Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936)
Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936) wrote numerous books and stories for children, most of which describe the animal life of India and Hindu lore and beliefs. Mukerji is also known for his autobiography Caste and Outcast, which tells of life in India and America. He is considered the first Asian Indian writer of significance in the United States.
Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born on July 6, 1890, in a jungle village near Calcutta, India, and was the son of Kissori and Bhuban (Goswami) Mukerji. His family were members of the Brahmin priest class and for centuries had been in charge of the temple in their village. Brahmins are members of the highest caste in India and follow Vedanta, the system of Hindu philosophy that seeks to transcend the limitations of self-identity and become one with Brahman, the essential divine reality of the universe. At the age of 14, Mukerji entered the Brahmin priesthood, as had many previous family members. Before beginning his priestly work, he traveled for two years as a beggar. "You cannot be a priest if you do not know how people live," he stated in his autobiography Caste and Outcast,"and the best way to find out about people is to beg from them. So there is a law of the priesthood that before officiating in the temple, you must go begging from door to door. But at 14, to be turned loose in the world—even after forswearing it, makes one feel rather forlorn."
Sought a Broader, Secular Education
Soon after returning home and beginning his priestly duties, Mukerji decided to give up his family's traditional occupation and go to school. "I went to the Christian school, and studied the New Testament carefully," he noted in Caste and Outcast. "It was hardly a year before I gave up being a priest, because I realized that I was not in my right place. This may seem very strange to a Westerner after all I had experienced, but to a Hindu it was not strange. A Brahmin boy often fulfills the duties of a priest for a time, but if he finds it is not his vocation he is expected to resign and to seek the Lord in other ways. We think the end is holiness, not a profession."
In 1908 Mukerji studied at the University of Calcutta. He then relocated to Japan, where he went to the University of Tokyo in 1909. A year later the 19-year-old Mukerji moved to the United States and attended the University of California, Berkeley from 1910 to 1913. He earned his graduate degree from Stanford University in 1914, then taught for a short time at Stanford as a lecturer in the field of comparative literature.
Over the next few years Mukerji published plays and collections of poetry. He wrote, with Mary Carolyn Davies, Chintamini: A Symbolic Drama (1914), adapted from a play by Girish C. Ghose; the play Layla-Majnu (1916); the poetry collections Rajani: Songs of the Night (1916) and Sandhya: Songs of Twilight (1917); and the play The Judgment of India (1922). In 1918 he married Ethel Ray Dugan, an American teacher, and the couple had a son, Dhan Gopal II.
Returned to India and Entered Political Realm
Following World War I, Mukerji returned to India, where he dedicated himself to promoting greater awareness of his country's many different cultures. Politically he was a member of the Indian independence movement. He wrote his first book, Kari, the Elephant, for children in 1922. Promoting the notion that people should live in harmony with nature, the story is set in the jungle Mukerji grew up in. The author vividly describes the jungle's wildlife, something he did in many of his other works, as well as linking together incidents from his own early childhood. Mukerji published his autobiography, Caste and Outcast, in 1923, in which he describes his adult life in India and as an immigrant in the United States.
In the 1920s and 1930s Mukerji published a number of works about India and Hinduism, including My Brother's Face (1924), the novel The Secret Listeners of the East (1926), A Son of Mother India Answers, (1928), and The Path of Prayer (1934). In 1923 he released his second children's book, Jungle Beasts and Men, a series of short stories that give a realistic view of the jungle and its inhabitants. His Hari, the Jungle Lad, published in 1924, is about a young Indian boy who goes with his father on hunting expeditions and encounters wild buffalo, a panther, and other jungle creatures.
Awarded Newbery Medal
In 1927 Mukerji published his most famous book, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, which won the 1928 Newbery Medal. In an interview in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-955, Mukerji explained that much of the book "is a record of my experience with about forty pigeons and their leader. … I had to go beyond my experiences, and had to draw upon those of the trainers of army pigeons. Anyway, the message implicit in the book is that man and the winged animals are brothers." Calling Gay-Neck "the heartwarming and sometimes almost heartbreaking story of the training and care of a carrier pigeon," Elizabeth Seeger noted in her review for Horn Book that "Gay-Neck is truly a carrier pigeon, a bearer of messages, and his messages are words of courage and love." Mukherje closes Gay-Neck by saying: "No labor would be in vain if it could heal a single soul of [fear and hate]… . Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate those two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance. Peace be unto all."
In 1928 Mukerji published Ghond, the Hunter, a sequel to Gay-Neck, in which the lad meets up with a tiger, cobra, python, and other animals. In his introduction to Bunny, Hound, and Clown, Mukherje called Ghond, the Hunter "the most valuable juvenile book that I have written. … In it I have sought to render the inmost things of Hindu life into English."
Mukerji continued to write children's books for the rest of his career, publishing Hindu Fables for Little Children, a collection of ten stories with jungle creatures as the main characters, and The Chief of the Herd, about elephants, in 1929. Three years later he published The Master Monkey, about the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Fierce-Face: The Story of a Tiger, published in 1936, was Mukerji's last work for children.
One of Mukerji's stories that best demonstrates the beauty and simplicity of his imagery is A Greedy Bee. In it, a bee named Lobhi becomes trapped in a lotus flower because of its greediness for nectar but escapes when the flower opens up in the moonlight. "Lotus upon lotus lay with their heads drooping into the water, save a few white ones. These had opened their hearts to the moon, who poured into them her silence. Every flower seemed to drink it in with the eagerness of a thirsty bee. Now Lobhi realized to whom she owed her life. Had not the moon risen in time and had not the lotus opened its heart to the moon's light, our little bee would have been dead by now. … Though a lot of the most excellent nectar still lay in the flower, Lobhi … said to her friends, 'I have learned the lesson of my life. I will not be greedy any more!"'
An Untimely End
Following a six-month nervous breakdown, Mukerji committed suicide by hanging himself in his New York City apartment in July of 1936. While his work was ignored by critics for several years, a new edition of Caste and Outcast appeared in 2002 in response to renewed academic interest.
Hutner, Gordon, editor, Immigrant Voices: Twenty-four Narratives on Becoming an American, Signet, 1999.
Mukerji, Dhan Gopal, Caste and Outcast, Dutton, 1923.
Mukerji, Dhan Gopal, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, Dutton, 1927.