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Toru Dutt, a phenomenal poet of Colonial India Essay

The earliest Indian writers in English wrote at a time when there was no such category as ’Indian Writing in English’. Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was one such prodigy. A handful of English poems testify to her position at the source of this tradition that was not yet quite a tradition. At a time when Indian writing in English was seen to be largely synonymous with fiction, and fiction with the novel, it is worth remembering this figure. She and her creative work stand at the confluence of languages and tradition. She was born in Bengal, educated in France and Cambridge, and returned to Bengal to write quite a few of her poems. In a climate in which most of Dutt’s contemporaries and 65

predecessors were writing of historical figures and events, or turning to English literary conventions for their models, Toru Dutt took up a form, the sonnet, that came to her from the English language and opened it on to a vista such as the English language had not known before. She delved into the treasures of English and French literatures in which she was educated, and acknowledged without reserve her debt to the countries which inspired her. Simultaneously she placed her country on the international map of letters.

Toru was writing in a period of Indian History that was overshadowed by Macaulay’s Minute1 on Indian Education and Lord William Bentincks ruling of 1835, promoting European education among the ‘native’ and channelling all educational funds towards the use of English education alone. The learning of English was compulsory for all educated India. This further helped to promote the ‘hours if idleness’ in the field of Indo-Anglian poetry. But Toru Dutt, a sensitive poet, realised that her own Indian background was precious and that she would have to commingle it with ner earner knowledge of French and English. She turned from time to time to the Sheaf either to revise it or to add a piece or two in anticipation of a possible second edition. And yet she was already feeling the “need for roots”.

Soon, she plunged into learning Sanskrit with the help of her father on November 23, 1875 and by September 6, 1876 she wrote to Mary Martin : “I hope I shall be able to bring out another ‘Sheaf not gleaned in French but in Sanskrit fields…”2 (Iyengar 59). Torn had indeed learned Sanskrit; she laved in Ramayana, Mahabharata and Sakuntala and translated a few tales from the original Sanskrit into English verse. In spite of her ill health was planning companion ‘Sheaf gleaned in Sanskrit Fields’. She was determined to probe into India’s Classical Literature and in a letter to Mary3 she expressed her eagerness to read the glorious epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana in the original. She wrote: “I shall be quite a Sanskrit Pundit when I revisit old Cambridge. Ah! I so long to be there” (Sengupta Padmini 10). But this did not happen. She could not visit her old place of love. She might have had she lived longer.

Here a mention must be made that Toru often expressed her fascination, her longing for the freedom of life abroad. But she quickly reverted to her Indian environment as Sanskrit to her was as old and as grand a language as Greek, The Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan posthumously published in 1878), which were rated to be ‘the most mature of her writings’ are on Indian themes. In this regard H. A. L. Fisher wrote: “…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” (Indian Writing in English 73).

Yet, the celebrated Indo-Anglian poet Toru Dutt, whose work invariably found place in syllabi, was usually presented as a brilliant, protected, upperclass child poet, who died early of consumption. Rarely did students learn that, like her uncle Ramesh Chunder Dutt, she was a nationalist and a passionate republican; that she was widely read in the history and literature of the French Revolution, or that she translated speeches made in the ‘French Chamber Of Deputies’ around the time of the Revolution for Indian nationalist journals. Having set foot on French soil at the early age of 13 (along with her parents and sister Aru), she learnt French with remarkable ease and speed. During her brief stay at Nice, Toru absorbed and deeply appreciated the French romantic literature and became an ardent lover of France. Before the winter of 1869, when Toru with her parents, had sailed for Europe, she was entirely in Kolkata between their two homes in Rambagan and Bagmari. She was especially fond of the Bagmari Garden House and her sonnet on it is among her best poems.

…Drunken with beauty then, or gaze and gaze
On a primeval Eden, in amaze”.

