Toru Dutt

“They were all Christians and highly respected by their townspeople. All spoke English well and were educated in European literature far above the average of other Bengalis of their generation. These Dutt families were the backbone and mainstay of the Christian Church and congregation, which was in Cornwallis Square. I am told by Mr. Joseph Welland that he learned from these educated Dutts, that they always, even among themselves, made use of the theological terms needed, in the English language, even when conversing in Bengali. Govin Chunder was a delightful man and most highly educated, he spoke excellent English, and was an earnest-minded and religious Christian in faith.”

Mrs. Barton, widow of C.M.S Missionary Rev. J. Barton, quoted in Harihar Das, Life and Letters of Toru Dutt.

Harihar Das’ biography of Toru Dutt, a heroic venture containing every available scrap of information about the poetess and her family, published in 1920 and enduring ever since as the standard text for details about the Rambagan Dutts, provides readers with an array of interesting facts. Out of the vast mass of material provided, including letters written to family during the time of her travels abroad, reminiscences from old friends and acquaintances, usually missionaries, as well as recollections of Govin Chunder — Toru’s father — published in the Bengal Magazine, an important mouthpiece of the Bengali Christians edited by the Rev Lalbehari Day, we are left with vignettes of a family emblematic of the turmoil that nineteenth century Bengal was subject to. The Westernization of the indigenous Bengali in the 19th century, caught amidst the interplay of tradition and the new thoughts of the West, had led to a series of changes in the social, cultural and religious spheres.

Conventional historiography has seen in this a vigorous intellectual revitalization under the influence of western cultures so akin to the fifteenth century Italian Renaissance that it has been labelled as the Bengal Renaissance. The focus of this piece is on a particular strand of the elite response to westernization in mid-nineteenth century Bengal symbolized by the highly anglicized and neo-Christian Dutt family of Rambagan. This was a family with a pronounced literary bend producing a veritable galaxy of literary talent. More importantly, the family symbolized the dualities and tensions confronting the elite sections of Bengali society at a time when political, historical and social motivations brewed fresh cross-cultural currents and experiences. 

Modern evaluations of Toru Dutt’s literary merits focus on the themes and forms of her writing as well as the immense historical value they possess; such evaluations date from Toru’s own times. Some of the earliest reviews of her first published work A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields(1874) focus on the immensity of her achievement, not just as a poet but also as a fruitful product of the interaction between a supposedly ignorant, weak nation and the knowledge and enlightenment by the beneficial influence of Empire.

In a letter to Mary Martin from July 1876, Toru had copied out fragments from newspaper reviews of her volume of French translations; one such extract taken from the Friend of Indiastates, after a few introductory compliments, how “we might have dismissed the volume without further remark, had it been the work of an Englishwoman, as we could easily have believed it to be; but what would have been ordinary commendation, in the case of an Englishwoman, becomes very high praise, when we state that the lady who gathered this Sheaf is a native of this Country . . . The lady was, we understand, educated in Europe . . . we take the book as a good omen for the future of women in India”.

Most modern appreciations of Toru Dutt follow these early leads in analyzing Toru’s literary genius against the background of the age in which she lived. In terms of literary output Toru’s contribution is thus redoubtable enough, but she is remarkable not only for what she produced and did, but more so perhaps for what she was. To place Toru against a specific historical situation — that of nineteenth century colonial Bengal — and to see her as the central point of a wave of historical processes brings us to the question of Toru’s innate ideological and cultural dilemma, stemming always from her socio-religious background and being the product of distinct elitist perceptions and lifestyles. Toru’s literary flair and her creativity was a matter of her historical context and also a matter of her class and it was her class and her family that allowed her this prerogative of self-realization.

The extent to which Toru Dutt’s family influenced the creation of Toru Dutt, the author, can be gauged from biographical references as well as the letters she wrote to her English friend, Mary Martin, with whom she corresponded till days before her early death. The earliest records that are available about the Dutt family go back to Toru Dutt’s great-grandfather Nilmoni Dutt. We learn that the Dutts of Rambagan hailed originally from Ajapur in the district of Burdwan where Nilmoni was born on the 3rdof January 1757.

