Spotlight on Staff: Professor Ankhi Mukherjee

ankhi mukherjee

Which book has had the biggest impact on you?

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, that autobiographical text with a few pages missing. Lines such as “Mr Dick listening, enchained by interest, with his poor wits calmly wandering God knows where, upon the wings of hard words –,” make the reading glasses fog up even today.

What do you do in your spare time?

Art gallery trawls, real and virtual; cooking and sampling new food; amateur photography.

Describe your ideal day.

I wake up to a house smelling of coffee, which means my daughter is visiting from London. I walk to work, photographing ephemera. The teaching day has sparks flying and ends in a contemplative research seminar. I write a thousand words before sleep, by which time it is the small hours of another day.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

New York, there is something funny and touching about the aspirational converging of people from far-flung parts of the US or the world to belong to this tribe, which is not defined by ethnicity, nationalism, or even money. I love the tranquillity of Oxford and the uproar of Kolkata and need one to balance out the other.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer, by which I meant novelist.

Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?

My grandmother, an autodidact who had the nerve to engage with literati, Rabindranath Tagore included. My unworldly father, with his love of music and words, and my mother, who ingrained in me that the privileges of birth were accidental, and true achievement hard-earned.

Who were your childhood heroes?

Mostly fictional characters, such as Satyabati in Ashapurna Devi’s Pratham Pratishruti, Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or the horse in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Nadia Comaneci, the child prodigy, probably because gymnastic perfect 10.0s visualise hard graft, exceptional talent, and true grit so spectacularly.

What teacher had the greatest impact on you?

My professors at (US) graduate school, who taught me how to think deeply over time. There is a Hindi word, thehrav, which means pausing and dwelling. It seems to be an impossible skill to cultivate when carrying out timebound and end-oriented tasks such as writing a dissertation, but the best teachers lead you to these useless moments of introspection.

Do you have pets?

Yes, if by pets you mean teacher’s favourites, but I hide it well.

Were you popular as a teenager?

Yes, I was the class clown.

What is your favourite music?

Sufi. Blues, R&B, hip hop. Hindustani Classical.

If you could have dinner with five famous people from history, who would they be?

I will sacrifice the other four for dinner with Sigmund Freud. Let’s call it a working lunch as I may have questions.

Describe yourself in five words.

Runnin’ from myself (no more).

How would your friends describe you?

Funny. intense. Storyteller. Picks up the phone when you call.

What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?

I like both the thinking in the wilderness part (of my research life) and the coming back to civilisation to teach and share ideas. I am inspired by the calibre and dedication of the colleagues I work with every day, especially in a system where the rewards are neither instant nor material. I adore my students for their minds, their dreams, the new eyes with which they look at old problems.

I don’t enjoy marking heaps every week during term time, especially when we are reading screens, not papers.

Why are we here?

My need to overshare?

If you weren’t a member of the English Faculty, what would you be?

A stand-up comic; novelist; interior designer for the eccentric.

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford and a Fellow in English at Wadham College. Her most recent book is Unseen City: The Psychic Lives of the Urban Poor, published by Cambridge UP in December 2021. Her second monograph, What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (Stanford UP, 2014), won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in English Literature in 2015. Mukherjee’s other publications include Aesthetic Hysteria: The Great Neurosis in Victorian Melodrama and Contemporary Fiction (Routledge, 2007), and the collections of essays she has edited, namely A Concise Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Culture (with Laura Marcus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) and After Lacan (Cambridge University Press, 2018).