I am thrilled that Alok Mukherjee was willing to do this interview. Read on for his recollections of studying at Waterloo in the 1970s, his ongoing work in and publishing on Dalit literature, and the importance of narrative in his position as Chair of the the Toronto Police Service Board. This is a very important contribution to the Words in Place blog, and I would like to express my gratitude to Alok for his generosity and graciousness throughout this process. –JLH
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to Waterloo to study English?
AM: I came to Canada in August 1971. I had been teaching English at a college of Delhi University in India since 1966 and was having such a good time that I had made little progress on my PhD! Since I envisaged a career as an academic, it was imperative that I get this work done if I was to have any hope of succeeding at the university. I was working on Matthew Arnold for my doctorate and had been accepted by City University of New York and Indiana University, Bloomington. However, my wife, Arun, who was also an academic, had received a scholarship to come to University of Toronto. Besides, being a bit of a political activist, I was really not keen to go to the US at a time when the country was embroiled in wars abroad and civil discord at home. So, I came here to check out possibilities at a Canadian university. I looked for universities in and around Toronto and Waterloo was high on my short list. I was attracted by its proximity to Toronto where we would live. . . . In those days, people with graduate degrees from India were penalized by many Canadian universities, including the requirement to do a year’s undergraduate work. There was a superior attitude of “if you don’t like our requirements, you can go back.” It was, in reality a very provincial attitude bred from an insular culture fostered by little contact with the world beyond North America and Europe. . . . So, I contacted Waterloo English and went to visit the campus. Two things struck me, and have stayed in my mind to this day. First, I fell in love with the layout and atmosphere of the campus with its rolling green spaces, streams and architecture. Second, I truly appreciated the reception I got from the Chair and the Graduate Director in the English department. They received me with courtesy, openness and cordiality, took the time to explain the program, answered my questions freely and showed great interest in my Indian academic background. They were down to earth and eager to assist. I liked what I found out about the program; its focus on English and American literatures was something I was very familiar with from my Indian education. And its offerings in Commonwealth and Canadian literatures were exciting in that they took me beyond my comfort zone and introduced me to literatures I had not read, with the exception of English fiction and poetry from India. I was very impressed, as well, by the youth and diversity of the background of faculty members who had come from so many different places. My first impression was that it was not a department that had become set in its ways and lost its agility. The icing on the cake, as it were, was that Waterloo English would not require me to waste a year doing undergraduate course work. It was, perhaps, a mark of the agility I detected. I felt accepted as an equal, a fellow academic. So, the decision to attend Waterloo was one of the easiest I have had to make!
JLH: As someone who only recently joined the English department, I wonder if you might share a bit about what the department was like in that era? In retrospect what do you find particularly memorable about courses, faculty, or fellow students?
AM: That’s a tough question, Jennifer, because it cannot be answered briefly. You are really taking me down the memory lane here. So, please indulge me! . . . Like I said before, I had been an activist on the Delhi University campus where I had arrived as a 20-year young faculty member at a very exciting time. The university was in ferment over both issues of global power relations and academic issues. Coming to Canada was something of an escape for professional reasons. And I had been working on Matthew Arnold for my PhD, reading pretty voraciously about questions of culture in an industrial society. As you know, politics was never too far from Arnold’s work on culture. I had also done considerable work on the Harvard Humanist, Irving Babbitt. So, my interest in literature was not so much from an aestheticist perspective as from this larger perspective of politics of culture and the function of literature within it. . . . And in course after course at Waterloo, I got an opportunity to pursue different aspects of this perspective. In a way, the foundation for the work I eventually did many years later for my PhD at York were laid in this conjuncture of what intellectual capital I had brought from India and what Waterloo English gave me! . . . Let me share a few examples with you. In George Hibbard’s course on Shakespeare, we talked a lot about the ideal ruler and who, at the end, is admitted to the Forest of Arden and who is excluded. Hibbard, of course, was the Grand Old Man, jovial, generous and kindly. He endeared himself to me by the fact that he knew personally one of my mentors in India, a leading Shakespeare scholar, and had read his writings! Then there was Warren Ober, scholarly, always impeccably dressed and courteous to a fault. I took his course on Keats, a single author course. And we didn’t just discuss the beauty and elegance of Keats’s poetry. We looked at what lay behind them. And one of the papers I am still very proud of is the final paper I wrote for him tracing the ideas of Hazlitt in Keats. Another professor I remember very fondly and with great respect is Walter Martin, pipe-smoking like