In the Foreword to Writer’s Postcards – part travelogue, part memoir – Dipika Mukherjee writes,

The essays are of travel, often solo, sometimes not, but told through a perspective of my own lived experience and imagination, a distinct narrative of a non-white female body as a flaneuse, travelling with intention, through our marvelous and varied world.

“The non-white female body as a flaneuse, travelling with intention” surely marks the experience of the majority of the 26 essays (in three sections) that make up this anthology. The flaneuse, in this case, was, however, shaped by an essentially peripatetic life – by the accident of birth, choice of life partner and innate passion. Daughter of a diplomat father, wife to a corporate professional, and life as a sociolinguist as well as a committed writer means Dipika Mukherjee has lived in different countries right from her childhood into her middle age, and travelled the world with academic positions, residencies, and literary festivals. In her Acknowledgement, she has thanked her parents, Kalidas and Pratima Mukherjee, for bequeathing her with the “skill of making a home anywhere”. And yet, it has been a tough call – as is evident in “Calligraphic Lives in China and Tibet”.

The balancing act

“Calligraphic Lives in China and Tibet” is perhaps the most significant essay in this anthology, summing up Mukherjee’s life and its distinct trajectory in a way few others do. Though it entailed living in different places, experiencing a father’s diplomatic career as a daughter and growing up in different countries is as much of a challenge as syncing one’s career with one’s partner’s – especially when the latter’s spans continents and one has to come to terms with it both as a wife and mother. We get glimpses of Mukherjee’s experience of the former in some of the essays discussed later in the review, but the latter is conveyed well in “Bollywood Dancing in the Netherlands” (which delves into her research with the Surinamese-Hindustani community there) and perhaps best in “Calligraphic Lives in China and Tibet,”

This job [“Distinguished Professor” at Shanghai International Studies University] came at a time when I was questioning my life choices; during our move from Amsterdam to Shanghai, when I had been applying for many jobs, I was offered a VP position with Deloitte. It was a tempting offer, but would split our family into two. It would offer me a meaningful job in Hyderabad, India, with perks that included the coverage of medical treatments for my ageing parents in India. I declined as my youngest son had two years left of high school (my older child was away in college in the US), and it seemed untenable to split the family when we had managed to co-parent the children through stints in Texas, Malaysia, Singapore, Ohio, Amsterdam, and now Shanghai.

What makes the essay a particularly engaging read is the parallel narrative of Mukherjee’s research and teaching focus on the relationship between Putonghua (the national language of the People’s Republic of China) and the regional dialects – especially the Shanghai dialect – on the one hand, and the challenges in her personal life as she tries to do justice to her work and the position she has been offered.

The parallel narrative also animates another essay in the volume – “Dance of the Flyers” – where the investigation into the history and practice of a ritual maypole dance in Chapala, Mexico (in which women were traditionally debarred from participating), intersperses with the story of the author’s “Chordi” (a paternal first cousin) in a village in West Bengal, who faced the worst double-whammy a girl can in India: poverty and dark skin. Even her high caste status (Brahmin), as it happens, was rendered ineffective by the other two markers of her identity at the time of match-making by her family; and her fate grew worse when she was unable to bear a child. Mukherjee’s exploration of the circumscribed lives of women in this piece – both up close and at a remove, historically and during her lifetime – thus collapses time and space, underlining the essential inequality of their existence.

The teenage Dipika’s shock and disgust at her family’s patriarchal and misogynist attitudes in this essay finds a more nuanced voice in the mature adult author’s reflections in “Misogyny in Bengali Nursery Rhymes”, where some of the most popular rhymes that Bengalis are brought up on are critiqued through a feminist lens.

Home and homeland

Mukherjee is perhaps at her best when dealing with her natal family and its most traumatic moments – the accident of Amit, her dearest eldest brother, which leaves him comatose for years (“To Keep My Brother Alive, I Will Fly 7500 Miles For Diwali”); and the death of her father during the height of the second wave of Covid-19 in India (“Tears and Song”).

