Toru Dutt (born on 4th March, 1865)compels attention as a poet, however her life – a combination of beauty andtragedy – equally fascinates and depresses us. Her poetry is reality, no doubt,but the poet too induces interest. She had a rich and respectable ancestry. TheDutts were one of the eminent families in Kolkata.
Her father Govin ChunderDutt, was well-to-do, a good linguist, and a cultured man with literaryleanings and generous impulse. In 1862, when she was just six, the Dutt family embracedChristianity. Initially, this strained the relations between her parents but itturned out to be a temporary phase. Her mother soon reconciled, became a devoutChristian, and translated The Blood of Jesus into Bengali, giving ampleproof of her linguistic abilities and ease in handling the two languages. Toruwas the youngest in the family, having a brother Abju and a sister Aru. Of hisson Govi wrote:
Most loving is my eldest, and I love him most;Almost a man in seeming, yet a child…
And thus of Aru:
My next, the beauty of our home, is meek;Not so deep-loving haply, but less wildThan her dear brother;-brow and blushing cheekHer nature shows serene, and pure, and mildAs evening’s early star;
And thus to Toru:
Punyand elf-like, with disheveled tresses,Self-willedand shy ne’er heeding that I call, Intentto pay her tenderest addressesTobird or cat, - but most intelligent…
The children had a private tutor but Govin took personalcare in educating them properly. Toru, was conscious of the influence herfather had exercised in shaping her mental calibre. She recalled gratefully,"without Papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he usedto take such pains with us … When we were quite little ones… I wonder what Ishould have been without my father, nothing very enviable or desirable, Iknow". The first calamity came in 1865 when Abju died. The sisters clungto each other and read Paradise Lost repeatedly, and lost themselves in literary studies.
In 1869, the family left for Europewhere the girls could glean rich treasures of knowledge and become versatile.Their first stay was in Nice, in the South-east of France. Here they attended schooland learnt French - a language in which they attained proficiency to use it forcreativity. The stay at Nice was short and was followed by a visit to Italy and then to England. In London, the lessons in music aroused thegirls’ finer sensitivities and opened new vistas of the world of emotions. Atwo-year period at Cambridgehelped in the blossoming of their personalities further. Toru came into contactwith Mary Martin at Cambridgeand the two fostered a life-long bond of friendship and affection. Thecorrespondence with Mary Martin is a valuable source to know the mental make-upof the young poetess. The letters reveal the young writer’s childlike joy inlife with her intellectual maturity. They speak of flowers and birds and ofartistic vision, scholarly pursuits and morbid illness.
Soon after their arrival in their London came out The Dutt Family Album (1870), containing about 200 pieces, Govin’s contribution being mainly of a didactic nature. His brothers and a nephew called Omesh Chunder were the other contributors to the volume. Of no major literary importance, the volume throws light on the literary exertion and creative atmosphere of the Dutt family house. The family moved back to Kolkata in September 1873 and soon after that, in 1874 July, Aru succumbed to consumption.
Toru’s first publication A sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876) consisting of translations of seventy French poets (including Hugo, Gautier, Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Nerval, Sainte-Beauve), brought her to the attention of Edmund Gosse. Most of the poems were translated by Toru and her translations are also the more striking:
Ha! There’s the seagull. See it springs, Pearls scattering from its tawny wings,Then plunges in the gulfs once more,‘Tis lost in caverns of the main!No! No! It upward soars again,As souls from trials upward soar. (‘Lines:Victor Hugo’)
The most interesting part of the collection was the Notes appended at the end of volume, consisting of critical comments on the French poetry translated in the volume. They were largely written by Toru. Gosse found them ‘curious’ and ‘bewildering’ as ‘nothing could be more naïve than the writer’s ignorance at some points, or more startling than her learning at others. Thompson admired the ‘independence and masculinity’ of her criticism.
Shortly after her return to Kolkata, Toru published her first essays, including one on Derozio in the Bengal Magazine (December 1874). She worked hard at learning Sanskrit and writings poems on Hindu mythology. Toru was considering translating Clarisse Bader’s La Femme dans l’Inde Antique when she died at the age of only twenty one years and six months. It was 30th August 1877.
A selection of English translation of the sonnets of Comte de Grammont, a sketch for an unfinished romance Bianca, or The Young Spanish Maiden, a complete French novel – Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, and a collection of poems Ancient Ballads were left behind by Toru. Bianca was published in Bengal Magazine (1878), while the French novel appeared in 1879 to much critical acclaim. The poems collected in Ancient Ballads were better than anything written up till then by an Indian in the English language. ‘Baugmaree’ which takes its name from the place where the Dutt country house was situated, is a celebration of trees. In its imagery and description – an affinity might be found between Toru and her contemporary Emily Dickinson. The bulk of the poems in Ancient Ballads is based on Indian mythology.
Toru Dutt’s poetry transcends the recognisable school of nineteenth century poetry and evolves a separate identity. The difference lies in the manner in which her language addresses her experience, her vision radiating beyond the boundaries within which most of the nineteenth century poetry in English was confined. Her awareness of her own Indianness is not restricted to Indian historical themes and the reworking of Indian legends. The mythological content of her poems does not exist extrinsically, but is integrated with her consciousness, her memory. In her poetry, we meet for the first time a language that is crafted out of the vicissitudes of an individual life and a sensibility that belongs to modern India.