However, Toru’s idyllic childhood in the land of her birth was to mature abroad. Govin Chunder was determined to give his children the advantages of foreign travel and education, and Toru and her sister Aru were the first Bengali girls to cross the ‘Black Waters’. They adored France, and next to their love for India, mostly France inspired them. The French also claimed Toru later as a French woman; she too acclaimed herself in her diary that she was an ‘indomitable and steadfast French woman’.

Toru, besides being a poet, was a translator of poetry. Her intimacy with the French language and the French symbolist poetry palpably informs her poems, and the French poets she translated into English with her sister Aru are to be found in the book, A Sheaf Glean‘d in French Fields. Translation and creative practice and the connection between these two are found in her 67  sonnet Baugmaree. It is said to be the first artistically satisfying sonnet in Indian writing in English that occupied the space between translation and transformation.

Dutt took this form, ‘sonnet’, from the English language. But the sort of similes she used in her poems, in which a colour is compared to sound, was unusual in English poetry of her time. It showed Dutt’s readings in the poetry of the French symbolists. She poised between English and French in her vision of a Bengal landscape — to resolve the awful contradiction between the world which she wanted to write about, the world of the ‘quiet pools’ over which the ‘seemul leans’ and the (English Language she had to write in. The need therefore, is to examine the West’s reception of Toru Dutt as a nineteenth-century Indian woman poet writing in English in the colonial period.

The dominant critical tendency, Alpana Sharma Knippling argued, was to categorise Toru Dutt either as a “true daughter of India” or as “imitative of western poetic trends”, and this was a flawed position as it was not possible to locate her either as “colonial” or “anti-colonial” (Knippling 216). Knippling went further for a more nuanced perspective where Dutt was regarded as inhabiting an in-between space, resisting both patriarchy and colonial oppression. The kind of poetry she was writing, the different realities she used in her poems to teach her own voice did not exist in English; it was only to be found in French. The odd similies composed of unlikes, ‘red’ and startling like a ‘trumpet’s sound’, reminds us of the simultaneous coming together and breaking apart of languages that made that incursion possible.

It became possible, for her mind was unclouded by narrow national or linguistic inhibitions or mental barriers. She delved into the treasures of English and French literatures, and acknowledged the wealth of both. This exposure, however, did not lead her to bring that wealth to the service and development of Bengali poetry, as it had in the case of her elder contemporary, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873). The failure to follow in the footsteps of this major poet and write in Bengali should not, however, be regarded as a flow in Toru’s patriotism.

In fact Toru liutt pioneered the Indian Women’s English literary tradition in the mid-nineteenth century, and was the harbinger of a new era in Indo-Anglian literature or Indian writings in English. The prose and poetry of this early genius developed a dynamic postcolonial view of the author and her writing. Struggling to emerge within and from the medium of her writing, autobiographical in content or confessional in narrative technique, was a young woman’s voice tussling to negotiate the cross-cultural complexities resulting from the Indian-European encounter. The extraordinary space that Toru Dutt occupied between translation and creative practice illuminates the emergence in her writing of the colonial modernity.

And how far does this formative colonial literary identity prefigure the present Dutt points towards an influential poet of a later generation, A. K. Ramanujan, Ramanujan, a master of the line and the image’ in his English poetry, was also a translator of Kannada and ancient Tamil verse. Kaiser Fluq, while probing the Dutt Family Album, remarked : ”They are generally disparaged as imitative writers, merely of historical interest. But the youngest writer produced by the family, Toru Dutt is a talent of a different order — the appellation “genius” in its fullest sense may not inappropriate for her. She deserves an essay all to herself.

A glance at Toru Dutt’s use of language is enough to show the difference between her style and that of her predecessors. The poems her father and her uncles wrote all belonged to a recognisable school of nineteenth-century poetry. Toru Dutt’s poetry transcended that school, evolving a separate identity. Her ballads on legendary or historical themes proved her ‘a good craftsman in verse’. Her feeling was impeccable, and her eyes and ears were alike trained for poetic description or dialogue. In the placid Sanskrit narrative, the appearance of a god or goddess was a normal thing. In an English poem however, the words need wings of a sort to impose that willing suspension of disbelief or even induce that momentary surge of belief without which the poem would fail in its prime purpose. It was here that Toru outshone her predecessors with the possible exception of Henry Derizio.

