The Letters of Toru Dutt

Toru Dutt (Wikisource)

Toru Dutt (Wikisource)

Indian English poetry begins with Toru Dutt (1856-1877). In her poems like ‘Our Casuarina Tree’ and  ‘A Mon Pere’ Toru was able to attain a distinctive voice, unlike earlier poets like Henry Derozio (1809-1831) who had never quite managed to put sufficient distance between the poems they wrote and their European models. Apart from her poems and translations, Toru in her brief life also wrote two novels: Le Journal de Mademoiselle D’Arvers, in French, and Bianca (which is incomplete). The Dutt family spent four years in France and England, making Toru and her sister Aru the first Bengali girls to travel abroad. There is no satisfactory biography of this unique and talented writer. However, Toru’s letters give us a vivid glimpse into her short life and help us have a sense of her as a person. A selection of her letters is included in Chandani Lokuge’s Toru Dutt: Collected Prose and Poetry .

Most of the letters in Lokuge’s book are addressed to Toru’s friend Mary Martin, the daughter of Rev. John Martin, Vicar of St Matthews the Great, Cambridge. Toru and Mary met regularly from December 1872 to April 1873 when the Dutts lodged in a house in the parish of Rev. Martin. Toru began her correspondence with Mary in 1873, the year the family returned to Calcutta.  Among the letters is the last letter Toru wrote to Mary, dated 30 July 1877. (She died a month later, on 30 August 1877.) Toru’s letters were written in the Dutt family residence, 12, Manicktollah Street, Calcutta and in Baugmaree, their rural retreat.

It is easy to dismiss  the Dutts for being ideologically close to the British in India. While they were clearly anglophiles (the family embraced westernization and converted to Christianity), a perusal of Toru’s letters shows an intelligent, discriminating mind at work, assessing and commenting on various aspects of life, as she knew it. Toru was no apologist for the British. Indeed, she was sharply critical of Anglo-Indian attitudes.

Though the Dutts were ostracized for their westernized ways and especially for converting, Toru’s letters reveal warm family relationships with those members of her extended family who had remained within the Hindu fold. Also, as Meenakshi Mukherjee pointed out, Toru Dutt could not help being part of the Bengali background. (Incidentally, there is a letter in which she writes: ‘I think our Bengali language is very rich in words.’) This makes her an interesting hybrid figure, an aspect that the letters bring out. If we think of the Dutts as collaborationists and lackeys, we need also to bring into the context the fact that Toru’s relative Shoshee Chunder Dutt (b.1824) wrote ‘The Republic of Orissa’ (1845), or that her cousin Kylas Chunder Dutt wrote the subversive ‘A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945’ (1835).

In one of her letters Toru writes of not being invited to a cousin’s marriage: ‘She is a Hindu and so is her family, so of course we were not invited. We heard the particulars from my grandmother, who had been invited.’ After the freedom she enjoyed in France and England, Toru found the socially restricted life she was forced to lead in Calcutta suffocating. She seems to have been happiest in Baugmaree: ‘In the dear old Garden I can do anything I like, run about with my horses, feed them myself, and water them sometimes, in spite of a couple of grooms, without fear of any peering and scandalized neighbour, staring in surprise and contempt at my “strange man-like ways.”‘ Elsewhere she explains how her upbringing made her unusual in 19th century Bengal. Her pert reply to her cousin indicates her independence and confidence:

An unmarried girl of fifteen is never heard of in our country. If any friend of my grandmother happens to see me, the first question is, if I am married; and considerable astonishment … follows the reply, for it is considered scandalous if a girl is not ‘wooed and married’ before she is eight years old! The other day one of my grandmother’s cousins was not a little taken aback on my replying to his question if I were not married, that now I was going to, since I had his permission, for it was only his permission that I had waited for! He was the more surprised, as I was looking over a picture book, like the meekest and humblest of human beings!

But lines like the following speak of loving relations with family members who had not converted or were not westernized:

I wish you knew my grandmother; a kinder, or gentler, or more loving woman never breathed. How all her face lights up when we go to see her! I wish she would become a Christian. She is so much better than many who profess to be Christians, but whose conduct is anything but so. And she is so fond of me and so proud of me…She thinks me the handsomest, the best, and the most accomplished girl that ever breathed… And she is so proud of Papa! You know that Hindu mothers-in-law generally do not talk with their sons-in law. Isn’t that funny? When Mama was ill she came and stayed with us, keeping awake two nights running.

