The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

A migrant comes home
Rumina Sethi

My Brother’s Face
by Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Rupa. Pages 288. Rs 195.

My Brother’s FaceFOR a book that was first published in 1925, I was expecting to see a different kind of India. One has it figured out today that the Orientalist-Utilitarian attitudes always constructed India keeping in mind mere political expediency, and that to counter this construction, writers from the sub-continent had to decolonise the existing misrepresentations and, of course, come out with their own expansive constructs.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s book falls into this slot. As he tells an English scholar at the outset of his journey back from the USA: "You are welcome to an Occidental’s write-up on the Orient, but I, as an Oriental, abide by the write-up of my civilization by my own people." True to type, here nativism is played against orientalism, making one acknowledge that they are obverse and reverse sides of the same coin.

Burning homesickness brings Mukerji home to perform all that was expected of nationalist historians worried about the future of their country. The West can present its view of what happened in India. So be it. Mukerji, on the other hand, is determined to see India through the eyes of his countrymen. Thus begin his recollections, confessions, and peregrinations: "This is a book of talk, for all the East talks, especially Bengalis, like myself, revealing its soul through the spoken word. Who wants to believe in the western theory that the Taj was built by an Italian adventurer? And who says the Nordic race owing to its superiority ruled the world? What about the Romans, or Alexander or Darius or Chandrokotta, the Hindu?"


On reaching India, he struggles to find a foothold in a spirit of schizoid detachment from the world. He recognises the real conflict in India and the conspicuous changes in values as well as the cultural topography: "The best of the 17th century at war with the 20th, modern progress slashing its way through the beauty of the Renaissance." Modern progress offends him, but as he sits in a temple next to his brother gazing into his eyes, he sees "not a man, but a continent. India, India, India—I took the dust from his feet." Poised between nostalgia for the past and a foreboding of an apocalyptic future, he goes in search of some kind of redemption from an existence torn by the two poles of continuity and rupture. Mukerji has posited India as an exile searching for his cultural roots after a long sojourn in an alien land. The politics of position bring almost a crisis in his life, an urge to almost renounce the life he has lived in the West (although he doesn’t). The intensity of his experience, as depicted in the book, is a result of his status as a migrant who struggles to bring out a self-portrait as a way of recognising his identity.

The English must go. This has been the passion of his brother. He had studied the political movements more closely. And as he travelled across India, studying the people, he had found that every peasant believed that the English must go. "And why? Because they said the English had abandoned righteousness." But he is ready to suffer injustice and oppression a little longer. He realises that his pursuit of medicine, the science of the body, is meaningless without the "science of the spirit." Why not purify the mind and the body before trying to purify politics or influencing his countrymen?

Significantly, the dilemmas of writing an Indian novel in English exist for Mukerji as with every writer of that time, although he does not recognise them. The nativisation of a foreign language is a stylistic predicament for any non-native writer of English. For a writer searching for "authenticity," English always becomes a treacherous terrain. However, there is neither any Indian English here nor any trace of provincialisms. Rather, we have a very heavy, pedantic writing style, which is simultaneously un-Indian and yet one that could be written only by an Indian in the 1920s.

Gandhi is a hidden presence throughout the book, foregrounded only when any nationalist assertion for independence has to be made. While the intuitive borrowing from language takes place at one level in the novel, at another interconnected level, "real" India is constructed by enshrining the text in Gandhian doctrines and deeds. It is true, of course, that the response to Gandhi’s ideas of ahimsa and non-cooperation among villages and cities alike had been strong: many Indians prepared for the struggle by breaking the Salt and Forest laws, picketing toddy shops, and fighting against social evils like untouchability in order to unite in a common cause.

The rest of the book is a journey into his past, into various shrines, into the marketplace, into the very "soul" of India. Faces old and new confront him in the quest for an understanding of his self and his country. And at last, it is through his brother that he gets the final message: "Finish thy quest. Remember the warning of the holy one. Criticise no more! Buddha blessed the world, and in blessing gave new life. There the miracle! Farewell." As though satisfied with his soulful pursuit, Mukerji returns to America. His final pilgrimage to the New World makes him contemplate: "What had I found to bring back with me—what offering from India in upheaval to America in the heyday of her prosperity? Only the ancient sweet spices and myrrh, only the old incense of love; but my orders were plain, and with joy and assurance I turned again to the West." The same old "Indian" magic, the same cultural essentialism, but one we cannot fault much if we keep in mind when the book was first written.