In her poem Savitri, when Satyavan is dead and Savitri is holding anxious vigil by his side, Yama appears before her. Yama is the God of Death, but he is also the Lord of Dharma. He is the great upholder of Law and not only the Lord of the Kingdom of Shadows as in Romesh Chunder Dutt’s poems. A quick look at both the brief extracts from the original poems would show the difference.

Toru’s description of Yama’s approach
She saw a stranger slowly glide
Beneath the boughs that shrunk aghast.
Upon his head he wore a crown

That shimmered in the doubtful light;
His vestment scarlet reached low down,
His waist, a golden girdle dight.
His skin was dark as bronze; his face
Irradiate, and yet severe;
His eyes had much of love and grace,
But glowed so bright, they filled with fear.
Romesh Chunder Dutt’s description of Yama’s approach :
In the bosom of the shadows rose a Vision dark and dead,
Shape of gloom in inky garment and a crown was on his head,

Gleaming Form of stable splendour, blood-red was his sparkling eye, And a fatal noose he carried, grim and godlike, dark and high! It becomes clear that Toru’s Yama is both ‘Death’ and ‘Dharma’, whereas Romesh Chunder’s Yama is. only the ‘Dark God’. Here his careful art failed. The difference was in the manner in which her language addressed her experience and in her vision that radiated beyond the boundaries within which most of the nineteenth-century poetry in English was confined.

Her awareness of her own ‘Indianness’ was not restricted to Indian historical themes and the reworking of Indian legends. The mythological content of her poems did not exist extrinsically, but was integrated with her consciousness, her memory. In her poetry observed Chaudhuri, We confront for the first time a language that is crafted out of the vicissitudes of an individual life and a sensibility that belongs to modern India” (The Dutt Family Album and Toru Dutt 69).

In The Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, the alchemy of change becomes obvious. When Indo-Anglian writing was more imitative than necessary, the poems took a great stride from a barren imitation to authentic and inspiring writing. She was no longer attempting vainly to compete with European Literature on her own ground, rather she turned to the legends of her own race and country for inspiration. Thus, “Genuine lyric poetry and lyrical narrative poetry, both of the Romantic and Victorian type, came fully into their own…with the generation of Toru Dutt” (Gokak xx). From French and English interests she became more and more engrossed in Indian themes. She was an Indian at heart, in her imagery, in her thinking and in her  personality.

Nevertheless, she was an ardent lover of France and England4 and a connoisseur of the languages of both these countries. She therefore fitted into an international world happily and welded the Christian religion into her Hindu background; here perhaps she laid her richest claim with her serene faith in Christ. At the same time she turned to Hindu mythology avidly because she felt a deep respect for Hindu Gods, heroes and heroines, as she so frequently reiterated. This perhaps made Gosse remark in his introductory memoir : ”Toru’s Ballads breathe a Vedic simplicity of temper and are singularly devoid of littleness and frivolity” (Toru Dutt 11). The poet in her mythological verses, like Savitri, Lakshman, Prahlad, seemed to chant to herself those songs of her mother’s race to which she turned with great pleasure.

Her Christian faith did not conflict with her attraction or addiction to the “deep magic” of the Hindu epics, any more than a modern Greek poet’s Christianity conflicts with his fascination for the Homeric myths. She was now an Indian poet writing in English; she was “autochthonous”. She was one with India’s woman singers, no room now for artificiality or stimulated hothouse efflorescence. Toru by now had rooted herself in her own land, and she pleasingly responded to the heartbeats of the antique racial tradition. As children, she and her brother and sister had heard the stories of the Hindu epics and Puranas, stories of mystery, miracle and local tradition from the lips of their own mother.

Later exploration in the original Sanskrit had given Toru a keener poetic edge to the stories and legends. They seemed to answer to a profound inner need for links with the living past of India, and she cared little if Christian or sceptic cavilled at her. This perhaps made Sengupta remark: “No modern Oriental has given us so strange an insight into the conscience of the Asiatic as is presented in the stories of Prahlad and of Savitri, or so quaint a piece of religious fancy as the ballad of Jogadhya Uma” (Sengupta 10).

