Toru Dutt: A Pioneer of Indo-Anglian Writing

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Toru Dutt Life and Works

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 honor. 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 color?’ – ‘Rose-red,’ Love first chose,
Then prayed – ‘No, lily-white – or, both provide;’
And Flora gave the lotus, ‘rose-red’ dyed,
And ‘lily-white’ – the queenliest flower that blows.

It is now spring. What better way to start a tribute to pioneer woman writer Toru Dutt than to share her beautiful poem Love came to Flora asking for a flower. Born on March 4, 1856, this Bengali linguist, proficient in English, French, and Sanskrit, left us two novels and a collection of poems that put her among the bracket of early women writers of Bengal. 

 As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we re-imagine the early nineteenth century under colonial rule. We witness a whiff of change that is gradually blowing in undivided Bengal. The upper classes, considered so by the wealth they accrued through doing business with the British and other European trading communities, enabled a liberal education. Several Hindu men (and their children) converted to Christianity, before a more reformed sect of Hinduism- the Brahmo Samaj – was firmly established.  

If a section of poor Brahmins converted to Christianity for educational and occupational opportunities, the well-heeled Bengali Christians could travel abroad freely, without having to lose their castes. The immense exposure to an evolving progressive Occidental society also helped them to usher in a sort of renaissance back home. 

The women were still curtained but Toru Dutt with her sister Aru (brother Abuj had already succumbed to tuberculosis at a very early age) along with their parents travelled to France. They belonged to an illustrious family of Rambagan, Manicktalla (an old neighbourhood in northern Kolkata). The Dutts lived in France for a year before moving to England for another two years. 

Toru and Aru Dutt
Toru and Aru Dutt

Toru was eleven years old when she made this overseas voyage by sea but she was already tutored in French, English and Bengali at home by private tutors. A natural linguist, she became proficient in the languages and demonstrated writing skills. Most of her writings, however, became available posthumously. 

Thoroughly anglicized, and well groomed into European manners and etiquette, Toru wrote about love and longing – yes – but her core was patriotism. She truly loved the country of her birth. It is argued that even if she was groomed in the best of liberal ideas, she kept close to the ethical values of the original tales when translating from Bengali and Sanskrit. Much like Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, these were writers who excelled in the foreign languages, but adhered to their own ethnicity. They were rooted to an Indo-western culture, which made them what they were; a repository of eastern and western cultural influences. 

Also read: Huffing, Puffin and Correcting

Toru Dutt’s two novels – Bianca – known to be the first novel in English by a woman Indian writer  – traces the tragic life and romance of a Spanish maiden in France. Her second book in French (since translated into English and published by Penguin) is called Le Journal of Lady D’rivers. Toru Dutt’s other notable works are a collection of poems A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan There was a time, when an educated Bengali household’s library was bound to contain a volume of writing by her. Toru Dutt’s numerous translated poems (from French and Sanskrit) remained unpublished for a long time, but the few original poems ensured her a place among school textbooks and of course, within the hearts of her readers. 

Thoroughly anglicized, and well groomed into European manners and etiquette, Toru wrote about love and longing – yes – but her core was patriotism. She truly loved the country of her birth. It is argued that even if she was groomed in the best of liberal ideas, she kept close to the ethical values of the original tales when translating from Bengali and Sanskrit.

The Dutt family returned to Calcutta after extensive travels all over France, Italy, Germany and finally living in Cambridge where though she did not study in the University she came across some bright minds. The University of Cambridge still did not admit women but it offered a lecture series for women. Toru was fortunate to attend these which expanded the horizons of her own mind. 

When the family returned to Calcutta, Toru found the place to be both physically and morally unhealthy. She wrote to her English friend, Mary Martin, the first question my grandmother’s friends had upon seeing me is whether I am married or not on account of which, I have stopped attending dinner parties, she added.  

Not much has since changed! 

As a student of Comparative Literature I cannot but compare the lives of the Bronte sisters of England born in the early nineteenth century to the Dutt siblings. Emily Bronte too wrote one novel Wuthering Heights and a collection of poems. Charlotte Bronte did better but Emily went down in the history of classical literature for her portrayal of a male character like Heathcliff without ever experiencing love herself. She too died of consumption, aged only thirty. Charlotte had a larger output but both she and Anne too died early, as did their brother Branwell.

Alas Toru Dutt’s talent was nipped in the bud when she passed away to tuberculosis just like her siblings before her. Her imagination and mastery over languages at such a young age will certainly live on to inspire other women at different points of history. .

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