1 IT was a saying of the ancients that "those whom the gods love die young," and, however we may interpret it, it certainly seems as though some strange fate was destined to cut off in their early prime those whose youth has given promise of more than ordinary achievement. Modern India has as yet produced but one real poetess, and she, alas ! is one whose early promise has been buried in a premature grave.
2 The story of the young Hindu girl's life is short and sad.
3 Tarulatta Datta, or, as she is more commonly called, Toru Dutt, was the youngest child of Babu Govind Chunder Dutt, a Bengali gentleman of good family, high character, and considerable attainments, who was distinguished among his countrymen by his broad-minded views on social questions, and by his clear and vigorous intellect. He was a Christian, and was well known and respected in Calcutta, where he filled the position of a magistrate. In Calcutta Toru Dutt was born in 1856, and, with the exception of one year spent by the family in Bombay, it was in Calcutta that her early life was passed.
4 From her childhood she enjoyed educational advantages such as were very unusual in the case of Bengali girls; her father took great pains to instruct her himself, and she and her sister Aru, who was two years older than she was, both shared the English lessons given to her brother Abjie by Babu Shib Chunder Banerji, for whom she always entertained a grateful affection, and who seems to have been the first person to instil into her mind a love for the study of English literature, together with the thoroughness of application so remarkable in her subsequent studies. The stern, grand poetry of Milton is hardly what one would expect to find as the chosen study of young Indian girls, yet these two sisters knew large portions of "Paradise Lost" by heart, and apparently understood and appreciated it far more thoroughly than most English girls of the same age. In 1869 Babu Govind Dutt determined to take his two daughters to Europe and to give them the best education he could. His only boy had died a short time previously, and he felt that the hopes of his life now depended on his girls. They went…attended a pensionand studied French under the best masters. The whole family then came to England, spending, however, a short time in Italy and in Paris on their way. They remained in England till the close of 1873, the girls continuing their education the whole time. They attended some of the then recently established lectures for women at Cambridge, especially those of M. Bognel on French Literature, and afterwards they went to lectures and classes at St. Leonards, where they resided for some time.
5 During their stay in Europe Toru Dutt kept a careful journal, which is of extreme interest, as showing the effect produced on the Indian girl's mind by all she saw and heard around her in this strange country.
6 The following extract from her diary is dated the 30th of January, 1871, 9 Sydney Place, Onslow Square, London, S.W., and is of peculiar interest :—
7 "How long it is since I last wrote in my journal! Alas! what changes have taken place in France since the last time I wrote! When we were in Paris for a few days, how beautiful it was! What houses! What streets! What a magnificent army! But now, how has she fallen! She who was once first among the cities, what misery does she not contain! Ever since the commencement of the war my heart has been with the French, although I all along felt certain of their defeat."
8 Although the Dutt family stayed so much longer in England than in France, it was the latter country evidently which seized most forcibly on the imagination of the girls, especially of Toru. The strange contrast between the France of 1869, proud, joyous, beautiful and queen-like, and the France of 1871, conquered, blood-stained and distracted by internal feuds, made a deep impression on her, awakening her keenest sympathies and inspiring one of her most original poems.
Not dead; oh, no, she cannot die!
Only a swoon from loss of blood.
Levite England passes her by ;
Help, Samaritan! None is nigh
Who shall staunch me this sanguine flood.
Range the brown hair, it blinds her eyes;
Dash cold water over her face!
Drowned in her blood, she makes no sign.
Give her a draught of generous wine !
None heed; none hear to do this grace.
No! she stirs ; there's a fire in her glance.
'Ware, oh 'ware of that broken sword!
What! dare ye, for an hour's mischance
Gather around her, jeering France,
Attila's own exulting horde?
Lo! she stands up—stands up e'en now,
Strong once more for the battle fray.
Gleams bright the star that from her brow
9 After her return to Calcutta in November 1873, Toru Dutt continued her French studies, and also applied herself to the study of Sanskrit, under the direction of her father, who also cultivated and encouraged her talent for writing in general and for poetry in particular, and it was to his instructions that she always ascribed her facility in the latter branch of literature.
10 On their return to India, the Dutts once more took up their abode in Calcutta, where they resumed the quiet and retired life they had led before their visit to Europe.