Overtly it can be said, Toru’s precocious craftsmanship was amazing; she interplayed the culture of her land with that of England and France. And at the age of eighteen she made India acquainted with the poets of France in the rhyme of England and blended in her three souls and three traditions. No more she competed with her European contemporary and conscientiously turned to the legends of her own race and own country for inspiration. Toru, an English woman by education, a French woman at heart, a poet in English and a prose writer in French was now a true Hindu by race and tradition.

The Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan proved Toru as a landmark in the history of the progress of culture in the mid-nineteenth century. For the first time it revealed 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. “Torn was one of those leaders of literature who at a time when Bengal was held in low esteem in Europe, raised it high among the nations of the West. In days when Bengali’s were losing heart and despairing of themselves and their country, she turned deliberately from the paths of foreign song to write of the stories of her own motherland” (Das 21). But she died an untimely death, merely at the age of twenty-one, in the full bloom of her genius5.

3.1.1 ❐ Notes

1. Thomas Macaulay, the British statesman and historian, was the principal architect of English education in India and the important spokesman for literary studies in Britain. A reader might enjoy the following extract from a toast proposed in 1846 in Edinburgh by Macaulay: “To the literature of Britain, to that literature, the brightest, the purest, the most durable of all the glories of our country… to that literature which has exercised an influence wider than that of our commerce and mightier than that of our arms; to that literature which has taught France the principles of liberty and has furnished Germany with models of art… to that literature before the light of which impious and cruel superstitions are fast taking flight on the banks of the Ganges… To the literature of Britain, men! And wherever the literature of Britain spreads may it be attended by British virtue and British Freedom!” (Viswanathan Gauri Oxford Literary Review 9 1987, pp2-26 from Thomas Macaulay,

Miscellaneous writings Vol.3 pp398-399).

2. The letter was written in 6 September 1876.
3. Mary Martin, was Toru’s lifelong friend and the recipient of most of her letters. They met at Cambridge.
4. In France and England, Toru and her elder sister Aru, under the fostering care of their parents were able to live an isolated and free life. Toru loved France second to India, and England she wished to settle in because she felt women were allowed more freedom there than in India. Most of the women in Bengal in the middle of the nineteenth century were very much in purdah and Toru often felt the restrictions hampered the freedom she so appreciated when abroad. ‘The free air of Europe and the free life there, are things not to be had here’. Toru wrote in a letter recalling her days in England”. “ we cannot stir out from our garden without being stared at or having a sun-stroke”. In England the nameless pressure of the ancestral place was withdrawn, and both the sisters matured in that atmosphere.

5. The Century Magazine for January 1884 states: Toru was born in 1856 and died in 1877, only 21 years of age. Yet in her short life she accomplished one of the greatest literary feats of modern times. She spoke the native language of Calcutta, but before she was 18… she acquired a perfect mastery of French, English, German and Sanskrit. In 1876 she published a book entitled A Sheaf Gleaned In French Fields. The book contained one hundred and sixty six poems, being original compositions in English, or almost literal translations from the foremost of French poets, Victor Hugo, Alfred Musset and others…

This remarkable person was no doubt a genius, but her life was passed in the most exhausting labour and the esteem and variety of her studies; each being pursued with the utmost diligence and thoroughness, at last undermined her health and destroyed her life… George Eliot, George Sand and Madame de Stae’l did not exhibit such a remarkable energy of genius at the age when this Indian girl closed her life. This was perhaps the most remarkable piece of work that was accomplished in so short a time. She reproduced these French poems with absolute fidelity to the original, and at the same time expressed herself in English as well as though it had been her vernacular life. This was perhaps the most remarkable piece of work that was accomplished in so short a time. She reproduced these French poems with absolute fidelity to the original, and at the same time expressed herself in English as well as though it had been her vernacular.