We get a glimpse into Toru Dutt’s ‘quiet life’ in a letter written from Calcutta dated 10 September 1875:

I get up at half-past four, prepare two cups of chocolate, one for myself and one for Papa, then I go dress, and by the time I come out from the dressing-room, Papa and Mamma get up, and I find the former smoking his cigar. Then I go to the roof of the house; it is very cool, early in the morning, up there. After that I give Baguette and Pinoo their morning pittance of fried fish. I come down and install myself in the window of this room, below which Gentille and Jeunette take their feed of gram and bran, and a delicious drink of suttoo (flour of oats), and water, which is given to horses in India, to keep them cool during the very hot months. Then we go down to breakfast. After breakfast we have prayers, after which Mamma goes to her household duties, I either take up a book or play for a quarter of an hour with the kittens, 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, when I either take a custard-apple, or a slice of Batavian orange. 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 half-past eight a cup of tea, and at ten to bed.

 A tragic motif that runs through the letters is Toru’s wish to return to England. In letter after letter she writes about how her father was looking for a buyer to sell off their property (including Baugmaree), so they could go to England and settle there for good: ‘We all want to return to England. We miss the free life we led there; here we can hardly go out of the limits of our own Garden…But before we go, we have to get quite well, and then sell our property here, for it is very expensive keeping up two houses here, we being in England in another.’ Later she writes that ‘when it comes to the point (as it very nearly did two months ago) to sell it [Baugmaree], off, one feels a pang. And I was rather glad than otherwise when the intending buyer, who had come to see the Garden, said the place did not suit him quite.’ As Toru becomes increasingly ill, the longed for return to England seems less and less possible – ‘it grows fainter and dimmer every day.’ In a letter written on Christmas Day 1876, Toru writes that the doctors have recommended that she should go to England. But her mother’s health has also to be considered since she ‘keeps much better health here than she used to do in Europe.’

And then…it is always sad to leave home, where so many happy and sad days have been passed; and after all, India is my patrie. But on the other hand, Calcutta is such an unhealthy place, both morally and physically…

Dear old Baugmaree is far better [than Calcutta]; indeed, it is as good as England; in some respects, at least in my opinion, it is better.

Her sonnet ‘A Mon Pere’ seems to refer to the failure of the European flowers brought back by her mother and sister to find root in the soil of Bengal. ‘A Mon Pere’, as Lokuge points out, ‘suggests the bleaker realities of cross-cultural exchange’.

Toru draws a distinction between the British in India (Anglo-Indians) and the British at home. She has sharp comments on imperial arrogance and injustice. Her letter of 26 June 1876 expresses disenchantment with British rule. In another letter (7 August 1876) she writes of an Englishman whose groom died as a result of a beating. The English judge fined him thirty rupees and let him off. ‘You see how cheap the life of an Indian is, in the eyes of an English Judge….’ It is interesting that Toru allows herself to be rebuked for adopting a superior attitude to her compatriots. She thanks Mary for objecting to Toru’s use of the word ‘native’ to describe her countrymen: ‘the reproof is just, and I stand corrected. I shall take care and not call them natives again. It is indeed a term only used by prejudiced Anglo-Indians, and I am really ashamed to have used it.’. In a subsequent letter she writes ‘Bengali’ for ‘native’ adding in parenthesis ‘you see I wrote “native’, but have scratched it out.’

Toru’s voracious appetite for reading is evident in the letters where she mentions the numerous French and English writers she is reading. The letters substantiate Meenakshi Mukherjee’s point about Toru’s casual learning of Sanskrit. Toru mentions (letter dated 23 November 1875) that she and her father are taking up Sanskrit since there are no opportunities just then to learn German. Elsewhere she admits that she is making ‘slow progress’ with her Sanskrit.

Many of the letters report her having fever and coughing blood. Illness dogged the Dutt siblings. Toru’s elder brother, Abju died in 1865, aged fourteen and Aru died in 1874, aged twenty. Toru’s fascination with Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte thus has a personal quality (the Brontes lived in a remote part of Yorkshire and died early). Incidentally, Toru admired Jane Eyre but disapproved of the book’s theme of bigamy as immoral. Among the Victorian novelists, Toru was especially fond of Thackeray: ‘Esmond is the best.’

One can speculate what she felt when she woke up at night at Baugmaree and heard the dismal wailing of jackals.  ‘I am sometimes unwilling to go to sleep again, for fear that I should be awakened by their lugubrious cry. It is not so bad when they are close under your window, but when the weird hurlement comes from a distance, one is filled with a sense of the loneliness of the place and the stillness of the night.’ A letter written after Aru’s death expresses her loneliness along with what might well be one of the earliest recorded expressions of reverse culture shock:

Now, without her the place [Baugmaree] seems so lifeless and deserted that …[w]e are thinking of disposing it …we shall settle there [England]. The free air of Europe, and the free life there, are things not to be had here. We cannot stir out of Garden [Baugmaree] without being stared at, or having a sunstroke. And the streets seem so dirty and narrow, that one feels quite suffocated in them. Of course not all the streets, for there are a few broad and clean streets newly opened.

Lokuge says that of all his children Toru was Govin Chunder Dutt’s least favourite. Here is a passage in which Toru writes of her father’s role in the growth of her literary abilities.

Without papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he used to take such pains with us though he never thought it was trouble at all, but was only too glad to help and assist us in our readings when we were quite little ones. He has himself a most discriminating mind, and is an excellent judge of poetry. He commenced writing poetry before he was twelve; and do you know, he left school at the age of fourteen and commenced business before he was seventeen? I wonder what I should have been without father; nothing very enviable or desirable, I know; without Papa we should never have learnt to appreciate good books and good poetry.

There are several other aspects that are of equal interest. For example, she uses what we would today call Indian English in one of the letters: ‘We went to the Garden yesterday. It has become very junglified….’ Toru closely followed the reviews of A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), the only one of her books to appear in her lifetime. In several letters to Mary, she quotes extensively and delightedly from the reviews that appeared. Toru’s letters thus speak to us directly across the years and take us into her life and world.

E.L.: An American Poet in Colonial Calcutta

The complex environment from which early Indian English poetry arose has been described by Rosinka Chaudhuri in her books, Gentleman Poets of Colonial Bengal: Emergent Nationalism and the Orientalist Project (2002) and Derozio, Poet of India: The Definitive Edition (2008). I have just come across two books by Mary Ellis Gibson, Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore (2010) and Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913: A Critical Anthology (2010), which also do the same. Colonial Calcutta was home to poets of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. In her anthology (Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India), Gibson writes that her aim is ‘to reconstruct the conversations among poets that constituted early Indian English language literature’ and to ‘bring back to visibility poets whose work has long been ignored’ by literary historians and anthologists working on national lines.  Among the poets whose work she includes is E.L., an American woman whose Leisure Hours: Or Desultory Pieces in Prose and Verse appeared in a private edition in 1846 from the Mission Press in Calcutta.

Literature is what is taught, Roland Barthes once said.  Just how true this statement is I realized when I was offering my course on Indian Writing in English.   It was a standard course that started with the early history of English in India and ended with contemporary writers like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.  The trouble lay in the beginning:  I found my attitude to the pioneering poets a little too dismissive. I was of course following Bruce King’s influential argument that Indian English poetry really came into existence in the first couple of decades after Independence.  It didn’t help that Henry Derozio’s poetry has such glaring defects. His pastiches of British Romanticism made my students smile. (Sarojini Naidu’s Orientalist poems made them laugh.) Toru Dutt, though, was a different matter. In poems like ‘Our Causarina Tree’ we could all sense a distinct, individual voice emerging.

It was important to give my students a sense of the complexity of the milieu. For, if Indian Writing in English is a culturally complex phenomenon, as I would like to argue, it needs authors who like Din Muhammad, ‘the first Indian author in English’,  whose cosmopolitan background and eclecticism – Vinay Dharwadker rightly calls him ‘an irreducibly composite figure’ – makes him a fine ‘founding father’. (To appreciate Din Muhammad’s cross-cultural nimbleness consider how he moved in middle age from Cork in Ireland to Brighton, England to reinvent himself as a very successful ‘Shampooing Surgeon’.)  Derozio the man is complex enough: he was ‘Eurasian’ – and fiercely nationalistic. Unfortunately, his poems come across as simplistic and derivative.

Interestingly, it is in E.L.’s poems, rather than in Derozio’s, that we get a glimpse of nineteenth century Calcutta’s polyglot and cosmopolitan milieu. Her poem ‘Kadambini’, Gibson writes, is unique ‘in representing the multilingual context of Indian speech in writing.’

