New Faculty Interview: Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

How did you get interested in your research subject?

I started graduate school with the somewhat misguided intention of writing a dissertation on how large-scale public works projects shaped the literary imagination of colonial South Asia. While working my way through an endless list of texts by Anglo-Indian writers in search of trains and bridges, I stumbled across a reference in one of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories about soldiers in India to a war manual: Garnet Wolseley’s The Soldier’s Pocket-book for Field Service, published in 1869. I’d never heard of Wolseley or the manual, but my interest was piqued when I discovered that it was mentioned in several other stories by Kipling.  In my ignorance of the book, I was not alone. As I soon realised, Kipling was just one of many public commentators vociferously attempting to convince soldiers and readers alike in Britain and South Asia that no one ever read Wolseley’s manual, and nor should they. For a book no one was apparently reading, there was a great deal being said about it. This led me to think more about the ways in which we think and write about reading. What could we learn about reading from unread books– books we possess but never bother to open, books we flip through selectively, books we read only in summary, and books we can’t read?

What are your intellectual passions?  What are you passionate to teach?

In graduate school, I developed a love of archives – the smaller and the dustier, the better. I’m always trying to think of new ways in which archival documents – often even seemingly boring ones, like bureaucratic reports – can tell us something about literary studies. I’m looking forward to exploring the relationship between literature and archival methods with the students in my Junior seminar this semester.

Not unexpectedly, I have very opinionated views on South Asian literature! I want my students to think about what makes literary reputations by encouraging them to read not just the works of blockbuster Anglophone writers, but also works by lesser known, but just as incisive, authors writing in regional languages.

What is the value of studying literature in the current political climate?

I’m reminded every day of the power of narrative to create empathy, and to make us think about the lives of others in ways that we might not have thought to do otherwise. I often have students say to me that they want to study South Asian literature because they know so little about South Asia. That to me says a great deal about what literature might do: teach us that there are worlds and cultures beyond ourselves that are worth learning about, understanding, and appreciating.

What are you reading for fun right now?

I recently finished reading a translation of Perumal Murugan’s incredibly beautiful Tamil novel, One Part Woman. I’m also excited to be revisiting Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and the short stories of the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, both favourites from my teenage reading days, for my Freshman seminar on Modern South Asian Literature.

What was your favorite job before becoming an academic?

The several possibly typo-ridden academic books that resulted from a brief stint as a freelance copyeditor made me realise that I never really wanted to do anything else but be an academic! I’ve been lucky enough to be able to read, write, and teach, ever since.