‘Be Thou Faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life’ – Revelations 2:10 [Inscription as epitaph]
Govind Chunder sighed as he went through the pages of interminable handwriting…so much promise, so much hope…her efforts should never go in vain. He had not lost hope when his only son Abju died of consumption at the tender age of fourteen, he had both his daughters to look up to. But, the deadly disease struck again & made off with his elder daughter Aru seven years later. But, still, he pinned his hopes on his younger daughter & nurtured her talent. But, yet again, she was snatched away by the same disease, at the age of twenty-one. Still, he had her memories & her writings, & he intended to gift her a crown of life, while she remained faithful unto death…
Mid-nineteenth century Bengal was a very different place to live in. The Dutts of Rambagan in Calcutta was a very different family too. They were among the first families to be influenced by Christianity. The family members were distinguished for their literary & academic achievements. One of the prominent members of the family was Romesh Chunder Dutt, who was a major economic historian of the nineteenth century. Into such circumstances was born Torulata Dutt, later shortened to Toru (which means a tree), on 4 March, 1856. Govind Chunder converted to Christianity in 1862, when Toru was only six years old, followed by his initially resistant wife Kshetramani. The Bengal Renaissance was on in full force & the rebellious & enlightened Govind Chunder made up his mind to make something out of his daughters. Initially Toru & Aru were taught at home by their father & the Bengali Christian, Babu Shib Chunder Banerjea. Her brother Abju died in 1865 & it was her first traumatizing brush with death, at the tender age of nine. Then, in 1869, her parents took the girls to Europe. Toru, along with her sister Aru, attended school in France, learnt French & took music lessons. Music brought along a sense of rhythm in her, which she would carry into her literature. Aru meanwhile, became adept at painting. A few photographs of both the sisters have survived, a progressive gesture in times when photography was new & expensive. In 1871, the family shifted to Cambridge in England. Toru, along with her sister, attended the Higher Lecture for Women at Cambridge University. There she met Mary Martin, who became her mentor & lifelong friend. After coming back to Calcutta in 1873, she maintained regular correspondence with Mary Martin & luckily these have survived. They would talk about their family, friends, visitors, society, personal or political concerns, all of which have now become a part of history. Calcutta is then a burgeoning city & Toru is in touch with the best of the lot, yet frustrating for her as she is caught in-between the cross-cultural conflicts. She writes to Mary:
‘I have not been to one dinner party or any party at all since we left Europe…If any friend of my grandmother happens to see me, the first question is if I am married.’
In 1874, tragedy struck again – Aru dies of consumption at the age of twenty. Toru is left all alone, with her grief-stricken parents. Her only solace is in the world of books. So, in 1875, she begins learning Sanskrit, which is kind of returning to the roots. She regains touch with India at the intellectual level, its history, mythology, myths & legends. It is thought that had she lived, she certainly would have tried her hand at writing in Sanskrit. Her first publication was at the age of eighteen in the ‘Bengal’ magazine. She wrote an essay on French poet Leconte de Lisle, followed by another one on Joséphine Soulary. In 1876 was published A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, her only book in her lifetime – a book of poems, which gave her recognition as a poet at the age of eighteen. It was a compilation of translated French poems, in which she worked initially with Aru before she passed away. The poems were so much attached to Nature & humanity that it reminded her discerning readers of the Romantic Poets of England. Her short yet productive life reminds one of Keats & also of Derozio, who was so close to our home & hearth. It may be said that the loneliness of Toru’s life, the relentless confinement in her home, could have attracted her to the Romantic theme of disillusionment, of melancholy & escape into nature. While at the peak of her creative fecundity, Toru, like her siblings, is felled by consumption & passes away at the age of only twenty-one on 30 August, 1877. She was buried at the Maniktala Christian Cemetery, Calcutta, now known as South Park Street Cemetery.