A polyglot, vintner writing professor helps students find their voice
Indra Mukhopadhyay speaks three modern languages and often emphasizes the benefits of retaining a heritage language to his international and immigrant students. (Photo: Mike Glier.)

A polyglot, vintner writing professor helps students find their voice

Associate Professor (Teaching) of Writing Indra Mukhopadhyay synthesizes Eastern and Western philosophy in his popular writing classes. [6¼ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

In brief:

  • He grows wine grapes in his front yard — but doesn’t drink.
  • Raised in Bakersfield, California, the multilinguist eschewed a more traditional career to pursue comparative literature.
  • Instructor talks Beowulf while tinkering with antique autos.

When Indra Mukhopadhyay, associate professor of writing, isn’t teaching classes, you’ll often find him working in his small vineyard planted in the front yard of his home.

Mukhopadhyay doesn’t drink alcohol anymore — he’s been teetotal for five years — but that doesn’t really matter. Winemaking is about the process for him, the chemistry and trouble-shooting and community-building around the craft, not the end product.

“There’s an old teaching in Sanskrit which says not to be concerned about the results of your work. Be in the moment and the results will follow,” says Mukhopadhyay. “It’s a different way of looking at finding fulfillment, in the journey and in the practice.”

It’s a philosophy that extends to his courses at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “That’s how I teach writing as well. Don’t try to write according to some model product at the end. I get people to embrace the process of writing and that’s how you actually get productive,” he says.

Fast cars, old books

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, Mukhopadhyay spoke three languages from an early age. English and Bengali were spoken at home, and French at elementary school. He also loved reading, devouring Alexandre Dumas’ entire Three Musketeers series.

He combined his language skills with his passion for books by studying world literatures at the University of California, San Diego. “American, French, African literature: I wanted to read everything,” he explains.

At UC San Diego, Mukhopadhyay’s studies inspired him to pursue a career outside the traditional vocations that his family, who arrived in California from India in the 1970s, had in mind for him. “I grew up in a household where there’s basically three career paths: doctor, lawyer or engineer,” says Mukhopadhyay.

David Crowne, a former professor of English at UC San Diego who shared Mukhopadhyay’s love of old cars, was a particularly influential role model.

“I’d go over to his house and we’d get underneath his Alfa Romeo to work on his differential while talking about the pronunciation of Beowulf,” says Mukhopadhyay. “I saw this as true quality of life.”

Summer of love

Mukhopadhyay’s wine is a family affair: His daughter helps stomp the grapes and his wife acts as taste-tester. (Photo: Courtesy of Indra Mukhopadhyay.)

Although he’d been accepted to law school, Mukhopadhyay decided to decline the offer and pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Michigan instead. “I was afraid of what my parents would say, but they were actually really supportive and so happy for me,” he says.

The program put his love of languages to the test. Students were required to work in three modern languages and one ancient one. He took classes at Harvard and added Sanskrit, a classical Indian language, to his repertoire.

Wanting to polish his French for future career opportunities, he enrolled at the Middlebury College summer language program in Vermont. It was a fortuitous choice: His future wife was also in attendance.

“The very first night, we stayed up trying to translate The Smiths and New Order lyrics into French,” says Mukhopadhyay. “We fell in love that summer.”

East meets West

At USC Dornsife, Mukhopadhyay teaches undergraduate students the joy of writing using what he dubs a “synthesis of Western and Eastern enlightenment.”

“Western enlightenment is your external knowledge acquisition. Eastern enlightenment is the internal kind, the process of identity discovery,” says Mukhopadhyay. “I don’t teach that in a lecture for students to write down. I create the conditions for that synthesis to happen for each student on their own terms.”

Mukhopadhyay might discuss writing from the Enlightenment period, which emphasizes empirical rationality, but he also encourages students to pursue self-reflection through open-ended writing prompts and critical dialogue.

“I don’t impose a template on my students. I draw my students out. I do that by asking questions back and forth, to think critically, and in one-on-one conferences,” he says. “I ask them about their writing: ‘What do you mean by this?’ or ‘Say some more here,’ and the students bring themselves out.”

Mukhopadhyay also hopes his students come away with an appreciation for the universal nature of human experience.

“There’s a ‘hero’s journey’ that happens in Europe, in India, in the First Nations stories in North America,” he explains. “Comparative literature is inherently global. It sees the world beyond national traditions.”

He teaches a Sanskrit play that’s nearly 2,000 years old, but which follows the familiar plot of any modern rom-com: Boy meets girl, the two fall in love, conflict occurs, and they must rebuild the relationship back to love again.

Cultural comraderies

Mukhopadhyay’s broad survey of global literature in classes helps draw in students from varied cultural backgrounds who are happy to explore literature from their native country.

“We have many students who are immigrants or are the children of immigrants,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘I’m from India but I’ve never read this before’ or ‘I’m from the Middle East and it’s so great to read these stories again.’ That’s very rewarding for me.”

He encourages these students to retain their heritage language. It’s a considerable asset, not just for opening up career opportunities but for discovering one’s identity.

“Learning languages early in life helps you gain other dimensions of yourself,” says Mukhopadhyay, who speaks from personal experience. “In French I’m really gregarious, I’m an extrovert. In Bengali, I have a whole sense of humor that doesn’t exist in French or English.”

Speaking multiple languages also expands our perception of the world around us, he says. “There are lots of different words in Bengali for weather and its subtleties. There’s a name for the really hot, humid moment before the rain comes. Once you know that word, then you can perceive it when it happens,” he says.

A higher calling

For several years, Mukhopadhyay has worked to establish the USC Center for South Asia, which he hopes will be an interdisciplinary institute, bringing together faculty and students from departments throughout USC Dornsife as well as the university.

“My vision is that the USC Center for South Asia will become the leading pedagogical, research, community outreach and international hub for South Asia in Southern California,” he says.

In his spare time, Mukhopadhyay co-writes a novel with his son that explores the same cultural clashes and cohesion that he tackles in his courses.

India is often associated with British colonialism, but Mukhopadhyay’s ancestral home was colonized by the French. “You’ll be in the middle of mango orchards, then come to a bridge, and on the side of the bridge it says, ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité [the motto of the French Revolution’],’” he says.

Their book focuses on two young boys, one French and the other Indian, who head off on a quest after bonding over the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He tells his son it doesn’t matter if the book gets published or not. What is most precious is the time they spend together imagining worlds and stories and getting excited about the characters and what they do.

If the book does hit the bestsellers list, Mukhopadhyay isn’t planning to quit his day job. Teaching has become an important calling.

“Nietzsche said, ‘A student repays their teacher poorly by remaining a student.’ I feel a debt and responsibility to teach,” says Mukhopadhyay.

 It’s almost a vocation assigned by the universe: “Mukhopadhyay” translates roughly to “teacher” in Sanskrit.