TORU DUTT - THE FIRST INDIAN POETESS IN ENGLISH

Dr. Usha Bande

"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".

   Little Toru was told a folk-story by her nurse, of a peddler of bracelets who gets the vision of the Goddess. The story touched the deeper cords of her emotions. It stayed in the unconscious and when adolescent Toru started writing poetry, the story came back to her and flowed in rhymes. "Jogadhya Uma", from which the above lines are taken has a mystical touch and speaks well of the young poetess’ prowess to synthesise Indian lore and the English language for her poetry.

    Tour Dutt was born on March 4, 1856 in Bengal and she died on August 30, 1877, in the prime of her youth, at 21. She is often called the Keats of the Indo-English literature for more than one reason - her meteoric rise on and disappearance from the literary firmament, as also for the quality of her poetry. Toru died, like John Keats, of consumption and the end came slow and sad. On her elder sister Aru’s death Toru had written: "Of all sad words of tongue and pen/The saddest are these- it might have been". The same "might have been" stands as a question mark when we think of
Toru and her contribution to literature: What Toru "might have been" had she had a longer life? Putting to creative use three languages - French, English and Sanskrit - Toru was indeed a pioneer of the Indo-Anglian literature, a harbinger of a new era in Indian writings in English. It is sad that this "fragile blossom" withered so fast.

    James Darmesteter pays a befitting tribute to her, "The daughter of Bengal, so admirable and so strangely gifted, Hindu by race and tradition, and an English woman by education, a French woman at heart, a poet in English, prose writer in French, who at the age of 18 made India acquainted with the poets of French herself, who blended in herself three souls and three traditions, 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".

    A precious child, Toru was steeped in an intellectual atmosphere of her home with a linguist-poet father, Govin Chunder Dutt, and a highly cultured mother, Kshetramoni. This family background exercised tremendous influence on Toru and her siblings. The very air of their garden-house in Calcutta hummed with poetry as all her three uncles - Hur Chunder, Omesh Chunder and Greece Chunder - were writing for Dutt Family Album.

    Toru, the youngest of the three children of Govin Chunder - Abju and Aru being the other two - was perhaps the most frail and the most intelligent. Her father gives a graphic picture of her as

"Puny and elf-like, with disheveled tresses,

Self-willed and shy ne’er heeding that I call,

Intent to pay her tenderest addresses

To bird or cat, - but most intelligent…"

    Toru, was conscious of the influence her father had exercised in shaping her mental calibre. She recalled gratefully, "without Papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he used to take such pains with us … When we were quite little ones… I wonder what I should have been without my father, nothing very enviable or desirable, I know".

    Various happy and unhappy, shattering and creative events took place with incredibly rapid succession in Toru’s life. In 1862, when she was just six, the Dutt family embraced Christianity. Initially, this strained the relations between her parents but it turned out to be a temporary phase. Her mother soon reconciled, became a devout Christian, and translated The Blood of Jesus into Bengali, giving ample proof of her linguistic abilities and ease in handling the two languages.

    Toru felt the first staggering blow of fate at nine when her only brother Abju died. The shock was tremendous and the two sisters, Toru and Aru, turned to literature for consolation, trying to drown their grief in the repeated readings of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Four years later the family left for Europe where 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 school and learnt French - a language in which they attained proficiency to use it for creativity.

    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 the girls’ finer sensitivities and opened new vistas of the world of emotions. A two-year period at Cambridge helped in the blossoming of their personalities further. Toru came into contact with Mary Martin at Cambridge and the two fostered a life-long bond of friendship and affection. The correspondence with Mary Martin is a valuable source to know the mental make-up of the young poetess. The letters reveal the young writer’s childlike joy in life with her intellectual maturity. They speak of flowers and birds and of artistic vision, scholarly pursuits and morbid illness.

    On their return to India in 1873, Toru and Aru engaged themselves in literary pursuits. During this period she completed the translations of poems from French into English. She titled it "A Sheaf Gleaned From French Fields". It was out in March 1876. Meanwhile, goaded by a desire to bring out "another sheaf gleaned in Sanskrit fields". Toru started studying Sanskrit with her father.

Literary Achievements

    Toru Dutt’s literary achievements lay more in her poetic works than in her prose writings. Her poetry is meagre, consisting of A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. But she "compels attention" as KRS Iyengar puts it. Her poetry has sensitive descriptions, lyricism and vigour. Her only work to be published during her lifetime was A Sheaf, an unassuming volume in its overall get-up.

    The Examiner in its August 1876 issue published the review of her book. Edmund Gosse, the then reviewer expressed his surprise "To find Miss Toru Dutt translating, in every case into the measure of the original, no less than 166 poems, some of them no less intricate in form than perplexing in matter". He calls it an "amazing feat" and "a truly brilliant success".

    A review in the Friend of India says. "… the versification is generally good, and the translations, we believe, intelligent and faithful".

    In selecting poems for translation Toru focused attention on the Romantics of French literature, although she also included Chenier, Courier, Lamartine and a few others of the transition period as well as Brizeux, Moreau, Dupont and Valmore who were not Romantics. In France, the Romantic school was born towards the close of the 18th century and in the beginning of the19th, as in England. They asserted the free-play of imagination, simple and direct diction and freedom from any restrictions.

    The poems that she translated were probably those which could touch the cord of her imaginations and sentiments - patriotism, loneliness, dejection, frustrations, illusions, exile and captivity.

    One remarkable thing about her translation is that she has been able to capture the spirit of the original. No wonder, then, that Edmund Gosse, in his review says, "If modern French literature were entirely lost, it might not be found impossible to reconstruct a great number of poems from its Indian version". Not that she has blindly translated. In fact, she has changed words and phrases of the original and substituted them by more appropriate ones without any hesitation which make her work exact and yet free. The verses maintain the rhythm of the original.

    Though European by education and training, Toru was essentially an Indian at heart. From her childhood her mother had imbued in her love for the old legends from the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Her readings of the old Sanskrit classics gave her first-hand knowledge of the charming stories. Her woman’s imagination wove myriad coloured picture and she embarked upon her work, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, which appeared in 1882, with "Introductory notes" by Sir Edmund Gosse.

    Critics have hailed Ancient Ballads as the "best work in English". It shows her keen interest in the Indian translations. According to Lotika Basu, a literary critic, Ancient Ballads, "for the first time reveals to the West the soul of India through the medium of English poetry". In fact, scholars are profuse in their praise of this work for its finely-knit verses full of vigour and variety. The stories included are of Savitri, Lakshman, Prahlad, Sindhu and others.

    Toru wrote two novels - Bianca and Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers. The former, an incomplete romance, is in English and the latter in diary form, is the story of Marguerite and is in French. The manuscripts of these works were discovered after her death amid her papers. Both these works have simple plots which sustain the story element, the language is poetic and the characters are clearly drawn.

    Toru was proud of India’s cultural heritage, her flok-lores, myths and legends, and its rich classical literature. Though English by education, she was an Indian through and through. E.J. Thompson wrote about her, "Toru Dutt remains one of the most astonishing woman that ever lived …. Fiery and unconquerable of soul. These poems are sufficient to place Toru Dutt in the small class of women who have written English verse that can stand".

*Principal, Government Degree College, Aeki, Solan, Himachal Pradesh.