“... we had two developing emergencies at home [with the brother and father]. At a quarter to midnight, when it was finally my turn to see the doctor, there were still fourteen more patients waiting their turn. Dr Dhar is a youthful man, light of gait, but on that day, his eyes behind the face shield and mask were weary. There was no time for niceties. When I told him of the situation at home, he gave me a Sophie’s Choice: “Pick one,” he said in a voice filled with exhaustion, “I can only see any ONE of your patients.”

I burst into tears. “Papa”, I mumbled. “Please. Papa is dying.””

Mukherjee would continue unfailingly with “Bhai Phonta” with her brothers – a festival where a sister symbolically confers immortality to her brother by chanting a mantra and marking a red tilak on her forehead – after Amit’s coma, the ritual now charged with a different urgency for her: the desperate hope of a miracle. Bhai Phonta usually comes at the end of a long festive season in autumn in India – beginning with Durga Puja and Dusshera, and followed by Kali Puja and Diwali. Mukherjee describes her annual homecoming to Delhi at this time, and the rituals of the festivals, in some detail in “A Light in the Dark”. The year is the one in which her father had passed away – emphasising the redemptive power of rituals and the stability of a still centre in one’s life that only parents and siblings can bring.

Kali Puja features again in “Paet Pujo”, but this time as an expat experience in Malaysia – the Bengali community “from as far away as Penang and Singapore” converging on “Pujo Bari” at Port Dickson to partake of “communal comfort food” – highlighting how food not only brings together people but also sustains community in foreign lands. Mukherjee received the “Fay Khoo Award for Food+Drink Writing”, Malaysia, for this essay in 2018.

Malaysia holds a special place in the author’s heart. Apart from personal associations, she has mentored Malaysian writers for over two decades and she writes about them in two essays in this volume – “Glocal Voices” and “The Advantages of the Global Asian Writer”.

Travelling solo

Mukherjee is an accomplished poet, with three volumes of poetry to her credit. One of the delights of Writer’s Postcards is the effortlessness with which she weaves verse into her essays – not only when expressly paying tribute to a poet, like the one on Derek Walcott, but in almost everything she writes about. In “Nowhere a Lovely So Real”, she pays tribute to her beloved city in the US, home for over 12 years:

I come to Chicago
resisting assimilation.

From old cities in Europe
to the older ruins of Asia,
I have resisted the hyphenations
the identity reconstructions
of tired-huddled-masses
in this adulterated corner
of the globe.

Until, in Printer’s Row
– in an antiquarian bookshop,
Red-bricked from 1896 –
a man reads from the distressed
first edition of the Rime, hardcover
separated from spine, stark lines drawn
above an idle ship on a painted ocean;
He knows Tagore, and on his desktop
is the image of Waheeda,
Incandescent beauty.

He talks about translators,
epics, New York broadsides;
In that tiny shop, laying bare the
nuances – the proclivity of
imagination – of this brave new world.

— Printer’s Row, Chicago

Mukherjee’s first solo travel was a sudden one to Benaras, after a spat with her mother. Her becalming experience there – in one of the most ancient cities of the world, where life and death came together by a sacred river – would open her up to the possibility of many such later travels, redolent with both beauty and surprise. In one, recounted in “A Journey to the Dalai Lama”, she went on a short trip to Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, for the sole purpose of meeting his Holiness, but ended up witnessing the life of Tibetan refugees at close hand instead. In another, to the holy city of Gaya (recounted in “Finding Shambala”), at the site where the Buddha had attained enlightenment, a stray leaf would fall into her lap from the Bodhi tree – a divine benediction!

Such blessings in a writer’s life are few and far between. But one can always inspire others with one’s example, as “Beacons of Inspiration” tells us. Mukherjee had succeeded in changing a cab driver’s attitude towards his daughter’s dream of becoming a writer – after he drove the author to her picturesque residency in Rimbun Dahan, Selangor, Malaysia. Though ironic, it’s one of the most precious moments in the book – bringing together both the precariousness of a writer’s life and the joys of travel.

Writer’s Postcards, Dipika Mukherjee, Penguin South East Asia.