Hibbard (those were the days when we smoked in the class!) and usually dressed in rumpled tweeds. I took his course on Conrad, and it was a delight because I had never read Conrad with the same care or appreciated the full force of his power. Martin brought those out and the one point that has stayed with me (perhaps even influenced how I have lived) is how we find meaning – and save ourselves – only through the work we do. . . . Here, I have to share a story which, in my mind, captures some of the caring qualities of the faculty with whom I came into contact. Early in the term, Martin gave us our first writing assignment – a short paper. Imagine my shock when I got the paper back and found that, for the first time in my life and for my first ever paper in Canada, I had got a C+! I went to see Neil Hultin, the Graduate Director, to complain that this was undeserved and speculated why it happened. Hultin looked perplexed and assured me that Martin was a very fair prof. He also shared with me the story of who Martin was and why he left his native South Africa. Hultin suggested that I talk to Martin and if, then, I was still not satisfied, I should come and see him. So, I went to see Martin and we read the paper together. Martin gave me a very detailed commentary on the paper, and, as it turned out, he had trouble not with my argument but how I wrote! There were sentence constructions that were common in India but unfamiliar to him. Though grammatically correct, he found them awkward. So, we agreed that he and I will review the next two papers in draft before I gave him the final versions. I completed the course with an A- and we remained friends for a very long time. By the interest he took in me, he probably helped me do well for the rest of my academic career in Canadian universities. This interest in the performance of each student was, however, not atypical of the faculty. I recall Gordon Slethaug who succeeded Hultin as Graduate Director and taught us Southern American fiction. When reading a Eudora Welty novel in his course, we had a rather lively discussion of the pros and cons of the strong family – how it can be a source of strength and, at the same time, be suffocating. The image that remains in my mind is that of a pile of bamboo sticks tied tightly together – strong but also rigid and liable to fall apart when the cord unravels. We had many good conversations and remained in contact for a long time even after he went away to teach in Hong Kong. There were professors McRae, who taught us Commonwealth literature, and McNaughton, who taught Canadian literature. These were new fields, not just for Waterloo, but Canadian universities generally at that time. Norman Jeffares in England had understood that the time had come with the independence of British colonies to develop a different global relationship and he saw in the literatures of these countries a rich opportunity for developing a relationship of respect and appreciation between Britain and its former colonies. Canada was embracing this notion slowly. And this had also created an opening for the introduction of Canadian literature. Waterloo was one of the first English departments to introduce courses. These courses opened up areas of study and research that I would not have known otherwise. I still remember very well the impact that reading and writing on A M Klein’s The Second Scroll had on me – a Canadian work that brought me in contact with the larger Jewish history and experience, something that, growing up in India, I knew virtually nothing about. Speaking of opening up a world, I must mention Alan Dust with whom I took a most enjoyable and informative reading course on Bibliography and Research Methods. I well remember Dust – chain smoking, intense and funny – meeting me once every two weeks in his office for the reading course. He would begin by quizzing me on my progress and then say dismissively, “Ah well, you know this stuff.” For the rest of the time he would engage in an excited conversation (monologue, really) about books. He loved books, acquired them constantly and had the most amazing collection of rare books and first editions that I had seen. He wanted to transmit this excitement about books to me. And finally, there was Ken Leadbetter, who taught us American fiction and poetry and became my MA dissertation supervisor on a comparative study of the theories of imagination of Coleridge and Wallace Stevens. Ober and Slethaug were the other members of my committee. Waterloo, as you may know, did not have a doctoral program at that time, and, although there was MPhil, for most students MA was the final degree in English. For that reason, the dissertation was a very important part of the Waterloo English MA. Consequently, it is to be expected that I should have a particularly close relationship with Leadbetter. But he had a way of building relationships with his students that drew a whole bunch of us to him. We took his courses; we hung out together; we even cited each other’s work in our papers! I well remember the members of the group – Judi, Cory, Margaret, Ken, Art, Franco and Ed. We explored with great energy unorthodox interpretations of the texts we were reading; we engaged with each other’s research; and we socialized. Leadbetter was very much a part of the circle. We became such close friends that eventually whenever I stayed over in Waterloo because of a late class it was taken for granted that I would stay with one of them. Our families became friends. . . . So, as you can see, it was a very close-knit department, shaped very much by the personalities of faculty members who were fine scholars, who demanded much of students, who took a deep interest in the wellbeing of their students and who maintained a truly collegial atmosphere. We worked hard, and we enjoyed ourselves.