3.2 ❐ Lakshman : An Analysis

‘Hark! Lakshman! Hark, again that cry!
It is,—it is my husband’s voice!
Oh haste1n, to his succour fly,
No more hast thou, dear friend, a choice.
He calls on thee, perhaps his foes
Environ him on all sides round,
That wail,”— it means death’s final throes!
Why standest thou, as magic-bound?
Is this a time for thought,—oh gird
Thy bright sword on, and take thy bow!
He heeds not, hears not any word,
Evil hangs over us, I know!
Swift in decision, prompt in deed,
Brave unto rashness, can this be,
The man to whom all looked at need?
Is it my brother, that I see!
Ah no, and I must run alone,
For further here I cannot stay;
Art thou transformed to blind dumb stone!
Wherefore this impious, strange delay!
That cry,—that cry,—it seems to ring
Still in my ears,—I cannot bear
Suspense; if help we fail to bring
His death at least we both can share.’
‘Oh calm thyself, Videhan Queen,
No cause is there for any fear,
Hast thou his prowess never seen?
Wipe off for shame that dastard tear!
What being of demonian birth
Could ever brave his mighty arm ?

Is there a creature on the earth
That dares to work our hero harm ?
The lion and the grisly bear
Cower when they see his royal look,
Sun-staring eagles of the air
His glance of anger cannot brook,
Pythons and cobras at his tread
To their most secret coverts glide,
Bowed to the dust each serpent head
Erect before in hooded pride.
*
*
*
He call for help! Canst thou believe
He like a child would shriek for aid
Or pray for respite or reprieve —
Not of such metal is he made!
Delusive was that piercing cry,—
Some trick of magic by the foe;
He has a work,—he cannot die,
Beseech me not from hence to go.
For here beside thee, as a guard
’Twas he commanded me to stay,
And dangers with my life to ward
If they should come across thy way.
Send me not hence, for in this wood
Bands scattered of the giants lurk,
Who on their wrongs and vengeance brood,
And wait the hour their will to work.’

‘Oh shame! And canst thou make my weal
A plea for lingering! Now I know
What thou art Lakshman! And I feel
Far better were an open foe.
Art thou a coward ? I have seen
Thy bearing in the battle-fray

Where flew the death-fraught arrows keen,
Else had I judged thee so today.
But then thy leader stood beside!
Dazzles the cloud when shines the sun,
Reft of his radiance, see it glide
A shapeless mass of vapours dun;
So of thy courage,—or if not,
The matter is far darker dyed,
What makes thee loth to leave this spot?
Is there a motive thou wouldst hide?
He perishes—well, let him die!
His wife henceforth shall be mine own!
Can that thought deep imbedded lie
Within thy heart’s most secret zone!
Search well and see! One brother takes
His kingdom,—one would take his wife!
A fair partition!—But it makes
Me shudder, and abhor my life
Remain here, with a vain pretence
Of shielding me from wrong and shame,
Or go and die in his defence
And leave behind a noble name.
Choose what thou wilt,—I urge no more,
My pathway lies before me clear,
I did not know thy mind before,
I know thee now,—and have no fear.’
She said and proudly from him turned,—
Was this the gentle Sita? No.
Flames from her eyes shot forth and burned,
The tears therein had ceased to flow.
‘Hear me, O Queen, ere I depart,
No longer can I bear thy words,

They lacerate my inmost heart?
And torture me, like poisoned swords.
Have I deserved this at thine hand?
Of lifelong loyalty and truth
Is this the meed? I understand
Thy feelings, Sita, and in sooth
I blame thee not,—but thou mightst be
Less rash in judgement. Look! I go,
Little I care what comes to me
Wert thou but safe,—God keep thee so!
In going hence I disregard
The plainest orders of my chief,
A deed for me,—a soldier,—hard
And deeply painful, but thy grief
And language, wild and wrong, allow
No other course. Mine be the crime,
And mine alone,—but oh, do thou
Think better of me from this time.
Here with an arrow, lo, I trace
A magic circle ere I leave,
No evil thing within this space
May come to harm thee or to grieve.
Step not, for aught, across the line,
Whatever thou mayst see or hear,
So shalt thou balk the bad design
Of every enemy I fear.
And now farewell ! what thou hast said,
Though it has broken quite my heart,
So that I wish that I were dead—
I would before, O Queen, we part
Freely forgive, for well I know
That grief and fear have made thee wild,