11 To those unacquainted with India it will no doubt appear rather strange that a family who had been so well received in England, and had been welcomed in the most cultivated circles, should on their return home have been so little noticed by the English residents in Calcutta. It should, however, be remembered that fifteen years ago it was an exceedingly rare thing for an Indian lady to wish to mix in English society, or to possess the education that would fit her for doing so; and so it came to pass, not unnaturally, that the existence of two well-bred, well-read girls like Toru Dutt and her sister, was not even suspected by those who, if they had known it, would have been only too well pleased to have made friends with them.
12 So incredible, indeed, did it appear in those days that a Bengali lady should achieve literary distinction, that when Toru's first writings appeared it was supposed that they were the work of some English writer, and that Toru Dutt was simply a nom de plume assumed for the occasion.
13 Her first appearance in print was in the Bengal Magazine, to which she contributed an essay on the poetry of Le Conte de Lisle, a writer with whom she was much in sympathy. He was a Creole, born in the Mauritius, and, as we may judge from the following extract from her article, she felt that in some respects his case resembled her own.
14 "The faults generally attributed to all Asiatic or half-caste poets, writing in the languages of Europe, are weakness, languor, conventionalism, and imitation. From most of these defects Le Conte de Lisle was singularly free. He is wonderfully vigorous and very often thoroughly original. Not only is he very well read, not only has he meditated much, but he has that gifted, poetic eye, which can seize at once, and extract poetry from the meanest object."
15 This paper was followed before long by some translations of French verse into English, and by various other essays in literary criticism, of which both the style and the matter aroused the curiosity and interest of the readers of the magazine.
16 It was about this time, in the year 1874, that Aru…tion. Although less original and less ambitious than Toru, she was not less amiable, and she had equally profited by the educational advantages she had enjoyed. Both the sisters were good musicians. They played well on the piano, and sang with much sweetness, having good contralto voices. They kept up their accomplishments, but at the same time they did not disdain the more useful domestic duties which, in Indian homes, are usually performed by the ladies of the family; and their father, writing after their death, speaks with deep emotion of the exemplary manner in which they discharged these household duties.
17 In general society Toru shone more than her sister, who was of a gentle, retiring disposition, and inclined to keep in the background, while she listened with sisterly pride and admiration to Toru's lively and intelligent conversation. The younger sister had a very remarkable memory, and could remember every piece of poetry she had ever translated. She read much and deeply, and whenever she met with a difficult passage, she worked at it thoroughly, till she had mastered not only its meaning, but its bearing on the subject in hand.
18 Aru occasionally tried her hand at translation, but her most decided talent was for drawing, and the sisters' dream was to produce a novel, which one should write and the other illustrate.
19 Toru's first book appeared in 1876, and consisted of a collection of lyrics translated from the French poets. It was printed at Bhowanipore in Bengal, and like the greater number of works hitherto published in India, was badly printed, on poor paper, and had nothing attractive about its appearance. From the ordinary reading public, accustomed to find its poetry enshrined in a prettily designed casket, this uninteresting-looking, paper-covered book, received but scant attention. Fortunately, however, it fell into the hands of a few more discriminating critics, who bestowed upon it some well-deserved praise.
20 M. André Theuriot, the well-known French poet and novelist, reviewed the poems favourably in the Revue des Deux Mondes; while in England they received an appreciative notice from Mr. Edmund Gosse in the Examiner. This gentleman, in a prefatory note to one of Toru Dutt's later works, thus describes the impression made on him by them. "It was while Professor W. Minto was editor of the Examiner, that one day in August 1876, in the very heart of the dead season for books, I happened to be in the office of that newspaper, and was upbraiding the whole body of publishers for issuing no books worth reviewing. At that moment the postman brought in a thin, sallow packet, with a wonderful Indian postmark on it, and containing a most un…Bhowanipore, and entitled A Sheaf gleaned in French Fields. This shabby little book of some 200 pages, without preface or introduction, seemed speedily destined to find its way into the waste-paper basket. I remember that Mr. Minto thrust it into my unwilling hands, and said, 'There, see whether you can make something of that.' A hopeless volume it seemed, with its queer type, printed at the Saptahiksambad Press. But when at last I took it out of my pocket, what was my surprise, and almost rapture, to open at such a verse as this—
"Still barred thy doors. The far East glows,
The morning wind blows fresh and free;
Should not the hour that wakes the rose
Awaken also thee.
" All look for thee, Love, Light and Song;
Light in the sky, deep red above,
Song in the lark of pinions strong,
And in my heart true love."