JLH: Your current position, as Chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, makes you stand out among Waterloo’s English graduates. What was your trajectory from Waterloo to your current position?
AM: One thing for sure, Jennifer – I have not followed a trajectory that was predictable or conventional, and it was a rather innocuous experience that played a decisive role. While at Waterloo, my wife and I had been invited to visit an elementary school in Georgetown (now Halton Hills). The two daughters of a family we had become good friends with in Georgetown went to school there and our friends thought that it would be educational for students to meet us and hear from us about India. When we arrived, the children were surprised as they were expecting Canadian “Indians” in traditional dress, not a brown man in a suit and tie and a brown woman in a gorgeous silk outfit. So, a lively conversation ensued which brought out some rather odd ideas and views about India. We asked to see the books they were required to read and were appalled. These were books approved by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. So, as President of the Indian Students Association at UofT, where I had gone from Waterloo for my PhD, I initiated a project funded by the federal government. A team of UofT students analyzed all the Social Studies textbooks approved for use in Ontario’s secondary schools to see how they portrayed the Indian sub-continent and its peoples. They also produced original essays on India and the Indo-Canadian community. This work, East Indians: Myths and Reality, came out in 1978 and had a significant impact on the thinking about issues of bias related to race, culture and religion in school textbooks. This was to be my first published work in Canada and you could say that my academic training in terms of reading, analyzing and interpreting texts and my political activism converged in this project. That also set the course of the future for me. As a result of this publication, I received a call from the Toronto Board of Education to say that they would like me to consider working for the Board, which, at that time, was beginning to pay significant attention to the whole area of multiculturalism and race relations. This was to be my first real job in Canada. I spent 10 years at the Board, first in strengthening relations between the school and the community and later on, as Race Relations Advisor, in developing the system’s ability to provide education with attention to equity, human rights and anti-racism. I left the Board after 10 years and established a consulting practice. For the next several years, I combined consulting with public appointments, research and writing. During this time, I was served as head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and as a member of the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services. It was a privilege to have these public appointments as they gave me an opportunity to learn about so many issues and to make a positive contribution. Then in 1997, I felt the need to finish the one unfinished piece of business – my PhD. I think the years since I left the university and did all these other things had also helped me identify the exact question I wanted to pursue by way of a doctoral project. So, while I continued my consulting practice, I went to York for my PhD. And it was the reference letters from two of my Waterloo professors, Martin and Ober, that helped me to get in after a break of over 20 years! The stay at York was very productive. It gave me an opportunity to return to the academic field, to design and teach some very interesting courses in South Asian cultures, languages and literatures as well as Native Canadian literature, and to publish two books that I am very pleased with – Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature, which is a translation of a work on the literature of India’s untouchable writers by one of the foremost untouchable writers, and This Gift of English, which proposes a new analysis of the rise of English education in India as a convergence of British and Indian ruling class interests. I was at York till 2003, and then the call for public service beckoned me again as a member of the Toronto Police Services Board, and here I am! I joined the police board in 2004 as Vice Chair and have been chair since 2005, which makes me the second longest serving chair of this board. It has been, as you know, quite a momentous few years in the history of Canadian policing, and I do believe that the sensibility that my English education has inculcated in me has stood me in good stead.
JLH: Do you think your study of literature, narrative, writing, etc. has proven useful along the way?
