Born in 1856, in a renowned Indian family, Toru Dutt had the advantage of a better education and friendly environment that helped to nourish the poetess in her. In her writings, Toru Dutt connected the Indian mythology and fiction with English literature. Her extensive use of Indian myths gives this fictional poetess her identity.
Dutt’s entire family baptised when she was six. In the years 1869-73, she moved with her family to live in France and then England. She continued her higher studies in French even when she was living in England (1871-1873). She became proficient in Bengali, English, and French and later in Sanskrit as well.“She brought with her from Europe a store of knowledge that would have sufficed to make an English or French girl seem learned, but which in her case was simply miraculous,” Edmund Gosse, English literary historian and poet wrote about Dutt.
She was a product of the Bengal Renaissance. Bengal was in intellectual ferment with its contact with European ideas and literature, facilitated by the introduction of the printing press by Reverend William Carey at Serampore. Copious numbers of books were being printed in English and the vernacular—nearly six lakh books were printed for sale in Calcutta in 1857.
The educated Indian elite had always been multilingual, and in Calcutta, English was simply added to the list of languages which were de rigueur for them—Persian, Sanskrit, and their native language. Calcutta was a melting pot and the second city of the empire after London, with residents speaking Chinese, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Persian, Burmese, Armenian, Hebrew and hundreds of modern Indian languages and dialects.
Western-educated rich Bengali families dabbled in the letters, held government posts and had liberal views on religion, many of them following the progressive Brahmo Samaj. They socialized with the British, and strongly favoured reform in all spheres.
There were strong social movements for the emancipation of women led by reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. Most women however continued to be illiterate; there was even a superstition that if a woman learnt to read, her husband would die (as recounted by India’s’s first woman doctor Haimabati Sen in her autobiography)!
Rasomoy Dutt, Toru’s grandfather, was a great promoter of English education, and was on the managing committees of both the Hindu College and the Sanskrit College. He had an exceptional collection of European books. His sons went to the English medium Hindu College (now Presidency University) and were greatly influenced by the legendary literature teacher David Lester Richardson.
The Dutt family became very famous for its writing and poetry. In later years, they published an anthology called The Dutt family Album. The poets included were Toru’s father Govin Chunder Dutt, and her uncles Hur, Greece, and Omesh. Shoshee Chunder Dutt, writing incessantly through his career as a civil servant eventually published his collected English works in 10 volumes. Romesh Chunder Dutt was a legendary member of the ICS, and a Renaissance man; he wrote The Economic History of India, translated the Rig Veda, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and wrote a number of nationalistic novels in Bengali.
This versifying family was fondly called the “Rambagan nest of singing birds” by their mentor Professor Richardson. Something very strange happened in 1862. Kissen, Rasomoy’s eldest son fell fatally ill at his father’s funeral. He then insisted on being baptized a Christian before he died, and made a dying request to his brothers that they should become Christians. Thus did the brothers Govin Chunder, Greece Chunder and Hur Chunder with their cousin Shoshee Chunder convert, along with their families, and become prominent members of the Calcutta Church. The British greeted this with incredulous joy, as they had been singularly unsuccessful in getting converts, let alone one of the most prominent families of Calcutta.
However, this sent shock waves through Calcutta society and the Dutts were ostracized. Frankly, even their wives, who had collectively been baptized, were horrified.
Here is Govin, appealing to his wife in a poem titled The Hindu Convert to His Wife: “Nay, part not so—one moment stay,/ Repel me not with scorn./ Like others, wilt thou turn away,/ And leave me quite forlorn?/ Wilt thou too join the scoffing crowd,/ The cold, the heartless, and the proud,/ Who curse the hallowed morn/ When, daring idols to disown,/ I knelt before the Saviour’s throne?/ It was not thus, in former hours,/ We parted or we met;/ It was not thus, when Love’s young flowers/ With hope and joy were wet./ That kindling cheek, averted eye,/ That heaving breast and stifled sigh,/ Attest thy feelings yet./ It was not thus, reserved and cold,/ Strangers,that we met of old.
Govin’s youngest daughter Toru was six years old when the family converted. What did this conversion mean for Toru and her sister Aru? As a family which had already been ostracized, the peer pressure which would have imposed traditional taboos like purdah disappeared. They now identified much more with European thought and norms.
Toru’s early years were spent in Calcutta and in their country house at Baugmaree. Govin educated his daughters to a level not even seen in European homes. He engaged the best tutors and even personally taught them not only literature, poetry, languages and music, but also arithmetic, algebra and other disciplines. They read extensively on many subjects. Toru was a prodigy and beloved of her father. In a poem to his family he described her thus: “And last of all, puny and elf-like, with dishevelled tresses, self-willed and shy,…but most intelligent.” Toru’s only brother tragically died in 1865.
In 1869, when Toru was 13, the family left for Europe; they are considered to be the first upper class Bengali women to travel abroad. They made their way to Nice, where the girls were put in a French school for a few months. Toru had found the country of her soul, and became fluent in French. As a later observer said: “Her French, fluent, graceful, and idiomatic, seems not the toilfully acquired accomplishment of an educated Hindu, but the natural speech of a Parisian lady.” She became passionately attached to the country and its literature.
The family then travelled in a leisurely manner to London, where they rented a house, and started living the London life; wearing English clothes, interacting with Englishmen they had known in India, other pious Christians, and British writers and intellectuals.
