The first Indian woman to gain international attention as an author in a European language barely lived past girlhood. In four years of intense activity between the age of seventeen and her death at twenty-one, Toru Dutt (1856-1877) wrote novels, translations, poems and essays that, after her death, would fascinate South Asia and Europe. Her parents, Bengali converts to Christianity, were themselves literary go-betweens. Her mother translated an English theological tract into Bengali, while her father wrote poems in English praising the British colonial regime. Taken by her parents to Europe in early childhood, Dutt spent most her brief life shuttling between France and England. On her return to Bengal in 1873, she began a literary enterprise of dizzying intensity. She wrote two novels in French, an anthology of French poetry translated into English, another anthology of translated Sanskrit texts, and original poetry and prose in English. By the time of her death, reviewers in London, Paris and Calcutta were beginning to discover her. As posthumous editions of her writings proliferated, Toru Dutt became a landmark of India’s literary history.
Dutt’s spirit was soon enlisted by Indian and European readers in their campaigns to imagine the Subcontinent as a site of literary modernity or mysterious backwardness. The English critic Edmund Gosse, who wrote the preface to her Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, saw Dutt less as a great writer than as an interesting example of Indian strangeness. Describing her poetry, he observed, with condescending wonder: “That it should have been performed at all is so extraordinary that we forget to be surprised at its inequality. The English verse is sometimes exquisite; at other times the rules of our prosody are absolutely ignored… the Hindu poetess was chanting to herself a music that is discord in an English ear.” Dutt, a Christian who spent most of her life in Europe, and the majority of her career engaged with European artistic traditions, was patronizingly described as an exotic literary oddity.
Indian readers, in contrast, celebrated—and continue to celebrate—Toru as a pioneer of Indian literature in English. Special attention is given to her highly anthologized “Our Casuarina Tree,” one of Dutt’s few poems that features a South Asian setting. The poem recalls a longing for India’s flora and fauna, felt even on “the classic shore of France or Italy.” Its presence in schoolrooms and literary histories establishes Dutt as a sentimental writer concerned with home and country. But Dutt’s nostalgia was not confined to the India of her birth. In other poems, rarely anthologized today, Dutt expressed her longing for an absent France—not the France of girlhood reminiscences, but the France of 1789.
France was a crucial site in Dutt’s literary awakening. After living in France, mastering its language and devouring its masterpieces, Dutt translated the poems of Victor Hugo and wrote racy novels to rival the best-sellers of Paris. Her French-language novel The Diary of Mademoiselle D’Anvers (recently translated into English) tells a torrid story of a young woman, pressured by her family to marry an inoffensive but boring suitor, passionately in love with an insane, violent, and eventually murderous nobleman. Torn between a troubling passion and the prospect of a safe, unsatsifying match, the mademoiselle asks herself: “How could I be happy with a man whom I cannot love?” She eventually marries her suitor, only to die, grieving, shortly thereafter.
Writing in French might have allowed Dutt, daughter of a respectable family, to treat the theme of morbid desires with an energy that would have been impossible, or at least unseemly, in English. A certain familiarity with French literature, and a certain understanding that French could be the vehicle for otherwise indecorous emotions, was part of the standard nineteenth-century British education for upper-class girls—and by extension, for assimilated Indian families like the Dutts. For Toru, however, France offered not only to a degree of literary freedom, but also the chance to participate, if only vicariously, in a struggle for political liberation.
Dutt ardently followed French politics, agonizing over France’s defeat at the hands of Prussia (1870) and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune (1871). She condemned England for standing by as France was crushed. Frustrated with the present, she thrilled to histories of the French Revolution of 1789, insisting that France, at heart, was still the vanguard of democracy. A poem of Dutt’s about the Franco-Prussian War ends in a exultant appeal to this revolutionary French spirit: “Gleams bright the star, that from her brow / Lightens the world. Bow, nations, bow/ Let her again lead on the way!” Never mind that France itself was a colonial power, that it was indeed a colonial power in India, ruling Pondicherry with no light hand. A literary and political France, drawn from her reading and her imagination as much as from her experience, was a vehicle for her own inchoate political aspirations.
The most evocative expressions of Dutt’s politics comes in a poem inspired by a forgotten nineteenth century novel, Madame Thérèse (1863) set during the French Revolution. The novel’s heroine, a country girl, fights in the revolutionary armies alongside her father and brothers. Dutt’s stirring poem collapses the novel into a single scene of battle, marked by a nostalgia for the France of 1789, “battling against oppression!/ When high rose your Marseillaise/ Man knews his rights to earth’s remotest bound/ And tyrants trembled.” As Dutt pictured the revolutionary army sweeping towards victory, or death, she stopped: “But who is this that rushes to a grave?/ It is a woman—slender, tall and brown!” The reference, ostensibly, is to the heroine of Madame Thérèse. But the temptation to consider that the thin brown woman battling oppression might have been a sly reference to the author herself is irresistible. Whether or not Dutt was winking at readers, the poem was a radical political gesture. From the vantage of Calcutta, she laid claim to the legacy of the French Revolution, insisting that the human rights revolutionaries had fought for should be available to everyone—even, by implication, the subjects of Britain’s far flung colonies.