The lady spake: – the child came near,

‘Here is an English Pustak, dear,

With pretty stories, pictures too,

Brought from America, for you.’

‘Bahut khush, do ham ko,’ lisped the child,


‘Bahut achchha, dear, very well,

Han, banan kara, you shall spell.’

Who was E.L? She has been identified as Lydia Lillybridge Simons, an American woman who travelled to Burma from America with the famous Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson and his (third) wife Emily.  Gibson thinks this is wrong: Leisure Hours, which has poems suggesting a residence of some years in India, is datelined Calcutta, April 1846 whereas Simons left Boston with the Judsons in July 1846. Gibson has not been able to come up with a positive identification. However, from clues in the poems, she tells us that E.L had an  ‘unusually strong attachment to Indian friends and places’, that she had at least one child, knew local botany and several languages, and was probably a teacher. E.L. is also unusual in that she wrote a poetic tribute to Kaliprasad Ghosh (1809-1873), the Bengali Anglophone poet who wrote The Shair, and Other Poems (1830).

Gibson’s anthology has four of E.L.’s poems: ‘Lines on reading the “Shair and Other Poems by Kaliprasad Ghosh”’, ‘A Fragment; On Board the Norfolk at Sea, Bound to Calcutta’, ‘To the Koel’, and ‘Kadambini’.   Intrigued by this poet, and happening to be in the right place, I checked out Leisure Hours in the Houghton Library. (The Houghton copy is the 1846 edition; it has in pencil ‘Mrs. Lydia Lillybridge Simons’.) The poems turned out to be conventional and strongly Christian .  I liked a poem which reminded me of ‘Kadambini’ (anthologized by Gibson):

 About Little ‘Nazu’, Who Came to See Me in My Illness

I said, ‘what is your name, my child?’

– Presenting me his hand;

He made a sign, because he could

Not English understand. 

Ayah then spake in broken tongue,

And said, ‘kaun nam for you?’

Quickly he answered her, and said,

   ‘Ham ra nam, Nazu.’ 

I told her then to ask his age, –

She said, ‘I think ‘tis sath’

‘Boloy Nazu,;’­– he then replied,

‘salam, salam, mehm, ath.’

I also liked the following poem which I quote in full:

To Some Champa  Flowers Lying On My Couch, In Illness

Welcome! Thrice welcome! Thou sweetest of flowers

That bloom in this orient land;

The gentle effects of thy visits e’er seem

To my hot brow as cooling as Alpine’s pure heem, –

Entrancing as some sweet seraphical dream, –

Or the touch of a fay’s  potent wand.


Strange flowret! I love to inhale thy rich breath,

  So innocent, mild, and so sweet!

But thou passest away like the sun’s setting beam,

When it radiantly pours forth its last farwell gleam

O’er the smooth glassy surface of Ganga’s fair stream,

  Even thus art thou transient and fleet.


How soft are thy tints! And how mellowly blend

They one with another! – I ne’er

‘Mong the favorites of Flora saw one that would vie

With thy robe of pure, heavenly, angelic dye, –

So unearthly its tingling! – I cannot say why

Thou art to my heart thus dear.


Bland flower! in beauty and fragrance, to me

Thou seem’st like the fair ones above,

That in heaven, we fancy, undyingly bloom,

O’er the life-living river exhale, and perfume,

With incense which spreads o’er Hope’s heav’n-sealed tomb

  Imbibing their life from ‘All-Love’.

‘To Some Champa Flowers’ reminded me of Toru Dutt’s sonnet ‘The Lotus’ in which Love requests Flora for a flower that ‘would of flowers be undisputed queen.’ But instead of the lily or the rose, conventional rivals in European tradition, Toru’s Flora selects the Indian lotus: ‘“rose-red” dyed, /And “lily-white”, – the queenliest flower that blows.’

Gibson’s anthology sidesteps national boundaries. This is a luxury we in the Northeast cannot as yet afford. On the contrary, we have our little anthology wars to fight so that our poets like Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, who make strong identity claims in their work, are  included in the canon.  But I am glad to have read Gibson’s anthology and to have become acquainted with E.L. and the other minor and forgotten poets in it. If I were to offer my course on Indian Writing in English again, I hope to be able to do the section on the early poets with a better grasp of the nuances involved. Bringing E.L. into the context should help.