A glimpse into Toru’s London life:
I have hardly time to write any letter, as our time is entirely given up to study. First we practise on the piano from seven to half-past seven, when we have our breakfast, then we have our Bible reading. It is generally over at half-past eight. Then we practise again on the piano till halfpast nine. After that I read The Times, for I take a great interest in the War (the Franco-German war), and I am sure I know more about it than you do. At ten, Mrs Lawless comes. She goes away at half-past three. Then we generally read with Papa at four, and on Fridays, Mrs Macfarren comes to teach singing, and on Mondays we go to have our music lessons from Mr Pauer.
The family moved to Cambridge in 1871, so that the talented girls could attend lectures for girls at the university, an opportunity given to very few British girls, let alone Indian! Toru made some lasting friendships here, and her later correspondence with them gives us an intimate glimpse into her life.
Unfortunately, Aru contracted tuberculosis, and the family decided to return to Kolkata in 1873. She did not recover, and died in 1874, leaving an already lonely Toru even more isolated. The 18-year-old Toru had become ill herself with TB, and now lived surrounded by nature, which was an important motif in her writing, and the household animals, of whom she was inordinately fond. As she described her life:
Aru’s was such a lively and merry disposition, that she seemed to fill all the large Garden House with life and animation. Now, without her, the place seems so lifeless and deserted. We do not go much into society now. The Bengali reunions are always for men. Wives and daughters and all women kind are confined to the house, under lock and key, a la lettre! And Europeans are generally supercilious and look down on Bengalis. I have not been to one dinner party or any party at all since we left Europe. And then I do not know any people here, except those of our kith and kin, and some of them I do not know. The life we lead here is so retired and quiet that I am afraid you find my letters dull.
Toru, as the only surviving child, became particularly close to her father, who provided her intellectual companionship. She had a remarkable memory, and remembered every piece she had translated by heart. She read much and rapidly: and consulted dictionaries, lexicons, and encyclopaedias of all kinds.
The fictionist had very interesting observation to make on literature, her writing pieces also had a touch not melancholy but more of emotional notes. Her two novels, Bianca or The Young Spanish Maiden written in English, though unfinished and Le journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, written in French, significantly with non-Indian protagonists, were based outside India.She also translated into Englishover 250 poetries written by some of the greatest French novelists such as Victor Hugo, Henri Heine, J. Soulary, F. de Gramont, Mme. Valmore, A. Pommier and Sainte-Beuve, which were published in A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields. Her translations and adaptations from Sanskrit to English are published in Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan.
It is notable that Dutt’s position as a poet of eminence rests chiefly on a handful of much anthologised poems like “Our Casuarina Tree”, “My Vocation”,“Sita”, “Savitri”, “The Lotus”, “Tree of Life”, and “Baugmaree”. She had an eye for the beauty and grandeur of Nature and one can see a vivid image of nature. “Love at first signet as poets sing, is then no fiction? Heaven above is whiteness, that the heart is king finds often like a lighting flash;” reads one of her works.
A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, her collection of French poems translated into English, was published in 1876. Here is a contemporary review:
Miss Toru Dutt has…shown a culture very rare even amongst our best-educated men. The Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields which she has presented to us is an octavo volume of 284 pages, containing poetical pieces mostly translated from modern French writers. The extensive knowledge she displays, and the command she shows over the English tongue, appear to us simply marvellous when we learn that the accomplished authoress is yet in her teens… Occasional quotations and references in the book under review show that she has some knowledge of German and Sanskrit. We doubt whether there is any young man of her age in this country who has learnt SO much. The work of translation has been so well done that the spirit of poetry breathes through every line. While the original has been followed very closely, there is no slavish adherence to the letter at the sacrifice of the true spirit of song.
“Prehlad”, “Jogadhya Uma”,“Sindhu”, “Lakshman”, “The Legend of Dhruva”, are the most prominent literary pieces written by Dutt, who died at a very young age of 21 on 30th August 1877. Like Brontë sisters and Keats, her family too, had become a victim of tuberculosis.
Racked by pain and unable to write in her last days, she still continued to read extensively. Her grief-stricken and now childless father went through her papers and found a number of works, complete and incomplete.
Most of her works were published posthumously. Following her death her father started going through her papers and began the task of popularizing them. A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields was edited and published a second and a third times in later years.
Her poems were released successfully in a compilation named Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindusthan. According to Gosse, more than her lyrical writings, the compelling feature of her work was the fact that it came from an Indian woman in the nineteenth century. He admired the fact that Dutt had a remarkable knowledge of languages that she was not native to. He also denoted the fact that she maintained her personal sweet disposition in her works, communicating her emotions effectively while never indulging in melodrama.
Outside her work, much of what we know of Toru Dutt comes from her letters to her cousin Arun Chunder Dutt and her friend Mary Martin. In early twentieth century author Harihar Das came across her poem Buttoo in an examination text-book. He was so captivated by the beauty of its verses that he set out to search for more information on her. Yet all he came across was an old photograph of Dutt. Years later he found her book A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields in his father’s library. Das decided to write her biography and started collecting her works. He later got in touch with her remaining family along with Mary Martin herself who provided with all the correspondences sent by Toru Dutt. He published all of it paraphrasing all the information he had on the poetess immortalizing her in his book Life and Letters of Toru Dutt.
[i] Padmini Sen Gupta, Toru Dutt (New Delhi: Sahitya Academi, 1968), 15.
[ii] Harihar Das, The Life and Letters of Toru Dutt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921), 40.
[iii] Ibid, 304.