Much before the thought of women’s empowerment ever came to the mind of mankind a young girl took the lead through literature and this is not in the twenty-first century but way back in the 19th century. This little girl who most of us have never heard of nor has most ever read any of her works is none other than Toru Dutt. In her short-lived life she achieved what most writers and poets ever dream off, going beyond her native language that is Bengali she managed to achieve this feat in English and in French.
Born on 4th of March 1856 into a wealthy Bengali Hindu family in Kolkata to Govind Chunder Dutt and Kshetramoni Dutt her life was not quite different to that of any typical Bengali during the British Raj, youngest of the three siblings her childhood was to be a potpourri of culture and literature.
Her first tryst with literature came from their family nurse, she told young Toru folklore about a street peddler who went places selling bracelets. This somehow affected the inner conscience of young Toru and a deep intellectual character started developing within her young mind. She started composing poems from this folklore and thus started her journey into the world poetry, literature, and language.
In 1862 Toru’s entire family converted to Christianity, all the three children were baptized into the religion at Christ Church which is located right opposite to Scottish Church College in present Kolkata. This was a revolutionary step by the family since this was quite unheard of at that time in British Bengal.
Toru’s family was very well educated and one of her cousin Romesh Chunder Dutt was a noted historian, linguist, and a politician at a later stage. Romesh Chunder Dutt was an I.C.S and deputed as Assistant Magistrate of Alipur. Toru’s parents were equally educated and this was something very unique considering the typical society structure in Bengal at that time. An example of this was seen when her mother Kshetramoni Dutt translated an English book entitled Blood of Jesus into Bengali.
Things took a dramatic turn for the family with the death of her elder brother Abju in 1865. Saddened by this event Toru and her elder sister Aru became severely depressed and resorted to the words of Milton’s Paradise Lost, this became a turning point in the life of Toru who slowly resorted to reading more and more works of literature to overcome the death of her brother.
Her family along with her migrated to Europe in 1865, first, they reached the shores of France, here Toru started learning French in a local school and remarkably she was a natural linguist and quickly managed to learn French. She got introduced to French creative literature and develops a natural ability to practise the language in its best form.
Her family did not stay much long here and soon and migrated across the English Channel to England. First, she started learning music which helped her in developing an acute sense of life and the intricate nature of sounds. Later both the sister got enrolled into Cambridge University (1871 – 1873) and studied there for two consecutive years. Here Toru mastered the language of English which she was already aware of but here she was introduced to the finesse of the best of English literature. For her literary career this was a very important period as she started developing her own personality and started fine tuning her poetic skills.
The family returned back to British India in 1873, once back Toru wished to return to Europe soon. She was somewhat mesmerized by the literary evolution in the European continent. Back to her roots, Toru began to write, she devoted her life to literature. She had the natural ability to write poetry and words seemed to flow naturally in her writings.
In 1876 A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields was published, this was the only publication ever to happen in her lifetime. She was 17 and was already started showing her true colours in the world of literature. This book was a collection of French poetry which were translated in-depth into English with the finest words possible.
André Theuriet a well-known novelist well appreciated this work and it’s mentioned in Revue des Deux Mondes.
Edmund Gosse said these about her translation skill after reading A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields “To find Miss Toru Dutt translating, in every case into the measure of the original, no less than 166 poems, some of them no less intricate in form than perplexing in matter”. He calls it an “amazing feat” and “a truly brilliant success”.
Edward John Thompson an eminent scholar, historian and translator who was famous for is translation works from Bengali to English once said “Toru Dutt remains one of the most astonishing women that ever lived, a woman whose place is with Sappho and Emily Bronte”
Even after returning from Europe, Toru was very much attached to her roots and was voiced her disgust against the atrocities committed by the British in India. There was a particular incident where a pack of dogs belonging to a British Magistrate attacked a herd of goats belonging to an elderly woman, a local school boy who happened to be passing by saw this and helped the poor lady. In this process, one of the dogs got killed while trying to separate the goats from the dogs. This little boy who helped the old woman was imprisoned and sentenced for killing a dog. Toru protested openly against this in the public thus showing her attachment to her true roots.
Some started calling her John Keats of Indian Literature by noticing her style and strikingly by the way both died due to the onset of Tuberculosis.
In the year1877 on 30th of August, Toru died after suffering from tuberculosis for a long time, she was just 21 yet she had left behind a legacy which the world came to recognize much later.
Toru left behind two of her unpublished works Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers and Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden. These two novels were a milestone in the history Literature by an Indian. Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers was the first novel in French by an Indian Writer and Bianca was the first novel in English by an Indian Writer.
Addition to this there was another Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan which was discovered by her father after Toru’s death. It was an unfinished set of original poems in English. This volume of poems was very different from the rest of her work as the main basis of these works by her were essential very Indian in nature. Often having the feel of the rustic nature on the Indian subcontinent. This was published posthumously by her father, this collection has two parts, the first part having poems about the legends of the Indian subcontinent whereas the second part contains her other works in poetry where she draws inspiration from her European travels.
Toru Dutt was a landmark in the history of Indian writing in English as well as French, many of her works have been translated into French and Italian; many academicians have praised her style of writing and the way her thoughts were transferred into writings creating a web of intricate thoughts.
I got the wonderful opportunity to visit Maniktala Cemetery where Toru Dutt is buried along with her whole family, this was during the Literary Walk organised by Streets of Calcutta for Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsav. During this photo walk, I also got the wonderful opportunity to meet other fellow bloggers like Sumit Surai, Indrajit Das, Indrajit Lahiri, Svetlana Bhagawan & Soham Chandra to name a few, the leader & guide of the pack was Amitabha Gupta. I was intrigued by the level of contribution to the world of literature by Toru Dutt and felt it was important for me to at least write a blog to honour her. Personally for me writing this blog was an eye opener, the more research that I did more the unbelievable facts came out, I have not done real justice to Torulata Dutt as this is just the tip of the iceberg. I would request you to please read her works and enjoy the true taste if Indian’s writing in English or rather I should say writing both in English and French.
Few lines from the poem Our Casuarina-tree.
But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:
Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear!
Blent with your images, it shall arise
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!
What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach.