Remembering the first Indian author who won America’s top children’s literature prize

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In 1928, Dhan Gopal Mukerji won the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for his children’s book Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. The book’s protagonist is the eponymous Gay Neck, who, along with its companion Hira, serves as a messenger pigeon during World War I. Through the pigeon’s trials and adventures, Mukerji obliquely speaks to the ties between man and animal, the futility of war and its lasting impact.

“Mankind is going to be so loaded with fear, hate, suspicion and malice that it will take a whole generation before a new set of people can be reared completely free from them.”

Mukerji was the first writer of colour to have won the Newbery Medal, but it is likely that he did not get to savour the success. He had an agreement with his publisher, EP Dutton, since 1922 to write a work of nonfiction and fiction every year – a considerable output for anyone to achieve.

In all, Mukerji wrote over 25 books, including plays, two books of verse and works in translation. His oeuvre ranged from children’s literature set in the jungles of East India to nonfictional accounts in which he sought to explain a changing India to the West and himself. He was prolific, articulate and gifted with an astute turn of phrase. He was popular with readers, both young and old, and admired by peers and critics, making him the first of a stellar list of South Asian writers in English who found fame in the West.

A clipping from the Hartford Courant, June 9, 1968.

Among his more memorable nonfiction books were A Son of Mother India Replies, his rebuttal of Katherine Mayo’s infamous Mother India, and the trilogy Caste and OutcastMy Brother’s Face and The Face of Silence. As Mukerji’s son later noted, the trilogy echoed his father’s constant search for his soul – a search that started early in life. In the pages of the autobiographical Caste and Outcast, Mukerji gives descriptions of his idyllic childhood in Bengal, his thoughts on religion, and his search for an inner life even in youth.

A Life in Words

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born in 1890 in Tamluk in what is today West Bengal. His father was a lawyer and an itinerant singer who was patronised by the local rajas and zamindars. Mukerji’s childhood was idyllic – growing up in a village and travelling with his father, his early experiences shaped his recollections of the jungle that he would write about later. The jungle, for him, was a place of stillness and silence, where animals lived in harmony with nature and followed a timeless, ordained dharma.

Mukerji’s older brother, Jadu Gopal, was a revolutionary fighting against the British. As the story goes, Jadu Gopal’s activities made him such a marked man that the family believed it was safer for Mukerji to move away after school. So that is what he did. He first set sail for Japan, and after a year, moved to California, where he did odd jobs and educated himself. He first went to Berkeley and then to Stanford, from where he graduated in 1914 with a degree in comparative literature.

This was the time Ghadar rebels were organising themselves in the US to fight against British rule. Mukerji, however, wasn’t drawn to their ideology. When his name first appeared in news, it was not for violence. In 1911, as one newspaper had it, he and a fellow Indian, Rai Mohun Dutt, drew attention for exposing frauds who called themselves Hindus and lectured on palmistry.

His writing career took off some years later but on a somewhat dispiriting note. In 1914, Mukerji expressed indignation at not being properly credited as the translator of Girish Ghose’s Chintamini. When published, however, the work did have the necessary clarification, mentioning first Mukerji and then Mary Carolyn Davies, the poet who had “ably assisted” the translation.

In 1916, Mukerji published two books of verse along with a play (Layla Majnu), and with them, he was on his way to a prolific writing and lecturing career. He became a popular draw at men’s and women’s clubs as well as university clubs. On the personal front, he married Ethel Ray ‘Patty’ Dugan, a Stanford alumna, in 1918 and moved to the East Coast. Their only son, Dhan Gopal, or Dan, was born in 1919.

In Caste and Outcast, Mukerji posited himself as a writer in contrast to Rudyard Kipling, the “brilliant painter of Indian life”. Kipling, Mukerji wrote, was a superficial observer. Mukerji, on the other hand, was the true interpreter of Indian life, the best interlocutor for his western audiences, at least in his own eyes. Yet, as academic Manan Desai writes, Mukerji’s work, especially his children’s writing, was always juxtaposed against Kipling’s. In 1924, for example, when Hari the Jungle Lad was serialised in the popular Boy Scouts’ magazine, Boys’ Life, the account was highlighted as “descriptive of the wildlife that had given Rudyard Kipling the opportunity to write his Jungle Books”.

His children’s fiction, besides featuring in magazines like American Boy and Boys’ Life, also appeared as a series of books from 1922: Kari the ElephantGay Neck: The Story of a PigeonGhond the HunterHari the Jungle LadThe Chief of the Herd, and a children’s version of Valmiki’s Ramayana. His nonfiction, meanwhile, evoked his search for ancient India and inner silence, interpreted variously as a search for the soul and the spirit that animated all beings on Earth. This imparted a certain otherworldliness to his writing.

My Brother’s Face, written when Mukerji returned to India for the first time in the early 1920s, was about his older brother, the former revolutionary Jadu Gopal, and the changes – political, social and economic – that Mukerji witnessed in the country. There was talk of Gandhi everywhere, following his non-cooperation movement of 1921-’22. “Gandhi’s holiness [had] spread like the fragrance in the wind,” Mukerji quoted a peasant as saying.

The modernity Mukerji saw everywhere, however, saddened him – instead of caparisoned elephants, he found Model T Ford trucks – and he longed to rediscover the old “changelessness” he remembered. His grumpy discomfort with a changing India was at times amusing. In Visit India With Me (1929), he described the increased preference for western pantaloons over the flowing robes of old. There were, according to him, too many unveiled women in the trains. He found his younger nieces and nephews too cheeky and disrespectful, although he didn’t appreciate the older relatives in the house either because it inhibited him from smoking. In Disillusioned India (1930), he complained of India’s dust and the outspokenness of its women. On the occasions he encountered silence, like the time he meditated in a cave in Ellora, he described evocatively of how “repose” could be active, and proclaimed that in India, “silence walks like a tiger”.

One of his more unusual books, his only work of fiction for adults, The Secret Listeners of the East, was published in 1926. A book of intrigue and mystery – Kiplingesque would be a natural descriptor – it was set in 1926 in the North-West Frontier Province. In it, the murder of a British general, who is a suspected land surveyor, leads the protagonist into a world of secret societies, jihad and revolution as he investigates the killing. In real life, Mukerji’s son, Dhan Gopal, a Pan American Airways official, was as an undercover agent for US intelligence. In 1950, he accompanied Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Chinese political figure, on a secret flight from the US mainland to Manila. She was on her way to Taiwan (then Formosa), where her husband, Chiang Kai-Shek, would assume the presidency after the protracted Chinese civil war.

Search for Silence

In time, Mukerji came to hate the lecturing life. His children’s books were still popular, but he was drawn to writing books that explained India or explored spirituality and the inner life. In a school essay discovered by academic Gordon Chang, Mukerji’s son describes him as a distant father.

The manner of his death, the fact that he had a nervous breakdown not long before, and the assertion of those closest to him that the tragedy was almost seamless with how he had lived his life – as an attainment of “spiritual freedom”, an expression of his “love for god” – impart a sense of teleology to any assessment of his work, that what happened in the end was evident from the beginning, in the subjects, colour and tenor of his writing.

In the years after his death, Mukerji became a somewhat marginal figure in the literary world, though never really forgotten. He is still the only Indian to win the Newbery. His writing – his clear, gently articulated prose – still remains accessible. If anything, his children’s books, which evoke a world where humans and other creatures live in mutual respect, have assumed greater resonance with its message that the protection of the environment ultimately rests on every living being.

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