Image of Dhan Gopal Mukerji


Lifetime: 1890 - 1936 Passed: ≈ 87 years ago




United States

Dhan Gopal Mukerji

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was the first successful Indian man of letters in the United States and won a Newbery Medal in 1928. He studied at Duff School (now known as Scottish Church Collegiate School), and at Duff College, both within the University of Calcutta in India, at the University of Tokyo in Japan and at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University in the US.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born in a bengali brahmin family on 6 July 1890, in a village near Calcutta on the edge of a jungle called Kajangal. His father 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 the first part ('Caste') of his autobiography, Caste and Outcast (1923). Caste details Dhan Gopal's induction into the Brahminical tradition of his ancestors, and his experiences of 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.

On 14 July 1936, his wife discovered Mukerji had hanged himself his New York City apartment. No note was left. 
Dhan Gopal Mukerji is probably the first popular Indian writer in English. He pre-dates G.V. Desani and Mulk Raj Anand by some ten or twenty years. Krupabai Satthianadhan, the woman who wrote the novels Kamala and Saguna in the late nineteenth century, was certainly an accomplished writer, but her works did not reach a mass audience until she was rediscovered in the twentieth century. Scattered writings in English by Indians are encountered throughout the nineteenth century, such as the famous Rajmohan's Wife, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's first novel, written in English after the manner of Scott. There was also notable work by figures such as Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, writer of Sultana's Dream (1905), the first science fiction piece in English by an Indian, comparable to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. But usually these are byproducts of Indian language work, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji is the first to write seriously and consistently in English. 

This was not by choice, but was a product of his unfortunate situation. Dhan Gopal never lost the sense of mission which he shared with his brother, and throughout his life strove to complete the task he had set himself: to emancipate India from foreign rule and win for her culture and philosophy the respect he felt it deserved. In America he associated with fellow exiles like M.N. Roy, the founder of the Communist Party of India, to whom he is said to have suggested the adoption of the pseudonym 'Manabendra'. 

Forbidden the more satisfying outlet of activism, he poured his feelings into his writing. Consequently, his language is magical and persuasive, and his observation of animals and their ways is accurate and unsentimental. In his work the Gond hunter and the Brahmin child are equals in their travels in the jungle, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji never (unlike Kipling) anthropomorphises the animals or draws a facile moral from them. Although he was acutely conscious of his high caste, he saw it more as a responsibility than a privilege, and neither patronised nor denigrated the so-called lower castes and communities. He was, however, less sound on the subject of women. He writes movingly of child prostitutes in America in the 1910s and 1920s, especially of their plight during the Great Depression, but he also romanticises the life of Rangini, a 'tawaif' (courtesan) encountered in Caste and Outcast. He also praises his mother's and sisters' strict asceticism, all the more so since his mother is at that time a widow, performing all the hard penances prescribed to Hindu widows of her caste. 

Books by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

Kari the Elephant  Cover image

Kari the Elephant

Animal Travels Children Nature Children's Literature Jungle Silence God

"Kari, the elephant, was five months old when he was given to me to take care of. I was nine years old and I could reach his back if I stood on tiptoe. He seemed to remain that high for nearly two years. Perhaps we grew together; that is probably why...