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Reviewed by:
  • Caste and Outcast
  • Meera Kosambi
Caste and Outcast. By Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Only a few of India’s nineteenth century intellectuals charted their Westward course beyond the British imperial perimeter to the USA, and discovered in their hospitable hosts a relatively egalitarian foil to the arrogant British, and a far more sympathetic audience for the Indian cultural narrative. The spectrum of their responses to the American encounter in the 1880s is illustrated by the accounts of three famous visitors from western India. Pandita Ramabai’s The High-Caste Hindu Woman (Philadelphia, 1887; Bombay: Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture, 1981), a militant feminist critique of the multiple oppressions of Hindu women, interpreted one dimension of Indian society for American readers (predating Mukerji’s text by more than a quarter century), and invited their personal engagement across the racial and cultural divide. In contrast, Anandibai Joshee, who graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania as India’s first woman doctor, made it a matter of cultural nationalism to publicly defend traditional Indian customs, such as child marriage, which were under persistent Western attack. Her husband Gopalrao Joshee presented with great zeal, through public lectures and newspaper articles, the theme of the spiritual East and the materialistic West, which was to be so effectively popularized later by Swami Vivekanand of Bengal during his speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. It is to this compatriot from Bengal that Mukerji traces his ideological lineage.

Caste and Outcast, first published in 1923, is an autobiographical narrative spanning the early part of Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s life (1890–1936). It starts with his Brahmin boyhood in an evocatively sketched village on the outskirts of Calcutta. It is a life permeated with the fragrance of temple flowers, and anchored to his mother’s love and wisdom even during the years of wandering as a religious mendicant. Through the family’s cycle of births, weddings and deaths, and his own graduation from Calcutta University, Mukerji maintains his belief in the rightness of the caste system and the supremacy of Brahmins. The idyll ends abruptly with his nationalistic decision, prompted by his brother, to go to Japan for industrial training. A further dislocation is caused by his equally sudden decision to interrupt these studies and travel further to the USA. The second part of the book opens with Mukerji’s arrival in the land of opportunity, which remains for him an alien “capitalist” state whose fringe groups of socialists and anarchists befriend him while he studies at Stanford University and ekes out a living in California as a domestic help and farm laborer. The book ends with a brief epilogue hoping for a “meeting of the twain.”

In his meticulously researched Introduction, Chang traces the later developments in Mukerji’s life, which encompass considerable success and popularity as a writer, mainly of children’s books based on Indian lore, marriage to an American soul-mate, birth of a son, and friendship with internationally renowned figures such as Will and Ariel Durant, Romain Rolland, and Jawaharlal Nehru. But this seemingly rich life is fraught with the irreconciliable tension between the mundane and the mystical, and ends in suicide. In their Afterword, Purnima Mankekar and Akhil Gupta present a nuanced analysis of the book and its authorial strategies. They also see the catchy title, Caste and Outcast, in terms of cultural, political and spatial ruptures, though the underlying theme of India’s spiritual superiority over the West remains a strong unifying thread. The editors’ valuable contribution in retrieving and presenting this old text would have been further enhanced by an account of the social movements in Mukerji’s Bengal and their formative influence on his mindset.

Mukerji’s chief strength is his linguistic mastery and ability to convey the entire register of emotions in a prose that ranges from the lyrical delineation of his homeland to the matter-of-fact and humorous account of the harsher realities of an alien America. Another asset is his infectious sense of wonder and adventure as he traverses the world, almost compelling the reader to see it through his eyes...

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