Toru Dutt wrote her final letters at 21, wracked by the same cough that had taken her brother and sister. She wrote in French, to her closest friend in Europe, Mary E.R. Martin; one of the few people outside her family who knew of her work. It’s a pained letter, and yet she had accepted her fate, invoking the image of Sita wandering alone in the forest. She died on August 30, 1877.
Her life was a series of lonely achievements. She was the first female Indian poet to compose both in English and in French. The first Indian woman to study at Cambridge (at a time when the university was only beginning to open its doors to women). The first Indian to write a novel in French. Perhaps she was also the first example of an emigrant returning to India and pining for another land, knowing not fully which is home. And for all her achievements, the latter part of her works was published and received only posthumously – her biography written 43 years after her death.
Toru’s family house in Calcutta, where she returned after some years spent in Europe, was a place for her to throw herself into writing and translation. It was here that she finished ‘A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields’, a collection of more than 150 poems she had translated from French to English. It was printed in Bhowanipore, Calcutta, with no introduction, on basic, orange-hued paper and then sent to one of the finest literary journals in Britain at the time – the Examiner. There, the sheaf was gleaned and nearly binned for its presentation– until it reached critic and poet Edmund Gosse. He soon realized not to judge this book, which had no introduction, by its cover.
When poetry is as good as this it does not much matter whether Rouveyre prints it upon Whatman paper, or whether it steals to light in blurred type from some press in Bhowanipore.
Toru had an ear for language, and her translations were not simple reproductions from one language to another, but captured the essence of the original and made it contemporary. As Gosse wrote: “If modern French literature were entirely lost, it might not be found impossible to reconstruct a great number of poems from its Indian version.”
If modern French literature were entirely lost, it might not be found impossible to reconstruct a great number of poems from its Indian version.
It was the time of the Bengali Renaissance, and she would have seen the steady march of women’s liberation in Cambridge, where she attended the Higher Lectures for Women – as among its first female Indian students. Indians writing in English at the time are prone to criticism today for furthering some colonial agency, but Toru wrote for no one, and loved only rhyme and its reason for being. Her next work, ‘Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan’ was a collection of myths and legends from Sanskrit scriptures told through her verse.
Absurd may be the tale I tell,
Ill-suited to the marching times,
I loved the lips from which it fell,
So let it stand among my rhymes.
Writing of the legend of Ekalavya in ‘Buttoo’, she shows her ability to take a moment from these mythological character’s lives, and bring just that moment alive in verse.
My place I gather is not here;
No matter,–what is rank or caste?
In us is honour, or disgrace,
Not out of us,” ’twas thus he mused,
“The question is,–not wealth or place,
But gifts well used, or gifts abused.
Though she is sometimes seen as a Western writer, few today have written of India’s mythology in such a compelling and readable way. There is a hint of Romanticism in her poems, of tragic heroes and heroines.
In Dutt’s characters, male or female, there is a heroism that resembled her own in taking on new and unfamiliar languages and making them her own. Her work was quietly competent, and she produced an incredible amount in her life span of 21 years. Though she had found some fame in Europe for her work, she was always a relative unknown – even today her tomb lies in disarray. Modern Indian writers looking back to trace the evolution of Indian writing in English will find in her a milestone and benchmark.
Her most autobiographical work, ‘The Casuarina Tree‘, is taught in schools, and was her reaction to the loss of her sister. She writes of the Casuarina tree that she and her siblings had played under in their childhood garden. She knows she is dying and will soon fade as did her brother and sister, so she gifts the tree the immortality of verse.
Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
“Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow;” and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse.
Her life was a series of quiet accomplishments. One only wishes that she had lived longer to make more. But she reminds us that even in nineteenth-century India, it was possible for a woman to break out of the mould of purdah, caste and patriarchy, and write a daring legacy. She was the first female poet and novelist in English, and a rich legacy of succeeding writers ensured that she was not the last.
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