While the entire world gears up to celebrate her women on International Women’s Day (March 8), Efforts For Good decided to turn a page of history. Today we are highlighting Toru Dutt on her 163rd birth anniversary. The unsung 19th Century poetess left an indelible mark in French and English literature during her short life of 21 years. While celebrating her brilliant penmanship, it must be remembered that she was not only a flagbearer of women writers in India but also one of the very few writers who dared to venture into the domain of foreign languages, already enriched with literary masterpieces.
A progressive family shaped a future poet
The year 1856, which heralded the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, is recorded in Indian historiography for a number of reasons. However, the birth of this poetic genius in that year rarely finds mention. Born in 1856, at a time when Indian women were still silent sufferers of patriarchy, Tarulata Dutt (later known as Toru Dutt) was indeed fortunate enough to be born in a progressive family of Bengal, where women empowerment found precedence. Her mother Kshetramoni Mitter was equally proficient in Bengali and English and had translated the book ‘The Blood of Christ’ into Bengali. Her father Govind Chunder Dutt was essentially recognised as a highly esteemed government employee, but his vocation lay elsewhere. Though lesser known, he was also a published poet.
Needless to say, Toru Dutt received a persistent exposure to literature since her childhood.
The untimely death of Toru’s elder brother in 1862 affected the family, which prompted them to adopt Christianity. Seven years later, in 1869, the family moved to France, where Toru’s passion for poetry blossomed. She and her sister, Aru Dutt, were bred in the colourful intricacies of Hindu mythology, thanks to their mother’s penchant for the same. This influence is vividly evident in Toru’s poetry, who even explored Sanskrit and Bengali in her later poetry.
Life at Cambridge – first tryst with poetry
Toru later moved to England for higher education where she pursued Higher Lectures for Women at Cambridge University and studied French simultaneously. The years 1871 to 1873 were significant in her life, as these brought forth the most important companionship of her literary career. Her friendship with Mary Martin fuelled her literary ardour and some beautiful letters were born out of their correspondence after Toru’s family returned to India in 1873.
Throughout this period, Toru continued to pen her poems on a variety of subjects – ranging from the neighbourhood Casuarina tree to the longing for love.
Love Came To Flora Asking For A Flower
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.
Toru Dutt’s literary works and an untimely death
At 18, Toru saw her first publication when her consecutive essays on French poets Leconte de Lisle and Joséphin Soulary were published in the Bengal magazine. This was her breakthrough in solitary publishing, which paved the way for better literary works.
Toru translated several volumes of French poetry into English which received considerable acclaim upon publication. Among these, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, published a year before her untimely demise in 1877, deserves special mention. Interestingly, eight of the poems in this anthology were translation works by her elder sister Aru Dutt. Though much less recognised, Aru Dutt had immense potential in her as a painter and would have earned accolades in the field, had a fatal health issue not claimed her life in 1874.
Toru also lost her battle to a fatal illness on August 30, 1877, at the tender age of 21, due to the same disease that had already claimed her siblings. She did not live to see her glory days, as most of her work was published posthumously, including her two novels – Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers) in French and Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden, which is arguably the first English novel by an Indian woman. Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, Toru’s book of Sanskrit translations, also garnered a lot of appreciation.
She is a celebrated author in France
Toru was deeply inspired by the feminist French author Clarisse Bader and wished to translate her works into her vernacular and English. However, her failing health stood in the way. Despite her frail health, she maintained communication with Bader through a series of letters. After Toru’s demise, her father forwarded Toru’s manuscript of Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers to Bader, who helped establish Toru Dutt’s reputation in France as a writer.
In her last letter to her friend Mary Martin, a helpless Toru expressed her anguish and desperation by comparing herself to a lonely Sita roaming alone and aimlessly in an unknown forest. Nearly one and a half centuries since her death, Toru Dutt’s poems still find relevance and reverence in the literature syllabus of India and the world. Here is one of her most celebrated poems, Our Casuarina Tree.
Our Casuarina Tree
LIKE a huge Python, winding round and round
The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars,
Up to its very summit near the stars,
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound
No other tree could live. But gallantly
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,
Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;
And oft at nights the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close,
Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.
When first my casement is wide open thrown
At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;
Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone
Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near kokilas hail the day;
And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast,
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.
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.
Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!
Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away
In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith
And the waves gently kissed the classic shore
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,
When earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon:
And every time the music rose,—before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.
Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay
Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those
Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose,—
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!
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.