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Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and Outcast

Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and Outcast

Author: Reviewed by C. J. S. Wallia

Dhan Gopal Mukerji's  autobiography, Caste and Outcast, was originally published by E. P. Dutton in 1923. It has now been republished by Stanford University Press with a 40-page introduction by historian Gordon Chang and a substantial afterword, "The Homeless Self: Problems of Cultural Translation in Autobiography," by anthropologists Purnima Mankekar and Akhil Gupta. All three of the editors  are professors at Stanford.

Mukerji (1890-1936) was the first South Asian immigrant to the United States to carve out a successful literary career, publishing more than twenty books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, drama, translations, and children's stories. Caste and Outcast was the first book on India written by an Indian that was widely read in America. It won high critical acclaim: Saturday Evening Post reviewed it as "the most important and inspiring book that has appeared in America since the war." It also garnered considerable commercial success. Reprinted five times in the 1920s, it was translated into French, Czech, and other languages. Its theme is the contrast between Hinduism's pervasive spirituality and tolerance and the Western world's materialism and religious dogmas. Mukerji proposes that the West should learn "repose and meditation" from India, and India should learn the value of "activity and science" from the West.

As an interpreter of Indian thought and spirituality, Mukerji's influence on American literary circles was considerable. Among his long-time literary associates were the eminent critic Van Wyck Brooks and the historians Will and Ariel Durant. (When the Durants later published their 8-volume The Story of Civilization, they entitled their first volume Our Oriental Heritage.) Chang notes: "Mukerji's  opus was an integral part of a far-flung intellectual effort in the early twentieth century that seriously studied Indian civilization and drew upon it for inspiration and direction. Those involved included such figures as T. S. Eliot, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O'Neill, Lewis Mumford, Luther Burbank, A. J. Liebling."

Caste and Outcast was published when Mukerji was 33, but tells the story of his life only till age 25 and that too with several gaps. A major reason for the gaps is that he did not conceive the book as a conventional autobiography; its focus is on his spiritual quest in India and in America. The book's first part, Caste, describes his growing up in a Brahmin family in India: the early spiritual training he received from his mother; his initiation into Brahmin priesthood at the age of fourteen; his years of spiritual wandering; his studies at the University of Calcutta; and his brief stay in Japan. The second part, Outcast, describes his arriving in the United States; studying at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1910 to 1913; and laboring in the farms and factories of California to earn money for his studies. One of the gaps in the autobiography is Mukerji's transfer to Stanford, where he completed his degree. This and other gaps are elucidated in Chang's essay, which gives us a more complete biography including Mukerji's marriage to a fellow Stanford student, Pat Dugan, in 1918; his great success on the lecture circuit and the popularity of many of his books; the birth of his son; his friendships with international luminaries like Jawaharlal Nehru and the French litterateur Romain Rolland; his nervous breakdowns; and his suicide at age 46.

In Caste and Outcast, Mukerji depicts India as a tolerant Hindu civilization. He illustrates Hinduism's tolerance with numerous narratives. An example: As a child, Mukerji brings home a picture of Christ given to him by his Christian teacher in the missionary school with the admonition to get rid of false Hindu gods and instead worship the only true god, Christ. Mukerji's mother places the picture of Christ next to Vishnu's and says, "God is one. We have given him many names. Why should we quarrel about names?" She burns incense and meditates before the images of Christ and Vishnu.

In contrast to this tolerance, Mukerji sees the Muslim period of Indian history as horribly oppressive to the Hindus, during which the Hindus had to abandon some of their highly evolved traditions: "The Mohammedans wanted to convert all India to Mohammedanism  . . . the Hindus were not willing converts but resisted to the point of death . . . When the Hindu men died fighting, the entire female population of garrison towns, in order not to fall into the hands of their conquerors, burned themselves alive. It was this measure that saved India from being overpopulated by Mohammedan children . . . . Girls before they reached the age of maturity were irrevocably betrothed to young Hindus, so that they could be protected from the Mohammedan enemies  . . . Mohammedan rule saw in India a new marriage system totally unlike the ancient sayamvara , meaning the choice."