Sometime after he was born Nilmoni’s father separated from the original branch and migrated to Calcutta where he ultimately settled. Nilmoni grew up to be a distinguished resident of Calcutta during the latter part of the eighteenth century. A pious Hindu Kayasth, he greatly prided himself on his caste and religion and set about to perform the various duties expected of him with considerable enthusiasm and gusto.  Brahmins “who went every day to perform their ablutions in the sacred stream of the Ganges gathered at Nilmoni’s house on their return” and were warmly received and liberally pampered by him. Most of Calcutta’s elite knew him and Maharaja Nabakrishna of Sobhabazar and Maharaja Nanda Kumar were constant visitors at his house. Nilmoni was a distinguished linguist knowing many languages, amongst which his knowledge of English was the best. He thus gifted to his sons an exposure to the new language and its thinking by being acquainted with it himself. 

Nilmoni had three sons — Rasomoy, Harish and Pitambar. Rasomoy, Toru’s grandfather, was a well-known figure in Calcutta in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century.  In his various capacities in several commercial houses and ultimately as a judge in the Calcutta Small Causes Court, there are numerous references to him in historical records.

He had been appointed Honorary Secretary to the Hindu College Committee, was a Secretary of the Council of Management of the Sanskrit College, a member of the Calcutta School Book Society and the Calcutta School Society and an active member of most of the important public events of the day. At his death he left a property of six lakhs of rupees and ensured the measure of stability and economic security that would enable his successors to lead a life of contemplation and ease.

Portrait of Rasomoy Dutt.
CREDIT: The Pindari Lover, Kalyan Chunder Dutt, 2016

On the 14thof May, 1854, Rasomoy Dutt died, leaving behind five sons — Kishan Chunder, Kylash Chunder, Govin Chunder, Hur Chunder and Girish Chunder. While attending his father’s funeral, Kishan Chunder was taken ill and a few days later succumbed to his fever. Thereafter the remaining brothers sent for a Missionary, W. S. Mackay, who, being ill, sent Ewart and Ogilvy Temple, fellow Missionaries, as his representatives. Girish Chunder told the missionaries that Kishan had seen a vision of the other world before he died and had had himself baptized by Girish himself, enjoining upon him the task of converting the remaining members of the family to Christianity as soon as possible. The entire family, after a time of preparation and instruction, was baptized in Christ Church, Cornwallis Square in 1862.

The conversion at Christ Church was a natural corollary to the Dutt family’s innate predilection for western ideas and values. Nineteenth century Bengal had consistently been exposed to broad areas of westernization, while the rise of a service-oriented elite loyal to the British, in combination with the older landowning gentry, had given to high culture and elitism a distinctively western orientation. Following Macaulay’s brilliant rhetoric and Lord Bentinck’s official support to the extensive and exclusive dissemination of western education and the English language, the centrality of western knowledge patterns and institutions could no longer be disproved.

Westernisation was seen as liberalism and rationalism, a modernism which manifested itself in religious and social reform movements: in the modernisation of women, in the gaining of a University education and above all, in fluency in English. All the brothers of the Dutt family had been educated at the Hindu College and were steeped in the language and literatures of Europe. Old records frequently mention the Dutt brothers as reciting the poetry of Tennyson or the impassioned lines of Macbeth at annual college prize distribution functions.

Following the death of Derozio, the most influential teacher in that college was David Lester Richardson whose notes exerted a profound influence on his students. Richardson’s teaching and the polish and poetry of his style awakened the literary sensitivities of his pupils; in the case of the Rambagan Dutts, almost all showed a pronounced literary flourish. Hur Chunder, Girish Chunder and Omesh Chunder, Govin’s nephew, published individual volumes of poetry besides collaborating in the publication of a book called the Dutt Family Albumin 1870 — one of the first volumes of English verse by Bengalis. The Dutts clearly viewed English as a storehouse of literary excitement and a pathway to a rich intellectual ferment. 

Yet while much of the nineteenth century elite had been exposed to western ideas via English education and had used these to bring about certain attitudinal transformations in their thinking and lifestyles, the one sub-strand of the intelligentsia that was affected most by these influences were the Bengali Christians. The breaking away from tradition that the Bengali Christian community encases had been preceded by the rebelliousness of the Derozians. Unlike other elements of the Bengali intelligentsia the Derozians, in a determined break with the past, had believed in a complete adoption of western modes and thought processes under the rather overwhelming response of their charismatic anti-establishment Eurasian teacher of English at the Hindu College — Henry Vivian Derozio.

