On 6 July, 1890, Dhan Gopal was born in a jungle village in Kolkata. His story reads like a piece of fiction- a boy steeped in Brahminical roots with a revolutionary brother who eggs him on to leave India goes on a subsequent journey to Japan and once the disillusionment of the assembly lines he witnessed there set in, he arrived at San Francisco. He ended up studying at Berkeley and then at Stanford, turning to the written word for solace.
His life was an intense enquiry into the unknown. This little-known writer of the 1920s laid the foundation for Indian writing in English.
Stanford critic Gordon H. Chang describes Mukerji as a person who ‘holds the distinction of being the first author of Asian-Indian ancestry who successfully wrote for American audiences about Indian life’. Dhan Gopal had a rich legacy – the sprawling jungle was rooted in his mind, his brother’s love for India and his own found a way into his longing for his country, and the reality of race relations in the US lit a fire in him.
Dhan Gopal is the only Indian writer who has ever won the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal – for his children’s book Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. Messenger pigeons during WWI, man and his friendship with winged animals, and the futility of war form the crux of this story.
Mukerji’s other children’s books include Ghond, the Hunter, The Chief of the Herd, Hindu Fables for Little Children, Rama, the Hero of India, The Master Monkey, and Fierce-Face, the Story of a Tiger.
Besides children’s stories, he also wrote non-fiction, poetry and translations, which were published in prestigious outlets. His autobiography Caste and Outcaste is one of the first books that talks about the experiences of an Indian abroad. Other writings include A Son of Mother India Answers ( in response to Katherine Mayo‘s Mother India), Devotional Passages from the Hindu Bible and Visit India with Me, Disillusioned India, My Brother’s Face, and The Face of Silence.
He died by suicide in his home in New York in 1936.