21 Although Toru's first book is the least perfect and polished of her literary productions, it is in some respects the most interesting, revealing as it does both her weakness and her strength. At every turn we are met by instances of genius overcoming all obstacles, and yet, in its turn, baffled by ignorance and inexperience. It is little short of marvellous to see the way in which the oriental mind adapts itself to Western ideas, and expresses them with a purity and a grace that leaves nothing to be desired ; while, on the other hand, we are constantly reminded that she is writing in a foreign tongue, by some strange ignoring of the rules of prosody, some quaint and almost prosaic rendering of a poetic simile.
22 It would be impossible within the limits of so short a sketch to do any justice to these poems, but the following may serve as an example, and no doubt expresses her own thoughts on her sister's early death. The original is by Evariste Desforges de Parny:—
Though childhood's ways were past and gone,
More innocent no child could be ;
Though grace in every feature shone,
Her maiden heart was fancy free.
A few more months or happy days,
And love would blossom, so we thought,
As lifts in April's genial rays
The rose its clusters richly wrought.
But God had destined otherwise,
And so she gently fell asleep,
A creature of the starry skies,
Too lovely for the earth to keep.
She died in earliest womanhood;
Thus dies, and leaves behind no trace,
A bird's song in a leafy wood,
Thus melts a sweet smile from the face.
23 To these poems there was affixed the following short postscript:—
24 "The author of these pages wishes to add that sister Aru, who fell asleep in Jesus, 23rd July 1874, at the early age of twenty. Had she lived, this book might have been better than it is, and its author might perhaps have had less occasion to crave the indulgence of the reader. Alas,
"Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest is, It might have been!"
25 Not the least remarkable portion of this book are the notes. In them Toru Dutt gives short critical notices of the various poets from whom she has translated; her criticism showing sometimes a naive simplicity that is very engaging, at others a keenness of insight and a purity of taste which are truly admirable. In addition to these criticisms we find notes on the occasions which called forth some of the poems, explanations regarding the allusions to persons and occurrences which they contain, and references to other poets and writers.
26 Her acquaintance with French and English litera was something extraordinary; very few English or French women of twice her age can boast as much, and when we consider that both were to her foreign tongues, it is difficult to understand how she can have found time for such a wide range of reading.
27 Most of her translations are from nineteenth century poets, Victor Hugo himself being the chief object of her admiration. In the note on his poems she writes: "It would be absurd to make any comments on Victor Hugo. His name is among the great ones of the earth. With Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Goethe, and Schiller, his place has been long prepared in the Valhalla of the poets."
28 Her poetic imagination led her to place Victor Hugo above Lamartine, although she was quite ready to acknowledge the moral superiority of the latter. –
29 "In fancy, in imagination, in brilliancy, in grandeur, in style, in all that makes a poet, he must yield to Victor Hugo : in purity he yields to none. His mind is essentially religious. He never forgot what he learned at his mother's knee."
30 Toru Dutt's first collection of poems was prefaced by a dedicatory poem to her mother, translated from Xavier Labenski. A copy of the first edition of the Sheaf gleaned in French Fields, in the dull orange paper cover, is in the British Museum, and bears on its fly-leaf the following inscription in the authoress's handwriting:—
Au Chevalier de Chaletain, a l'élégant traducteur de Shakespeare,
Hommage de la traductrice, Toru Dutt. 29 Mars 1876. Calcutta. 12, Manicktollah Street.
31 Very soon after the publication of her first book Toru Dutt's health began to fail. Her father, whose overworking herself, and that her studies were too much for her. He, therefore, insisted on her giving up her Sanskrit, which she did most reluctantly, for it was her favourite study, and doubly dear to her because in it her father was her companion and her instructor. For a few weeks it seemed as though rest were doing her good, but before long it became only too evident that the insidious disease which had carried off her sister had already seized her in its fatal grasp. As her bodily strength declined her mind seemed to gain in activity; her longing to write became more and more feverish. The more she realised that her life could be but a short one, the more eager did she become to achieve some literary success.
32 About a year before her death she became acquainted with a book which struck her much. It was La Femme dans l’Inde Ancienne, by Mdlle. Clarisse Bader, and she instantly conceived a strong desire to translate it. She wrote to the authoress, asking her permission to do so, sending her at the same time a copy of her "Sheaf." In her letter she described herself as "une femme de l'Inde moderne."