We part as friends,—is it not so?’
And speaking thus,—he sadly smiled.
‘And oh ye sylvan gods that dwell
Among these dim and sombre shades,
Whose voices in the breezes swell
And blend with noises of cascades,
Watch over Sita, whom alone
I leave, and keep her safe from harm,
Till we return unto our own,
I and my brother, arm in arm.
For though ill omens round us rise
And frighten her dear heart, I feel
That he is safe. Beneath the skies
His equal is not,—and his heel
Shall tread all adversaries down,
Whoever they may chance to be.—
Farewell, O Sita! Blessings crown
And peace for ever rest with theel’
He said, and straight his weapons took
His bow and arrows pointed keen,
Kind,—nay, indulgent,—was his look,
No trace of anger there was seen,
Only a sorrow dark, that seemed
To deepen his resolve to dare
All dangers. Hoarse the vulture screamed,
As out he strode with dauntless air.

The handling of Indian myth in Indo-Anglian poetry may be judged by perusing Toru Dutt’s ballad on ‘Lakshman’ that capture some of the beauty, mystery and simplicity of ancient legend. Albeit the recent movement towards a compact style shorn of superfluous ornaments had an impact on Toru, in this stately poem of The Ancient Ballads and the Legends of Hindustan she displays with an epic grandeur a sublime narrative style that is both simple and   transparent. It has on the whole been healthy. It has elicited a more exacting loyalty of words to idea, image and impulse.

In ‘Lakshman’, as in her other mythological poems, Toru is mainly interested in the telling of the ancient tale. It is not a mere tale or fertile imagination of the poet; but a part of the consciousness of her childhood, when she had heard the stories of the Hindu epics from the ‘lips of her own mother’. It is thus with a very sure instinct, Toru in these immortal stories uses the right material for the expression of her own maturing poetic powers. Her woman’s imagination weave myriad coloured picture and she embarks upon her work.

It is a difficult situation to give the colloquy of Sita and Lakshman a mystic action and a local habitation. But with the childhood faith of the ‘pure eternal feminine’, Toru has almost accomplished it. Toru scores through the simple sufficiency of her clear understanding of the tragedy. The Ballad breathes a Vedic simplicity of temper and is especially devoid of modesty. Here sophistication certainly would have failed, but her radiant simplicity has succeeded. In the poem, Sita is portrayed as obstinate, foolish and cruel whereas Lakshman is wise, gentle and understanding. Against his wishes he leaves her alone in the forest:

“Farewell, O Sita! Blessings crown
And peace for ever rest with thee”
He said, and straight his weapons took,
His bow and arrows pointed keen,
Kind,— nay, indulgent, — was his look,
No trace of anger there was seen,
Only sorrow dark, that seemed
To deepen his resolve to dare
All dangers. Hoarse the vulture screamed,
As out he strode with dauntless air.
(lines 167-176)

Lakshman, most loyal of the four leaving Sita alone against his better judgement because she would not see any reason, and so leaving her a prey to Ravana, is almost like ‘a perfect Greek tragedy’, observe many critics. Toru achieves this certainly because of her excellent craftsmanship.  Her sensation for words is unimpeachable and her observation and eye are alike trained for poetic description or dialogue. She has developed this masterly skill from her childhood and imbibed so deep a love for the ancient ballads of India, is perhaps due to her mothers’ gentle influence in home, her songs and gift of story-telling. Once Toru wrote to Mile Clarisse Bader, her French friend:

