"Having a foot in several areas of thought at the same time was always very appealing to me."
Written by Jennifer Tatum, Nonfiction MFA 2013
Photo by Kris Stokes
Madhurima Chakraborty is hilarious, which makes for a very lively interview. Her humor during an interview is the same humor that students in her class experience on a day-to-day basis. I know; I was once her student. I remember a kind of "Muah ha ha ha" laugh after she handed us the reading packet for the semester. I remember leaning over to whisper to a classmate, "I think I'm going to cry." Students often say that her class is extremely hard, but they learn a lot and, at the end of the day, it's fun. It is fun. And I learned a lot.
This is Chakraborty's third year at Columbia. She is an Assistant Professor in the English Department, and has taught Intro to Literature, Intro to Postcolonial Literature, Graduate Literature Seminar in Postcolonial Studies and The Contemporary Novel, amongst others. She also teaches Intro to Postcolonial Literature, and other classes, in the English Honors program, which had its first graduating class this past Spring. About the Honors Program, Chakraborty says that students "self-select" to be in Honors classes, which means that they are choosing to take a more rigorous class, and as a result, she says that students have "an energy and willingness to be challenged, which is fun." She expects her students to work harder and doesn't shy away from assigning an extra chapter or an additional assignment. She's tough, but her students always enjoy being in her class. It all comes back to that humor.
She likes to joke that her mother always said she "had the face for radio," but she knows that isn't true. She was told, however, during the eleventh grade that she had the voice for radio, and it was then that she toyed around with the idea of being a Radio Jockey, though the idea was never pursued. Teaching was always the plan. When she was in the first grade, she wanted to teach first grade and when she was in the second grade,she wanted to teach second grade. If she was taking a History class, she wanted to teach History. Chakraborty completed her grade school studies in New Delhi, India, where she is from, and then moved to the States to pursue her college degree. She knew she had an interest in Political Science, which was her original declared major, but eventually "stumbled" into Postcolonial Studies, earning a BA from the University of Southern Mississippi, an MA from the University of Florida and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Postcolonial studies allowed her to pursue her interests in inter-disciplinary studies—the perfect blend—Political Science, History and reading books, something that she loves to do. She says, "Having a foot in several areas of thought at the same time was always very appealing to me."
About her decision to apply to teach at Columbia, she says that Columbia was at the top of her list, and that "It's [the English Department] a great department that we have," and a "great mixture of people, people who have been here twenty years or more and new hires that are younger." She also appreciates the balanced importance that Columbia places on both her role as instructor in the classroom, and as a faculty member, required to provide service to her department, college, and scholarly or creative community. She also says, "The students are creative and that energy is exciting to tap into in the classroom."
Her scholarship interests are deeply rooted in Postcolonial Theory, a lens with which she examines texts, mainly by Indian writers. Her most recent project, a book about Indian writer Mahasweta Devi, will cull from information included in her PhD dissertation and interviews with Mahasweta. Mahasweta Devi is an activist, a writer, and a "paradox," according to Chakraborty, because she [Mahasweta] has little patience for literary or critical theory, though she is the subject of much critical attention. She sees herself as a creative writer, not a political writer, though her activism and the political aims of her fiction are the most clear and present aims of her fiction. Chakraborty's book will examine how the critical lens that is used to examine a work of fiction, in which the sole aim is to be activist, should be adjusted. She says, "What does the fiction of someone who is so expressly political look like, and as literary critics, how do we pay close attention to that?"
Chakraborty is also the Website Manager for the South Asian Literary Association at SouthAsianLiteraryAssociation.org, a project that she works on with her husband Kris, who is a web designer. When she isn't on campus teaching, doing research for writing projects or presenting at conferences, Chakraborty enjoys watching movies (that aren't "intellectually stimulating), knitting and cooking. In her free time, she wants a break from the intellectual world, to watch something that just makes her laugh and allows her to zone-out for just a moment.