33 To this Mdlle. Bader replied promptly: "Eh quoi? C'est une descendante de mes chères heroines indiennes, qui desire traduire le livre que j'ai consacré aux antiques Aryennes de la presqu'ile gangétique ! Un semblable voeu, emanant d'une telle source, me touche trop profondément pour que je ne l'exauce pas. Traduisez donc "La Femme dans l'Inde Antique,' Mademoiselle. Je vous y autorise de tout mon coeur, et j'y appelle de tous mes voeux sympathiques le succès de votre entreprise. . . . Vous étes chrétienne, Mademoiselle; votre livre me le dit. Et en vérité votre rôle nous permets de bénir une fois de plus la divine religion, qui a permis à une Indienne de dé velopper et de manifester cette valeur individuelle que le brahminisme enchaina trop souvent chez la femme."
34 In writing to acknowledge the permission thus generously granted to her, Toru Dutt told her new friend of her own bad state of health, and how greatly it interfered with the pursuit of her studies. She mentioned that her father proposed taking her to Europe again, so as to consult some eminent physician, and in the hope that a drier and more bracing air than that of Bengal might perhaps check the disease, or, at any rate, give her strength to battle against it. With this letter she sent her photograph and some of her translations from the Sanskrit. A month later she wrote again, from her bed, to which she was then confined by very severe illness and great pain. Yet, with the hopefulness so characteristic of persons suffering from consumption hailed every slight rally as a permanent improvement.
35 But it was not to be, and on August 30, 1877, she passed away. Her father's account of her last days is very touching: "It is only physical pain which makes me cry," said she to the doctor who was attending her. "My spirit is in peace. I know in whom I have believed." " Never," writes the bereaved father, "was there a sweeter child, and she was my last. I and my wife in our old age are left alone in a house wide and desolate, where of old the voices of my three loved children echoed. But we are not forsaken. I think I can see dimly that there is a fitness, a preparation, required for the life beyond, which they had and I have not. One day I shall see it all clearly. Blessed be the Lord: His will be done."
36 When the first bitterness of his loss had passed, Toru Dutt's father found a sad consolation in examining the mass of papers which his gifted daughter had left behind her, and in preparing some of them for the press.
37 A new edition of the Sheaf gleaned in French Fields was prefaced by a short biographical notice of the young poetess, and with its good paper, printing, and binding, formed a handsome volume, which was enhanced in value by the photograph of the two sisters, which forms its frontispiece. But to many of Toru Dutt's admirers, the little insignificant orange pamphlet has a greater charm.
38 Among the many poems which Babu Chunder Dutt now found were a number of ballads, embodying stories and legends of ancient India. It appears that she had intended to write a series of nine such ballads, but of the projected series two were missing, so it was determined to fill up the blanks with two translations of stories from the Vishnupurana, which had already been printed in the Calcutta Review and in the Bengal Magazine respectively. These, though valuable as her first attempts at rendering Sanskrit tales into English verse, are very inferior both in form and finish to the ballads. These latter are written in octosyllabic verse, and may be regarded as the most original and, at the same time, the most successful of all her literary productions. Though the medium in which she expresses them is still foreign, the ideas, the traditions, and the memories are those of her own country and her own people, and they have a vigour, a freshness, and a charm which can never be infused into a mere translation. The historic Ballads and Legends of Hindustan are too long for quotation here, and no fragment would give an adequate idea of them. But we give here a few stanzas from a poem included Dutt had made since the publication of her French "Sheaf."
39 It is addressed to the "Casuarena Tree," a tall, graceful tree which grows very freely in Calcutta and its neighbourhood.
But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarena to my soul.
Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
For your dear sakes shall the tree be ever dear;
Blest with your images it shall arise
In memory, till the hot tears blind my eyes.
What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear,
Like the sea breaking on a shingle beach ?
It is the tree's lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach—
Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith.
Ah! I have heard that wail, far, far away
In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith,
And the waves gently kissed the classic shore
Of France or Italy beneath the moon,
When earth lay tranced in a dreamless swoon;
And every time the music rose, a form sublime,
Thy form, O tree, as in my happy prime,
I saw thee in my own loved native clime.
40 In addition to all these poems and translations, Toru Dutt left behind the MS. of a French novel entitled Le Journal de Mdlle. D'Arvers.
41 Both the sisters had been great novel-readers. We may wonder how they found time for reading novels, considering how much else they read in their short lives, but so it was. A story is told of an English gentleman having paid them a visit in Calcutta, and asking them what were their favourite books.
42 "Oh! novels, of course," replied the younger sister, who was almost always the spokeswoman.
43 "Novels!" exclaimed their visitor; "I am sorry to hear that. You should read history."
44 "Oh, no!" was the answer; "for history is false, but novels are true."
