In a world that encases itself in a forest of desire for ever-growing popularity, some do not seek power. They thrive, not for themselves, but for the world that encircles them. Let's moonwalk into the mid-nineteenth century when the agony from the British Raj was slowly settling into the lives of Indians. The Capital of British India, Calcutta was in its richest form, decorated with The Bengali Renaissance.
This is the era when a young lady and our protagonist, Torulata Dutt, lived. An author, poet, translator, linguist, essayist, and polyglot, she was acclaimed to be the most crucial founding figure of Anglo Indian Literature.
Torulata Dutt was born into the prestigious Dutt family of Calcutta that was known for their nobility, westernized approach to life, and literary inclinations. Toru and her siblings, Abju and Aru grew up in a poetic and literary environment while being home tutored by private English teachers. The Dutt family converted to Christianity when Toru was six years old. Though her mother Kshetramoni Dutt, was against conversion at first, she gradually began accepting it and did not miss out on narrating tales from Hindu Epics as well as tales from Christian Mythology as bedtime stories to her children.
Soon a tragedy hit Toru’s family when her elder brother Abju died aged 14 due to tuberculosis. Deeply downcast, the family eventually moved to Europe, making Toru and her sister, one of the first-ever Bengali girls to travel to Europe via sea route.
The family spent a handful of years in Europe, three in England, and one in France. While in France, Dutt attended a boarding school, where she learned and wrote her works in French. Soon after, the family shifted to England, where the sisters attended “Lectures for women” from The University of Cambridge. In 1873, Toru returned to Calcutta, aged seventeen. At the time, she was coping with the grief of losing her sister and literary soulmate Aru and the old, conservative, and restrictive society of India made it all the more challenging for her.
In one of her letters to her friend back in Europe, she wrote: "I have not been to one dinner party or any party at all since we left Europe" and "If any friend of my grandmother happens to see me, the first question is, if I am married." In other letters written to her friend, Mary Martin, she spoke about realizing that India is her home and about being patriotic. She also spoke about her failing health and expressed urgency, which meant that young Toru knew that she was destined for death. Like both of her late siblings, Toru too died of Tuberculosis on 30th August 1877.
Even though Toru lived only 21 years, she was highly proficient in Bengali, English, French, and Sanskrit, and could seamlessly translate between them. The year before she died, she published her volume of poetry “A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields” which contained 165 poems translated from French to English. Sadly Toru wasn't alive to see the book gain immediate popularity. Toru also left behind unfinished works before she died. Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers - written entirely in French, went on to become the first-ever French Novel written by an Indian Writer. After Toru’s passing, her father posthumously published both of her works, including Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, which contained poems and lyrics translated from Sanskrit to English. Dutt also published translations of French poetry, and literary articles, in The Bengal Magazine. To add to her works that levitated around the themes of loneliness, longing, patriotism, and nostalgia. She also wrote a great many letters, which were published in 1921 as the Life and Letters of Toru Dutt.
Toru has gone down in Indian Literary History as a pioneer for English Writing in India. Her writing and contribution towards French and Sanskrit are highly celebrated. Toru Dutt was a changemaker and feminist who paved the way for great legends in Indian English writing. Her brief time in this world and her passing can be best summed up in this verse from a poem titled The Death of a Young Girl - Written by French Poet Evariste De Parny, which Toru herself translated.
But God had destined otherwise
And so she gently fell asleep
A creature of the starry skies
Too Lovely for the earth to keep.
(Edited by Neha Baid)