AM: Very much so, as I have tried to indicate. Governing, which is what I am involved with, requires a particular sensibility, a generosity of spirit and mind as well as an ability to accept people as they are, to hear multiple perspectives and viewpoints, to analyze and interpret, and to persuade through the spoken and written word. You can know all the theories of management and organizational behaviour, you can be an expert in reading numbers and working with them, you can be well versed in law and policy, but if you don’t have those other attributes, you can be a good technocrat but not a good governor of people. Rhetoric, that is, persuading people to your point of view, is very much central to this role. You know, an organization is made up of human beings, and human beings don’t just bring technical skills, they also bring emotions; when they work together, they develop or destroy relationships; they collaborate, cooperate and conspire. There are living narratives, and you have to make sense of them. So, I do believe strongly that my study of literature, my ability to interpret narratives and my training in reading, writing and speaking are an essential contributor to whatever success I have had in my present role as Chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.
Actually, narratives are what I deal with daily – and not just in dealing with people and their issues inside the organization. You know, some of the biggest issues that I have had to, and continue to be called upon to, deal with involve narratives. Whether it is G20 and its aftermath, police interaction with people with mental illness, allegations of racial profiling or carding as it has come to be known, the Chief of Police’s proposal to provide more police officers with Tasers or, for that matter, the outcry related to the police investigation that has touched the city’s Mayor: each of these is about people and their lives. Just this week, we finished appearing at an inquest concerning the death of three individuals with acute mental illness at the hands of the police. I had to decide how the Board will respond and give instructions daily to our lawyers. It necessarily meant that I had to learn about the lives of these individuals and ask myself questions about how they came to such tragic end in order to decide what we could do to prevent these deaths. Similarly, in responding to the charge of racial profiling, it was not enough to make an abstract decision based on legal considerations. We invited members of the community to come to the Board and, in public, tell us about their experience. It brought out so many stories about the lives, realities, hopes and fears of the young people, neighbourhoods and communities that make up our extremely diverse city. These stories told us a lot about the effect that police can have on the lives of people, young people and made us ask ourselves if we should not be concerned about this effect when we make decisions about matters like policies, training, hiring and objectives of policing. Also Tasers and G20 – I cannot say enough about the impact of the stories we heard. I could not do my work well if I based my decisions or responses solely on disembodied statistics, impersonal laws or abstract strategic considerations. When I gave a public apology to those who had been subjected to illegal or improper police conduct during G20, it was because I was very conscious of them as human beings engaging in a very human action, the expression of their feelings about a world that was not to their liking. Interestingly, I remain the only official who made such an apology. Was that because of my literary education? Perhaps! I am certainly the only one involved in the world of policing who wrote a very public and personal response to the tragic killing of a young man, Sammy Yatim, by a police officer. My point, I guess, is that my background as a student of literature and narratives has given an added dimension to my approach to the decisions I make. I hope that, as a result, I make decisions that are humane, morally richer and grounded in an understanding of the hopes, fears and condition of real human beings.
JLH: Finally, I am curious, what are you currently reading? Is there an author you wish more people would read?
AM: You know, I have not cut myself off entirely from literature. To confess, at the end of a busy and stressful day, when the only time to read is the time between dinner and sleep, I go for mysteries! I love this genre and search for works from all over the world. But I also have a serious interest, which, perhaps not surprising in light of my earlier comments, happens to be literature related to issues of human rights, human dignity and the nature of society. Specifically, I am referring to the literature of India’s untouchable people, known as Dalit literature. The word “dalit” quite literally means to be ground under. There is a rich body of literature emerging from this community, very much in line with the literatures of other oppressed peoples. My wife, Arun Mukherjee, who is a professor of English at York, and I are good friends with many Dalit writers and academics. We read their work extensively, and we also translate their writings to make them available more widely. So, as I have mentioned, I have translated a theoretical work by the writer from Maharashtra in India, Sharankumar Limbale. I have also translated a Hindi writer, Mohandas Naimishray and am revising my translation of two very powerful plays by another writer from Maharashtra, Ramnath Chavan. These are all part of a collection that my Indian publisher wants me to put together, of Dalit literature of the last 20 years that deals with the emerging Dalit subjectivity.