Derozio’s example of extreme westernization was continued, after his untimely death, by a kind of graded and inevitable alienation from their own culture by the act of conversion and men like Krishnamohun Bannerji and Mahesh Chandra Ghosh passed naturally from being Derozians to being Christians. Religion was an important motif in nineteenth century Bengal and many of the great leaders of society were set apart by their religions affiliations — such as Radhakanta Deb, K.M. Bannerji or Keshub Chunder Sen.

The conversion of Govin Dutt and his brothers was important for the missionaries, not the least because they were from the privileged sections of society; as the century progressed the targets of conversion had changed from the days of the Serampore trio when Krishna Paul, carpenter, joined the Christian fold. In 1832-33 the conversion of Krishna Mohun Banerjee and his friends had been hailed by the Missionaries as the first serious inroads into the upper echelons of society. 

“It was wholly new — no longer to see orphan children picked up anywhere to see outcastes, beggars and cripples becoming members of the Christian Church”. These elite converts were qualitatively different from those in the villages, for while the village Christians had to be laboriously educated in sanitation, hygiene, manners, cleanliness and food, the upper class Bengali Christians spoke English, wore western dresses and were an important symbol of enlightened and successful acculturation that offset the more naïve and unconvincing conversions of the lower classes.  

Into such a wealthy, urbanized and educated Christian family was born Toru Dutt on the 4thof March, 1856. She had been preceded by Abju, born 18thOctober 1851 and Aru born on the 13thof September 1854. The three children were privately educated at home, under the tutorship of Babu Shib Chunder Banerjee, himself a Bengali Christian. Along with their studies the children learnt to play the piano and sing under the guidance of an English teacher called Mrs. Sinaes. Abju died in 1865 but the death was met with appropriate Christian fortitude: years later a sonnet in the Dutt Family Album would touchingly recall Govin Chunder’s loss at the death of his only son. For the time being, however, life continued in a gentle easy tenor: in reading, piano lessons, singing and roaming among the fruit trees of Baugmaree, the family garden house.

In 1869 the family left for Europe. Toru and Aru, crossing the “Black Waters” became the first Bengali girls to do so. The European visit had been prompted by Govin Chunder’s earnest desire “to give their two clever girls the best possible education and presumably expose them to the westernized lifestyle that was so assiduously internalized by the Dutts. The family landed at Marseilles and went onto Nice where they stayed till the spring of 1870. Here the sisters attended a pensionnet and studied French. Over the course of the next year the family was to move again, this time to England, spending a short time in Italy and Paris on their way. They stayed in England for three years, continuing their studies, attending the recently-established lectures for women at Cambridge and, afterwards, attending lectures and classes at St. Leonard’s. 

Govin Chunder sailed back to Calcutta with his family in 1873, probably on account of the increasing ill health of Aru. On their return the two Dutt sisters plunged into hectic literary activity in sharp contrast to their gradually worsening health. French poems were translated and published in the Bengal Magazine. These were later collected and published, after the death of Aru in 1874, as ASheaf Gleaned In French Fields. In the last three years of her life, Toru seemed to have burst into a flurry of creative activity as if to compensate for increasing ill health and the perceptible symptoms of early death, producing, in quick succession, a collection of verses on subjects from Indian mythology (Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindusthan), a series of articles and translations which were published in the Bengali Magazine, an unfinished English novel (Bianca)and a French novel (Le Journal de Mademoiselle D’Arvers).  

The literary and historical importance of Toru Dutt’s works have been the subject of much advanced research; modern critical evaluations of these have increasingly focused on the questions of gender as well as the veiled autobiographical, often rebellious anti-patriarchal elements that an analysis of Toru’s works uncover. Her poems, especially those centering around Indian myth and legend are seen as a synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions, much in the manner of other nineteenth century Indian writers in English.

The astonishing versatility of the writer who could create texts of such range and subtlety, given her age, is however the product both of inborn genius and the manner of her upbringing. To understand the making of a Toru Dutt is to explore the variegated and layered cultural aspect of the encounter between the Bengali intelligentsia and western ideas and processes. The abiding relevance of British rule lay in its unprecedented exposure to a new kind of civilization. In most cases western thought processes provided possible paradigms of superiority that buttressed the alienation growing within Indians.

The clash of the East and the West that followed led to tremendous turbulence, principally because as political confrontation with the West increased, so did intellectual proximity with them. The lifestyle and emotional temper of Toru and her family, caught in a mesh of cultural hybridism, leading a life of extreme Anglicization resulted inevitably in an identity crisis. The letters of Toru Dutt acquire significant overtones in this context. 