“When I hear my mother sing, in the evenings, the old songs of the country, I weep almost always” (Sengupta 19). An examination of the poem ‘Lakshman’ will reveal Toru’s genuine urge and her profound inner need for links with the ‘living past of India’. The poem is a simple conversation between Sita and her brother-in-law, where Sita takes rather an unfair advantage of her staunch guardian’s noble nature. She even goes to the extent of insulting Lakshman:

“Oh shame! and canst thou make my weal
A plea for lingering! Now I know
What thou art, Lakshman! And I feel
Far better were an open foe.
Art thou a coward? I have seen
Thy bearing in the battle-fray
Where flew the death-fraught arrows keen,
Else had I judged thee so today. (65-72)
What makes thee loth to leave this spot?
Is there a motive thou wouldst hide? (79-80)
He perishes — well, let him die!
His wife henceforth shall be mine own!
Can that thought deep imbedded lie
Within thy heart’s most secret zone!
Search well and see! One brother takes
His kingdom,— one would take his wife!
A fair partition!— But it makes
Me shudder, and abhor my life” (81-88).

The theme is derived from the Ramayana. Sita, deeply moved by the beauty of a golden deer roaming about the hermitage, pleads with her husband   (Rama) to get it for her. Rama goes in pursuit of the deer in spite of the forebodings expressed by Lakshman who guesses that the golden deer is Maricha in disguise sent by Ravana4. After a long pursuit Rama sends an arrow, which fells Maricha. While dying he cries out in Rama’s voice for help. Hearing the agonised cry, Sita mistakes it for Rama’s voice. She could not hold herself and insist on Lakshman to rush to help Rama. Toru Dutt’s poem, ‘Lakshman’, begins at this point :

“Hark ! Lakshman! Hark, again that cry!
It is, — my husband’s voice!
Oh hasten, to his succour fly,
No more hast thou, dear friend, a choice.
He calls on thee, perhaps his foes
Environ him on all sides round,
That wail, — it means death’s final throes!
Why standest thou, as magic-bound? (1-8)

However, Lakshman remains unmoved, as he has been instructed by Rama not to leave the hermitage and to give protection to Sita. Moreover, Lakshman knows that Rama is fortified against death and is invincible; he tries to calm Sita and make her understand that no creature on earth would dare to “work our hero harm”. Even the ‘lion’, the ‘pythons’ and ‘cobras’ glide to their most ‘secret converts’ at his tread—.

“The lion and the grisly bear
Cower when they see his royal look,
Sun-staring eagles of the air
His glance of anger cannot brook,
Pythons and cobras at his tread
To their most secret coverts glide,
Bowed to the dust each serpent head
Erect before in hooded pride.
Rakshasas5, Danavs6, demons, ghosts,
Acknowledge in their hearts his might,
And slink to their remotest coasts,
In terror at his very sight

Evil to him! Oh fear it not,
Whatever foes against him rise!
Banish for aye the foolish thought,
And be thyself, — bold, great, and wise” (33-48).
Yet, Sita would not move an inch from her decision; she clings to her fixed thought and charges Lakshman with being a ‘coward’.

3.2.1 ❐ Structure and Style :

The conversation is so normal and to the point that it immediately attracts the reader’s attention. Tom’s sympathy with the humble becomes obvious right away. The urgency of Sita’s desire to bring back her husband Ram is suitably conveyed by the swift moving rhythm of the lines resulting in a lyric simple and less ornate than the original verses in Sanskrit. This has indeed brought forth a more demanding loyalty of words to idea, image and impulse; this the poet achieves perfectly in this poem. The long poem ‘Lakshman’, with hundred and seventy-six lines does not seem to be monotonous at all. Rather one line of the conversation leads to another in a lyrical rhyme7 that leads to the epic grandeur of the poem. A rugged grace of diction and spirited rhythm are uniformly observed in the poem. But, the flowery phraseology of the Sanskrit poets, their magnificence in the descriptions of the grandeur of Gods and kings are lacking in ‘Lakshman’.

