She Gently Fell Asleep
Toru Dutt was the first Indian woman writer in English and French. Tragically, she died at the age of 21, but she left behind enough writings to prove that she was a rare talent.
“This daughter of Bengal, so admirably and so strangely gifted, Hindu by race and tradition, an Englishwoman by education, a Frenchwoman at heart, poet in English, prose-writer in French; who at the age of 18 made India acquainted with the poets of France in the rhyme of England, who blended in herself three souls and three traditions, and died at the age of 21, in the full bloom of her talent and on the eve of the awakening of her genius, presents in the history of literature a phenomenon without parallel.”
— French critic JAMES S
Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was the unsung prodigy very few of us know about. A woman writer in the late 19th century, in an age of purdah and illiteracy, she was the first Indian woman to publish poetry in English, and it was extraordinary poetry. She was the first Indian woman to write a novel in English, and also the first Indian, male or female. to write a novel in French, all before her death at the age of 21. She had a prodigious talent for languages, and spoke Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. Her poetry arose from a multilingual and multinational background, and blended traditional Indian stories with European forms. She has been compared to John Keats and to the Bronte sisters, who were also precocious writers with tragically short lives.
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.
Before tuberculosis struck. Image from Life and Letters of Toru Dutt (1921) by Harihar Das.
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.
Her father later reminisced:
“Whenever we had a dispute about the signification of any expression or sentence in Sanskrit, or French, or German, in seven or eight cases out of ten, she would prove to be right. Sometimes I was so sure of my ground that I would say, ‘Well, let us lay a wager.’ The wager was ordinarily a rupee. But when the authorities were consulted, she was almost always the winner. It was curious and very pleasant for me to watch her when she lost. First a bright smile, then thin fingers patting my grizzled cheek, then perhaps some quotation from Mrs Barrett Browning, her favourite poetess, like this: ‘Ah, my gossip, you are older, and more learned, and a man’, or some similar pleasantry.”
From 1874, Toru published regularly in The Bengal Magazine and The Calcutta Review, including essays on Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the radical and influential teacher who played a significant role in the Bengal Renaissance, and Leconte de Lisle, the French Creole poet from Mauritius.
Her publisher Edmund Gosse said of her:
“In November 1873, they went back again to Bengal, and the four remaining years of Toru’s life were spent in the old garden house at Calcutta, in a feverish dream of intellectual effort and imaginative production. When we consider what she achieved in these forty-five months of seclusion, it is impossible to wonder that the frail and hectic body succumbed under so excessive a strain. 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. Immediately on her return she began to study Sanskrit with the same intense application which she gave to all her work, and mastering the language with extraordinary swiftness, she plunged into its mysterious literature”
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. “
To give an idea of her love for books and how widely she was reading:
“The books we sent for from England have at last come to hand; Les Chatiments, by Victor Hugo, a book which I have been longing to see; the poems therein are very beautiful; if I have time and space, I shall copy and send one of the smallest pieces with a translation by your humble servant! Then there are Voyage aux Pyrenees by Taine, Seul!, by Saintine. The latter is the well-known history of Alexander Selkirk, from which Defoe made out his Robinson Crusoe. Then we have received also Napoleon le Petit, by Victor Hugo; Les Fiances du Spitzberg, by Marmier, La Roche aux Mouettes, by Sandeau ; Histoire d’une Bouchee de Pain, by Mace. This is a scientific book treating of the organs of the human body and also of the animals, but the whole is so simply told, and so well explained, that it is most interesting reading…I have only read two or three of the whole lot as yet; I was so glad to receive them that a whole fortnight was passed in looking at them and hugging them!”
She also grew closer to Indian culture in this period, especially with her study of Sanskrit. In this beautiful sonnet The Lotus, she extols the quintessentially Indian flower above the flowers beloved of English poets, the lily and the rose:
Love came to Flora asking for a flower/ That would of flowers be undisputed queen,/ The lily and the rose, long, long had been/ Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power/ Had sung their claims. “The rose can never tower/ Like the pale lily with her Juno mien”—/ “But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between/ Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower./ “Give me a flower delicious as the rose/ And stately as the lily in her pride”—/ “But of what colour?”—“Rose
red,” Love first chose,/ Then prayed,—“No, lilywhite,—or, both provide;”/ And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,/ And “lily-white,”—the queenliest flower that blows.
However, her health grew progressively worse. Racked by pain and unable to write in her last days, she still continued to read extensively. She died in August 1877, at the age of 21. Her grief-stricken and now childless father went through her papers and found a number of works, complete and incomplete. These were published posthumously to great acclaim. Besides numerous poems, there was a novel in English, Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden, a novel in French, Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, and a collection of ballads based on Indian mythology, published as Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan.
“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.”
Toru was no sooner dead than she began to be famous. An excerpt from Savitri, perhaps reflecting her own upbringing:
In those far-off primeval days/ Fair India’s daughters were not pent/ In closed zenanas. On her ways/ Savitri at her pleasure went/ Whither she chose,—and hour by hour/ With young companions of her age,/ She roamed the woods for fruit or flower,/ Or loitered in some hermitage,/ For to the Munis gray and old/ Her presence was as sunshine glad,/ They taught her wonders manifold/ And gave her of the best they had./ Her father let her have her way/ In all things, whether high or low;/ He feared no harm; he knew no ill/ Could touch a nature pure as snow.
A contemporary wrote:
“It is difficult to exaggerate when we try to estimate what we have lost in the premature death of Toru Dutt. Literature has no honours which need have been beyond the grasp of a girl who at the age of twenty one, had produced so much of lasting worth.”
A translation by Toru from the French:
Death of a Young Girl Though childhood’s days were past and gone More innocent no child could be;/Though grace in every feature shone, Her maiden heart was fancy free. /A few more months, or haply days And Love would blossom—so we thought As lifts in April’s genial rays/ The rose its clusters richly wrought. But God had destined otherwise, And so she gently fell asleep,/ A creature of the starry skies Too lovely for the earth to keep. / She died in earliest womanhood; Thus dies, and leaves behind no trace,/ A bird’s song in a leafy wood— Thus melts a sweet smile from a face.
The author is the President Elect of FLO, the women’s wing of FICCI. One of India’s leading quizzers, she was declared Champion of Champions by BBC Mastermind in 2001. Archana also owns and runs a successful gems and jewellery business, which is a pioneer of Indian costume jewellery that caters to the middle class. Touchstone has a panIndian retail presence, and also exports, primarily to USA and Europe.
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