45 It was truth of thought, of life and character, which these Bengali girls sought after; not the bare dry facts of history. What fairy-tales are to children, novels were to these young women; and, as we have already said, the dream of their joint lives was to produce a novel themselves.
46 Whether the Journal de Mdlle. D'Arvers had taken shape in Toru's mind before her sister's death is uncertain, but it seems more probable that it was of later date.
47 The choice of the subject was certainly a singular one. The life, the thoughts, and love experiences of a young French girl of good family, could only have been known to Toru Dutt by the mysterious intuition of imagination and sympathy, and though no one would pretend that the attempt to portray them has
48 The domestic conditions portrayed in the story are those of an English rather than of a French home, and there are not wanting, here and there, touches which betray the oriental cast of the writer's mind. The hero, for instance, is described as tall and thin, with coal-black hair, and black liquid eyes, the typical characteristics of a young Bengali, while he is said to have had a fair complexion, which showed his high birth. To a European mind the latter expression is absurd and meaningless, but it would come quite naturally to a native of India, where the higher classes have almost always fairer complexions than the lower classes.
49 The manuscript as left by Toru Dutt was complete so far as the story was concerned, but it required careful editing before it could be sent to the press, and this work was cheerfully undertaken by Mademoiselle Bader, whose introduction to the book is full of sympathetic and generous appreciation.
50 The story is told in the form of a journal, supposed to have been written by Mademoiselle D'Arvers. She begins to write her journal when she returns to her home from the convent in which she has been educated, and depicts the very natural conflict of feelings which fills her mind. Her joy at returning to her parents and the pleasure she anticipates from mixing in society being mingled with regret at quitting the convent in which she has passed some happy years, and at parting from her friends and school-fellows. Soon, however, the pleasures and interests of her new life make her forget her regrets, as she finds herself surrounded by all that adoring parents can give their only child, and the admiration which her beauty excites in everyone is received with a charming naïveté and simplicity.
51 An excellent young man, whom her parents have long fixed on as her future husband, comes to stay at the house; but though she appreciates his good qualities and is quite ready to make friends with him, he fails to touch her heart, which is captivated almost at once by the young owner of the neighbouring château.
52 Seeing that her affection is returned, the parents, with some regret, relinquish their cherished project and consent to her betrothal with the man of her choice, and it seems as though for once the course of true love were destined to run smooth. But a terrible storm is at hand. Mademoiselle D'Arvers is loved not only by the man she loves, but by his brother Gaston also. The discovery of this puts the elder brother into a fury, which passes into a fit of temporary insanity, in which he kills his brother. No sooner has he fired the fatal shot than his madness leaves him, and in bitterest shame and remorse he gives himself up to justice. He is punishment, the insanity returns and he commits suicide.
53 His unhappy fiancé is crushed to the earth, feeling most bitterly the humiliation of having been the innocent cause of two men's death, whereby their widowed mother is left desolate. By degrees her affection for her parents and her religious faith enable her to rouse herself from the state of prostration and dejection consequent on the tragedy, and she accepts somewhat reluctantly her mother's suggestion, that, having wrecked the lives of two men who loved her, it is her duty to do her best to make the third one happy.
54 So the faithful, patient lover is at last rewarded, and there appears a prospect of happiness for him and his bride. But the terrible tragedy in which she has played a part has shattered her constitution, and just as she is beginning to rest happily in her husband's love, she droops and dies.
55 As will be seen from this short sketch, the conception is very crude, and the story is full of glaring improbabilities. But in spite of these defects, in spite of the unnecessarily tragic features, the story is not an unpleasant one, and gives ample evidence both of imagination and of knowledge of human mature, as well as of the pure and spiritual nature of the authoress which she reproduces in her heroine.
56 Sad, indeed, it is to think that such a gifted nature should have been thus early cut off, and that its rich promise of fruit should have been blighted before time and experience had matured it. It has been the case in all countries and in all times, but perhaps the modern educated native of India is peculiarly exposed to the danger. The premature development of both mind and body does not seem to be accompanied by that physical health which can alone make great mental cultivation really safe, and in too many cases the bodily frame is worn out in a few years, and hopes of future achievements are buried in an early grave. The danger, no doubt, is increased for those who go to England or America, and the damp cold of these countries has cost us more than one life that seemed destined to play a noble part in the work of regenerating Indian society. Yet, perhaps, as we mourn these early deaths, these gifted women taken from us, as we think, all too soon, we may be at fault, and that for them as well as for their country the poets words may be true—
The fairest gift that life can give
Is to die young.