Harihar Das’ biographical study reprints all the letters written by Toru to her English friend Mary Martin — a lasting friendship born out of an acquaintance of a mere two years when the Dutts were living at Cambridge (1872-1873) but continuing till Toru’s death in 1877. Along with these are printed some miscellaneous letters written from her stay abroad to relatives in India. These serve as valuable sources for the kind of life led by the family in England. From the start it is clear that the West had begun to overwhelm this impressionable girl of twelve and indeed was to symbolise a mode of possible perfection that the constricted Indian lifestyle she knew could never hope to match. In a letter to a young cousin Toru collects together all that she has drunk her senses in — dining at the “table d’ hote and having musicians play on a harp and violin to give us bon appetite . . . [seeing] a carnival full of noise and trumpets, of fancy dress and bonbons and taking long walks on the ‘Promenade des Anglais’”.

In London, the sisters had visited the theatres at Drury Lane, the Queens, Covent Garden and had seen performances of Scott’s Amy Robsartand Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Days were spent in taking long walks along secluded London avenues among the bare trees, of seeing the robins hopping on the square or roosting on winter branches. Afterwards there was dinner with “mutton cutlets and roly-poly” with which “comes up hot kuchoree or cabbage churchuree or Ambole of eels”.When dinner was over there was music to be learnt and while Toru played Schmetterling, Aru perfected a sonata by Mozart. Cambridge, London, Paris, Nice — each golden glittering worlds of fine living and sophistication imprinted themselves permanently on Toru’s mind, providing, tragically, a sense of irretrievable beauty inaccessible to Toru on her return to India. 

In letter after letter Toru, on her return, alludes to the intoxication of life in the West quite alien to her restricted surroundings in Calcutta, of the exposure to sophisticated modes of refined living, of the joyous freedom unknown to the majority of women in Calcutta; trapped in dreary lives of scanty education, early marriage and subsequent seclusion among the rigours of a joint family existence. The realisation of this paradox marks the anguished note in many of her letters, especially the early ones, where there is a hearkening back to the sights and sounds of England and a frequently returning desire to return there.  “My uncle Girish often speaks of the sense of cosiness and comfort that one must feel when sitting beside a blazing fire, in the heart of the winter, in England, while the wind and snow beat and howl against the windows panes . . . we often talk about the places we shall stop at, the things we shall see and hear, the English fruits we shall eat, the English fishes and dishes we shall taste . . .”

Amidst the trials of the death of her beloved sister and the increased possibility of her own death, the shared memories of a united single-unit family, living amidst the freedom of the West, unspoilt by the restrictiveness of a large and chaotic Indian household is what Toru cannot forget. In many of the letters there is also the acknowledgement of the role of Govin Chunder in helping foster this intellectual and sophisticated outlook. “Without Papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he used to take such pains with us . . . I wonder what I should have been without my father, nothing very enviable or desirable, I know, without Papa we should never have learnt to appreciate good books and good poetry”.

The “good books” she read were wide ranging and included the novels of Thackeray and the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Tennyson, Victor Hugo or La Martine and a whole gamut of English and French authors. Apart from fiction and poetry Toru had a gathering interest in antiquarian and quasi-historical books. In 1876, only months before her death, Toru had been excited by the prospect of translating Clarisse Bader’s La Femme dans I’Inde Antiqueand had obtained permission from Bader for doing so. She died before even beginning the project and it was perhaps a fitting literary irony that the book should be translated, years later, by Mary Martin and dedicated to Toru.

The Dutt family’s lifestyle and religion provided Toru with both the impetus as well as the opportunity for self expression and this brought her the choice of an entirely novel career — that of the writer, translator, the poetess: “I got a rather amusing packet by the post today, containing a small poem of some thirty pages. The packet was directed thus. ‘A Toru Dutt, poet, Bhowanipore . . . Within the book on the title page was written Au Poete, Toru Dutt, homage”.Toru’s letters present us with intimate scenes of quiet scholarly pursuits by father and daughter, devouring books delivered by Hatchette and Company, tackling Sanskrit lessons from the Pundit and discovering the pleasures of Valmiki and Kalidasa, occasionally translating or copying out well loved pieces to share with friends through letters. Increasing sickness could not deter Toru from reading and in a poignant letter written in October 1876 Toru describes her evenings, of how “before I got my cough, we used to read aloud to each other, by turns, from any French book . . . now of evenings as we do not read much by candlelight, we repeat together pieces of poetry, English or French or else it is a stray Sanskrit line.”

