Toru Dutt
Calcutta / British India


Toru Dutt was an Indian poet who wrote in English and French, and made a mark in literature in spite of her premature death.

Early Life

She remained in Calcutta till November 1869, after which she and her sister Aru traveled to France, Italy and then England. She went to a school in France for the first time of her life and had an intimacy with French during that period.

Publishing Career

After publication of several translations and literary discussions, she published a Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, a volume of French poems she had translated into English, with Saptahiksambad Press of Bhowanipore, India in 1876. Eight of the poems had been translated by her elder sister Aru. This volume came to the attention of Edmund Gosse in 1877, who reviewed it quite favorably in the Examiner that year. Sheaf would see a second Indian edition in 1878 and a third edition by Kegan Paul of London in 1880, but Dutt lived to see neither of these triumphs. she wrote many poems for the rank and the file.

Posthumous Publications

At the time of her death, she left behind two unpublished novels— Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (thought to be the first novel in French by an Indian writer) and Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden (thought to be the first novel in English by an Indian woman writer)—in addition to an unfinished volume of original poems in English, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. Her father, Govin Chunder Dutt, ensured that these works would be published posthumously: Bianca in Calcutta’s Bengal Magazine (1878), Le Journal by Didier of Paris (1879), and Ancient Ballads with Kegan Paul (1882).

Gosse wrote an Introductory Memoir for Ancient Ballads. There he observed, “Her name . . . is no longer unfamiliar in the ear of any well-read man or woman” (vii). Indeed, according to Gosse, “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, and in languages separated from her own by so deep a chasm, had produced so much of lasting worth” (xxvi). Gosse thus concludes the Introductory Memoir by insisting, “When the history of the literature of our country comes to be written, there is sure to be a page in it dedicated to this fragile exotic blossom of song” (xxvii).

Prithwindra Mukherjee translated her famous novel Le Journal into Bengali, serialised it in the monthly Basumati, before bringing it out in a book form in 1956, with a foreword by Premendra Mitra. Once again, Prithwindra Mukherjee serialised its English translation in 1963, in the Illustrated Weekly of India with line drawings by Mario. Her Ancient Ballads was a great beginning in Indo-Anglian writing. She also knew German.

Though a British by up-bringing, she was a harsh critic of the behavior of the British towards Indians. As a diligent reader of newspa-pers, she was aware of all the cases of injustice reported daily, and they filled her with bitterness against the British. There was the case of a person who was sentenced to three weeks of hard labour because he had defended himself when attacked by some dogs owned by an Englishman. Enraged, Toru wrote: You see how cheap the life of an Indian is in the eyes of an English judge. She wrote to her friend about another case in which some soldiers had killed nine Ben-galis, and wounded seven, and mentioned several other instances of brutality. Toru was against the extravagance of the people during the visit of the Prince of Wales, and critical of the grand fireworks displayed in his honor in the Calcutta Maidan. Remembering how 9000 was spent on fireworks when the Duke of Edinburgh came to India in 1869, she questioned, Was it not literally converting money to smoke? She disapproved pomp, extravagance, waste and feudal ways. Time was running short for Toru Dutt and the same disease that had taken her brother and sister attacked Toru, and she knew that she too had to yield to pitiless tyrant. Though she died at a very young age, she had left a deep mark in English literature. She is called the Keats of the Indo-English literature as she died at a very young age of consumption like him and for both of them the end came slow and sad. Had she lived longer her contribution to literature would have been never ending. Critics describe her as the fragile blossom that withered so fast. The well-known poet and novelist Andre Theuriet showered much praise on A Sheaf Gleaned in French Field. Her last poem AMon Pere is praised worldwide and is considered faultless . She was in a hurry to put in as much work as possible, to project and interpret India s past and glorious tradition to the English-speaking world. She was proud of her Indian tradition. She was proud of India s cultural heritage, folklores, 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.

It was after Toru Dutt s death in 1877 that her father discovered the manuscripts of her writings, among which was ANCIENT BALLADS. He arranged to publish her works supplying the missing links-an act of homage of one poet to another while being a poignant testimony of fatherly love. Toru Dutt, a prodigy a comparison with Keats in tempting has been described as a PHENOMENON WITHOUT PARALLEL being so erudite in the literature of both the East and West. Fisher comments that this child of the green valley of the Ganges has by sheer force of native genius earned for herself the right to be enrolled in the great fellowship of English poets. What is most remarkable in one so young is the motive realisation that East and West are not two antithetical entities and a commingling was not only possible but also most fruitful for creative art. In this awareness, she can be regarded as one of the forerunners of the poetic renaissance in India. Though Toru Dutt loved English and French and had embraced Christianity with other members of her family, sub-consciously she felt drawn towards her country and its rich heritage. Her European education did not have the adverse effect of alienating her from her roots-on the other hand she returned to it with fresh insights. While Gosse sees her A SHEAF GLEANED IN FRENCH FIELDS as imperfect though interesting is his prediction that- her English poems will be ultimately found to constitute Toru s chief legacy of posterity-has come true. The ballads The Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hidustan form the LAST AND MOST MATURED OF HER COUNTINGS. The ballads are essentially Indian in genre and outlook and are the poetical attempts to reveal her return to her land. In them are enshrined what she had learnt of her country from books and from her people. She did not anglicise her ideas but kept close to the ethical values of the original tales while her understanding of modern life and dedication to craft has helped her to make these ideas of yore relevant to poterity.
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