Tour Dutt was born on March 4, 1856 in Bengal and she died on August 30, 1877, in the prime of her youth, at 21. She is often called the Keats of the Indo-English literature for more than one reason – her meteoric rise on and disappearance from the literary firmament, as also for the quality of her poetry.
James Darmesteter pays a befitting tribute to her, “The daughter of Bengal, so admirable and so strangely gifted, Hindu by race and tradition, and an English woman by education, a French woman at heart, a poet in English, prose writer in French, who at the age of 18 made India acquainted with the poets of French herself, who blended in herself three souls and three traditions, died at the age of 21 in the full bloom of her talent and on the eve of the awakening of her genius, presents in the history of literature a phenomenon without parallel”.
Toru Dutt’s literary achievements lay more in her poetic works than in her prose writings.
Her poetry is meagre, consisting of A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. But she “compels attention” as KRS Iyengar puts it. Her poetry has sensitive descriptions, lyricism and vigour. Her only work to be published during her lifetime was A Sheaf, an unassuming volume in its overall get-up.
The Examiner in its August 1876 issue published the review of her book. Edmund Gosse, the then reviewer expressed his surprise “To find Miss Toru Dutt translating, in every case into the measure of the original, no less than 166 poems, some of them no less intricate in form than perplexing in matter”.
He calls it an “amazing feat” and “a truly brilliant success”. A review in the Friend of India says. “… the versification is generally good, and the translations, we believe, intelligent and faithful”.
In selecting poems for translation Toru focused attention on the Romantics of French literature, although she also included Chenier, Courier, Lamartine and a few others of the transition period as well as Brizeux, Moreau, Dupont and Valmore who were not Romantics. In France, the Romantic school was born towards the close of the 18th century and in the beginning of the19th, as in England. They asserted the free-play of imagination, simple and direct diction and freedom from any restrictions.
The poems that she translated were probably those which could touch the cord of her imaginations and sentiments – patriotism, loneliness, dejection, frustrations, illusions, exile and captivity. One remarkable thing about her translation is that she has been able to capture the spirit of the original. No wonder, then, that Edmund Gosse, in his review says, “If modern French literature were entirely lost, it might not be found impossible to reconstruct a great number of poems from its Indian version”. Not that she has blindly translated.
In fact, she has changed words and phrases of the original and substituted them by more appropriate ones without any hesitation which make her work exact and yet free. The verses maintain the rhythm of the original. Though European by education and training, Toru was essentially an Indian at heart. From her childhood her mother had imbued in her love for the old legends from the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Her readings of the old Sanskrit classics gave her first-hand knowledge of the charming stories.
Her woman’s imagination wove myriad coloured picture and she embarked upon her work, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, which appeared in 1882, with “Introductory notes” by Sir Edmund Gosse. Critics have hailed Ancient Ballads as the “best work in English”. It shows her keen interest in the Indian translations. According to Lotika Basu, a literary critic, Ancient Ballads, “for the first time reveals 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. The stories included are of Savitri, Lakshman, Prahlad, Sindhu and others. Toru wrote two novels – Bianca and Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers. The former, an incomplete romance, is in English and the latter in diary form, is the story of Marguerite and is in French. The manuscripts of these works were discovered after her death amid her papers.
Both these works have simple plots which sustain the story element, the language is poetic and the characters are clearly drawn. Toru was proud of India’s cultural heritage, her flok-lores, 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”.