters, Dhan Gopal is a sparkling example of an intellectual who combined tradition and modernity. As the world becomes more intent on closing borders, Dhan Gopal reminds us of that once cherished ideal of cosmopolitanism.
The writer, who taught English at the University of Hyderabad, is the author of Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20th Century India.