In one letter to Mary Martin, dated September 10, 1875, Toru describes a typical day in her quiet and unvarying routine thus. “I get up at half past four, prepare two cups of chocolate, one for myself and one for Papa, then I go to dress, and by the time I come out from the dressing room, Papa and Mamma get up, and I find the former smoking his morning cigar. After that I give Baguette and Pinoo their morning pittance of fried fish . . .  After breakfast we have prayers, after which Mamma goes to her household duties, I either take up a book . . . And Papa reads or writes or pores over the Indian Daily News. At twelve, we have our lunch, after which I read or write till three. At five, we dress, and go out, I generally for a drive, and Papa and Mamma to my uncle’s garden. At seven we have dinner . . . And at ten to bed”.

Toru’s quiet life in Calcutta — in the city house at Rambagan and the garden house at Baugmaree — was as much a matter of choice as it was enforced. The act of conversion often enjoined social ostracism and the general boycott by the Hindu sections of society caused them to fall back on members of their own community. In some of her letters Toru speaks plainly of this virtual excommunication as leading to loneliness and extreme isolation and also to a cutting off of family ties. 

Toru’s creativity was an outlet for loneliness, accentuated by the widening of horizons that her journeys abroad had provided. Her correspondence with Mary Martin was another aspect of this enforced isolation: she had no friends in India and no sibling to share her thoughts with which increases the pathos of the lively chattiness of these letters.

Throughout the letters, too, the homely pleasantries are underlined by a consciousness of the deeper realities of life. Though not a strident questioner of wrongs and grievances in the way that many contemporary women were, she was certainly a sensitive observer of a fast-changing milieu and a questioner of contemporary events and sitting. What is interesting is the fact that in most of them Toru is critical of existing policies, including inequality in the services, covert racism and economic degradation of the Indians. Coming from someone who had little interaction with Indians and who was encouraged by her father to spend her life in the company of the British, both in India and England, such questioning reveals an advance awareness that is far ahead of her personal situation.

Toru is sensitive to the hidden fangs of racism (“You see how my country men are treated by Anglo Indian sahibs”)to the frustrations among educated Bengalis competing for a stagnant number of white collar jobs in the administrative and professional sectors, to the qualities in judicial and legal matters and to the economic predispositions of a government whose administrators “generally come out to India to make their fortunes, you see, and real gentlemen and ladies very rarely leave home and friends for the yellow gold”.There is here an intense awareness of the cultural superiority associated with imperialism as well as the exploitation dependent upon it. Such comments are sandwiched between a welter of personal and domestic information and are often missed. The ability to correlate such vast areas of consciousness to copious literary reading with awareness of contemporary political trends speaks of a multitude of tastes and perspectives with a maturity of outlook that is due to for peculiar upbringing.

Toru’s fictional output, especially her poems on Sanskrit themes, marks what has been acknowledged as a moment of equilibrium where acceptance of her identity as an Indian merges with her enthusiastic rediscovery of a rich past. There is a corresponding change in her last letters too. In a letter dated 25 December, 1876, Toru admits that the possibility of her long-awaited trip to England leaves her strangely unmoved “And then, as you say, it is always sad to leave home, where so many happy and sad days have been passed; and after all India is my patrie”.

In March, 1877, five months before her death Toru, now too ill to move, could only weakly comprehend the intended trip as a distant dream, too unreal for fulfillment and ends by saying “It is sad to think of learning home again and wandering in foreign lands.” 

Toru finally rests in peace in a mellow coming to terms with her contemporary reality and an acceptance of the contradictory modes of living her family background and upbringing have given her. This is achieved by a cosmopolitanism rare in the nineteenth century, from her specific historical as well as personal situation where her lifestyle offered a range of experiences, a diversity of sources, both indigenous and international. As a person who had access to two very different worlds, Toru gathers within herself varying moods and experiences.

Today Toru Dutt is the subject of meticulous research and study. She has found her way back into the canon and no English literature syllabus is complete without one of her poems. For someone who felt herself to be at the centre of a profound crisis in identity this is surely a fitting tribute.

Further Reading

Padmini Sen Gupta, Toru Dutt, New Delhi, 1968.

Kalyan Chunder Dutt, The Pindari Lover and other Writings, 2016