Mukerji's narratives about Muslims in India are in the tradition of the pioneering Indian novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's  Anand Math, which depicts the Muslims as hostile, bigoted, polygamous people practicing a foreign religion. (The editors' essays do not bring up the matter of Chatterjee's obvious influence on Mukerji's thinking.) The one exception to these negative depictions of Muslims occurs in Mukerji's narrative about his father's old Muslim music teacher, who was held in affectionate regard by the Mukerji family. Even in this case, it is the Mukerji  family that is shown as tolerant and hospitable, going to the extent of cooking meat dishes for the Muslim guest even though the family is strictly vegetarian.

The major factor in the popularity of Caste and Outcast among American readers is the exotic setting of India. Another factor is the author's engaging narrative style, evident throughout the book. For example, in the chapter about his early childhood, he tells the story of the peacocks:

The owners of these beautiful creatures naturally wish to show them off to their friends, but how to keep a peacock at home in the afternoon has always been a problem. They usually leave the house in the morning and go hunting for snakes out in the country, and they do not come back again until night time.. To solve the problem of getting the peacock home, they have cultivated the drug habit in the bird. At a certain time of day the peacock is given a grain of opium: thus, no matter where it may be, when that time arrives it will come home begging for the opium. After the opium the peacocks will stay around the house and can be shownto visitors.

The "Outcast"  in the title refers primarily to Mukerji's experience in America as a newly arrived, penniless Indian student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he suffered from racial discrimination.-the Indian students were routinely refused service in the campus restaurants.  To support himself he had to take up menial jobs. Summers, he worked as a farmhand along with Sikh and other North Indian immigrants in central California. He describes his experience of working with the Sikhs positively. In contrast, he found working with Muslim immigrants loathsome. : "The Mohammedans would not buy the American butcher's meat, for animals whose flesh they eat must be killed by having their throats cut and in no other way. So they bought three big rams and after a great deal of prayer and benediction cut their throats. The poor creatures writhed in mortal pain for a few moments as the blood gushed out and wet the ground. I said to Hadji, 'Why do you kill this way?'  'It is the way of our Lord; it is in the Koran,' he answered me."

The Outcast section contains two chapters about Mukerji's friendship with several members of the International Workers of the World in Berkeley. Unlike other labor groups, these radical socialists welcomed laborers of all races and religions, a principle that strongly appealed to Mukerji.

The publication of Caste and Outcast immediately established Mukerji as a major young writer in America. Except for two slender books of poems, Mukerji wrote all of his books after this success. Among them was Gay Neck: The story of A Pigeon for which he won the Newberry Medal in 1927 for children's literature. In 1928, Mukerji was the first to publish a rejoinder to American journalist Katherine Mayo's notorious Mother India, which she had published after a 6-month tour of India.(Mayo's book was dismissed by M.K. Gandhi as "a drain inspector's report.") . Mukerji titled his rejoinder A Son of Mother India Answers. In 1931, Mukerji published his translation of the Bhagavat Gita under the title The Song of God. However, during the Depression the public was not buying books as before.

After this decline , Mukerji suffered several nervous breakdowns . He secluded himself from family and friends and started spending more and more time in long solitary meditation sessions , culminating in his suicide at age 46.I see a clue to the  suicide in the very chapter of Cast and Outcast: "My mother said to me, 'Never stop halfway on any path. Go on like the rivers, to the end, and you will find that in the end you have reached God.'"

It is gratifying to have this pioneering book, which sheds light on Indian and American religious history, available once more, in such a solid scholarly format. Although the Afterword essay by Mankrekar and Gupta, suffused as it is in anthropological jargon, will appeal mainly to the specialist in anthropology and in academic postcolonial studies, the autobiography itself, as well as Chang's introduction, will serve the general reader well. As Chang rightly points out: "The history of Indian religious beliefs in America is widely underappreciated and certainly understudied." This book will help remedy the lag.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and Outcast

Edited by Gordon Chang, Purnima Mankekar, and Akhil Gupta

277 pages  Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford Univ. Press  2002
$ 21.95  Paper

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