It is not that Toru was not able to produce the profusion and splendour in her descriptions, but she intentionally declines from such usage of magnificent diction for she has shortened and modernised her poems to suit a foreign reader. Nevertheless some critics feel that Toru was not able to produce the rich Sanskrit language in English. “The old Ballads and Legends have lost all their plaintive cadence, all the natural charm they bore when wrapped with the full-sounding music of the Sanskrit… The imagery, the scenery has even lost its own colour and profusion and ornamentation.

The warmth of expression and sentiment has of necessity been toned down by the very use of Language, which even had it been in the plastic hands of Toru Dutt, could never have afforded her the delicate touch and colour which she found in the French”. (Sengupta 84) At the same time, as we analyse her poems today, more interesting formations emerge and proves the young poetess’ prowess to synthesise Indian lore and different formations of English poetry. I would like to quote a few stanzas from her long poem ‘Lakshman’: “And now farewell! What thou hast said,

Though it has broken quite my heart,
So that 1 wish I were dead —
I would before, O Queen, we part,
Freely forgive, for well I know
That grief and fear have made thee wild,
We part as friends,— is it not so?”
And speaking thus he sadly smiled.
“And oh ye sylvan gods8 that dwell
Among these dim and sombre shades,
Whose voices in the breezes swell
And blend with noises of cascades,
Watch over Sita, whom alone
I leave, and keep her safe from harm,
Till we return unto our own,
I and my brother, arm in arm.
For though ill omens round us rise
And frighten her dear heart, I feel
That he is safe. Beneath the skies
His equal is not,— and his heel.
Shall tread all adversaries down,
Whoeve’r they may chance to be.
Farewell, O Sita! Blessings crown
And peace for ever rest with thee!” (145-168)

We have here part of the narrative poems that reads as well as any nineteenth century British lyric; its metric competence almost impeccable, its narration, dialogue all so immaculately clear. Besides, her management of the versification, the eight-line octosyllabic quartets, is adroit enough. In her description of the difficult situation Toru rises to the occasion and with the  gift of radiant simplicity succeeds in managing occasional unpleasantness with great dexterity. Given the colonial context and British criticism of the position of women in our society, one need hardly point out that Sita’s virtue closely matches the strangely convoluted Victorian myth of sexual purity in women. The Victorians laid great stress on sexual restraint and moral uprightness in women.

The familiar logic of the myth runs somewhat like this proposition: ‘a pure woman excites no sexual response’ is evident in lines: We part as friends, — is it not so? That grief and fear have made thee wild, (149-150) / And oh ye sylvan gods… Watch over Sita, whom alone /1 leave, and keep her safe from harm, (153-158) / And peace forever rest with thee! (168). There is another aspect to the construction. For the Victorians, women, like the Indians, were really children. Only, white women were not “half-devil, halfchild” like the Orientals were, but “half-angel, half-child”. Sita the real, uncorrupted Indian woman is like her white counterpart, child-like and angelic. Her purity is “God’s purity”. Her genuine love and devotion for Ram depicted impeccably gives a serene picture of her flawless relation with Lakshman and her devout faith in her husband Ram.

Here Toru is claiming for her Sita the very sexual refinement, the purity, held as always, in the virtue of women, that the British insisted Hindu society lacked. The effort obviously is to rebut the negative image the British projected, and redeem if not the present, at least the past. The poet’s main anxiety to project Sita as a ‘pure woman’, and Lakshman as a devout brother and a humble brother-in-law has been achieved and efficiently controlled in forms; which otherwise would have lost its sharpness in the use of ornate phraseology. In fact what has been so efficiently controlled is the poet’s imagination, her longings. Sita’s straining for freedom and power to rescue her husband Ram, despite her confinement within a “magic circle” is the limit the poet sees as habitable space.

No doubt Toru Dutt stands out in the assessment of contemporary critics as the major talent of Indo-Anglian literature. ‘Lakshman’ is definitely a befitting poem with sensitive descriptions, lyricism and vigour that compels attention. “It is unquestionably and movingly articulate, and disgrace neither the original nor the language in which they are now rendered” (Iyengar 70). One is overwhelmed by the rugged beauty that graces the poem even when Sita charges Lakshman with being a ‘coward’.


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