In Memoriam: Chinmoy Banerjee, professor emeritus

August 14, 2020

It is with great sadness that the SFU Department of English notes the passing of professor emeritus Chinmoy Banerjee on July 29, 2020.

Professor Banerjee taught 18th-century and Restoration English literature, literary criticism, and post-colonial studies at SFU for 35 years. An accomplished teacher, celebrated by students and colleagues, he was also an active and esteemed human rights and anti-racism activist in the Vancouver community for 45 years.  

Banerjee was born on January 10, 1940, in Baidyabati, Bengal*. He attended the Sindia boarding school in Gwalior and continued to find academic success throughout his early life, completing undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature at Delhi University, where he also met his future wife, Aruna. Soon after the couple’s son Anand was born in Bombay, the family travelled to Ohio, U.S.A. where Banerjee would complete his PhD at Kent State University in 18th- century English literature.

According to his obituary by the Hari Sharma Foundation, it was at this juncture where Banerjee’s lifetime commitment to progressive politics emerged, stemming from the university protests against the Vietnam War:

On May 4, 1970, Banerjee, while trying to bring his four-year-old son Anand to campus pre-school, was turned away by nervous National Guardsmen who pointed rifles at the car. A few hours later, four students had been shot dead, and Banerjee’s perspective—and political allegiances—had crystallized. From then on, there was no compromise for him.

Later that year, Banerjee and his family moved to Canada. He began teaching English at SFU, and his daughter Nandini was born in December.

Banerjee’s areas of research and teaching were 18th-century literature and post-colonial literature and theory, including the work of Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul. An accomplished teacher, he received the SFU Excellence in Teaching Award in 1991.

Banerjee’s activist work in human rights and anti-racism in the Vancouver community since 1975 has left an indelible mark.

Forty-five years ago, he co-founded an advocacy collective, the Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA). IPANA was an organization of progressive Indians living in North America who opposed imperialism and supported democratic rights and social justice in India. In addition to holding the presidency of the Hari Sharma Foundation, Banerjee was also a founding member of the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism, and Non-Resident Indians Association for Secularism and Democracy, and he was actively involved with No One Is Illegal – Coast Salish Territories-Vancouver, an organization which seeks to address racialized and colonial issues facing migrants in Canada.**

Colleagues and students from SFU fondly recall his presence in the English department and in the community at large. English professor emeritus, Sandra Djwa, says Banerjee, “contributed to the English Department extensively” and had an “unfailing concern for students”. She goes on to assert that Banerjee’s organizing of the first English Department weekend retreat on Bowen Island, “led to substantial changes in the department curriculum and procedures”.

“Chin was my colleague in 18th-century studies and my across-the-hall neighbour for the first dozen years or so of my career at SFU,” professor Betty Schellenberg recalls, “I remember his kindness in ‘rescuing’ me once from a student who seemed threatening in my office.”

“We taught very different texts at that time: he especially loved to teach Johnson’s Rasselas and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and it was a pleasure to glimpse them through his enthusiasm," she says. "I recall that he finally ‘quarrelled’ with the poet Alexander Pope, telling me that he no longer wanted to teach the literature of the colonizers. He was always a dignified figure in his impeccable jeans and white shirts, strong in his convictions, but ready to laugh at the absurd as well.”

SFU alumnus, Christine Lyons remembers Banerjee as, “a warm, insightful lecturer” who made 18th- century and Restoration literature accessible and who was “incredibly generous, constructive, and encouraging in his feedback”.

At an Indian film festival Banerjee organized a few years back (where an adaptation of Hamlet was screened), professor Paul Budra remembers Banerjee being “full of energy and ideas”.  And having worked with him through the Institute for the Humanities, professor Stephen Collis remembers Banerjee as a “tireless activist”.

Chinmoy Banerjee is survived by his wife Robyn Kathleen Banerjee, son Anand Banerjee (wife Beth), daughter Aedon (“Nandini”) Young (husband Rob), grandson Max, and granddaughters Alexandria and Maya, and stepsons Jack Fairey and Joshua Fairey. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a donation to a charity of one’s choice would be made in his honour. A celebration of Banerjee’s life will be held once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.


* From the Hari Sharma Foundation’s obituary for Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee and Georgia Straight article by Gurpreet Singh “Chinmoy Banerjee was a strong Vancouver voice against Hindutva ideology.”

**Watch "Chin Banerjee, A Community History Project by No One Is Illegal"