Indian Ethos in the Poetry of Toru Dutt
Among the early English writers of Indian Renaissance who gave independent outlook, right direction, original subjects, the name of Toru Dutt stands first. Her best work has depth of human motives and emotions and an abiding faith in Indian values. Besides writing in French and English, she turned to Sanskrit literature to get the sacred touch of India's Muse and introduced to the world about her splendour beauty and rich treasure-house of ancient wisdom. It was a matter of deep sorrow that she died so early when her talent was blossoming under the vast auspicious knowledge of Indian myths, legends and folklores.
She fascinates us for her personal life as well as due to her creative genius. Like Bronte sisters and Keats, her family, too, became a victim of consumption and she died in the prime of her youth, only at 21. Before her sad and slow death, she lost her elder brother Abju aged only 14 and sister Aru only at 20. Edmund Gosse writes, "It is wonderful to grasp of a girl who at the age of twenty one had produced so much of lasting worth."1 The great Indian critic Amar Nath Jha also writes ," There is every reason to believe that in intellectual power Toru Dutt was one of the most remarkable women that ever lived."2
She belonged to a very rich, respectable and intellectual family of Calcutta. Her father Govin Chunder Dutt was a cultured man steeped into the deep knowledge of the West and the East. Her mother was also a woman of very modest and loving disposition and from her mouth the young Toru had listened the immortal stories of ancient Indian heroes and heroines. The other family members too were highly learned and pursuing the great tradition of music and literature. Toru, being a very sensitive and learned child, knew the value of artistic atmosphere of her home and in one of her letters, she recalled gratefully the literary influence of her father : "Without Papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he used to take such pains with us ... when we were quite little ones ... I wonder what I should have been without my father, nothing very enviable or desirable, I know."3
It was the time when most of early intellectuals of Bengal were attracted to the great glamour of the West and the deep impact of Christianity. Toru's father embraced Christianity and afterwards left Calcutta and settled at Nice, in the south-east of France. Here Toru and her sister learnt their first lessons in French and soon they excelled in this language and used it effectively and proficiently for their literary leanings. Their first literary fruit came out with the title Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields with admiring maturity and depth. Of the 165 pieces, 8 were by Aru and remaining by Toru. Though it was a translation from French to English, but it was marked by a great original genius as Toru's selection and rejection has made it almost a new creative work. No wonder, Edmund Goss read it with 'surprise and almost rapture'. He declared, "If modern French literature were entirely lost, it might not be found impossible to reconstruct a great number of poems from this Indian version."5
Keeping and maintaining the original rhythm, sense and meaning, Toru's translation has almost touched the beauty and glory of newly creative work, pouring her bleeding heart out of the family tragedy in willingly chosen works of French Romantics. Here, in them, she gave free play to her soaring imagination, unchecked and unbounded, loneliness, dejection, ardours and agonies of life. Likewise, her French novel 'Le Journal de Mademoiselle d'Arvers' which was published posthumously, has captured the eyes of the public both at home and abroad. She has captivated the music of French language and life. A critic writes : "This one surpasses all the prodigies. She is a Frenchwoman in this book, and a Frenchwoman like ourselves; she thinks, she writes, like one of us."
In the midst of so many agonies and sufferings when she was herself fighting with death, she turned to Sanskrit literature for in great miraculous stories of ancients, besides the treasure house of wisdom and light, she found abundant pathos, depth of life and knowledge as well as peace and solace. The noted critic K. R. Srinivasa lyengar writes, " What a struggle and what a victory for Toru, she was an Indian poet writing in English. … she was one with India's woman singers... now she responds to the heart beats of the antique racial tradition."6 Her mother helped her much and very soon she excelled in the knowledge of Hindu epics, puranas, stories of mystery, miracle and Indian folklores. Moreover, it is her approach and attitude to these scriptures that give a very keen insight and interest to all such great stories. Though herself a Christian, she recognised very well where lies the roots of this ancient nation. A. N. Jha writes," For all her western training and the faith under the influence of which she had been brought up, she never ceased to be an Indian."7 She has very faithfully, imaginatively and sympathetically portrayed her race, her land and her traditions. She is rightly called as a "prestigious child of our culture" who very forcefully interpreted the soul of India to the world. Most of her poems in the volume Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan are deeply soaked with Indian themes.
Her first poem is 'Savitri'. It narrates the fortune of the princess Savitri and her courageous encounter with the God of Death. It depicts the constancy of the heroine, her chastity, womanly modesty, humility and her great love for her husband Satyavan. Her actions are considered as "the highest standard of conjugal love even today." Through the story, she also discloses the pitiable plight of the widows of her time. She writes :
And think upon the dreadful curse
Of widowhood; the vigils, fasts
And penances; no life is worse
Than hopeless life—the while it lasts.8
Her next poem is ‘Lakshman’. The scene opens in a very hot conversation between Sita and Lakshman in the forest. Listening the last crying words of Maricha "Oh, Sita, Oh, Lakshman," Sita became terrific of her husband's safety. She urges and after scolds Lakshman for his unwillingness in going to the forest. Sita is depicted in the form of a very simple and ordinary woman. She does not care Lakshman's lifelong loyalty and truth. Moreover, she crosses even the modesty of an ordinary woman. She humiliates him by her sharp arrow like words. She even charges him having baser motives, accusing him of desiring Ram's death so that he might take possession of his wife and kingdom :
Learn this—whatever comes may come,
But I shall not survive my love,—
Of all my thoughts here is the sum,
Witness it gods in heaven above.9
Thus, the poem presents a very traditional theme. It depicts the strength of the bonds that binds the members of an Indian family. Harihar Das remarks, "Nowhere we think, outside Indian thought, could be get so perfect a picture of brotherly loyalty."10 Lakshman remains loyal to the instructions of Ram even after bearing Sita's womanly weapon of bitter sarcasm.
Her next poem ‘The Royal Ascetic and the Hind’ is also based on a story from Mahabharat. It describes the great saintliness of King Bharat. Once, while in the forest, a graceful pregnant hind came there to quench her thirst. Meanwhile, she listens the roaring of a lion, runs fast and dies and her offspring tumbled from her womb into the flowing stream and it struggled for its life. The hermit king was deeply touched and a kind of struggle started into his soul; whether to love God or to love this fawn. Bharat leaves his asceticism for the sake of this child. Through this poem Toru seems to condemn the life of renunciation and penances for the real value of life lies in something else:
Not in seclusion, not apart from all,
Not in a place elected for its peace,
But in the heat and bustle of the world,
'Mid sorrow, sickness, suffering and sin....
Who strives to enter through the narrow gate.11
The other stories of this volume are related to the heroic deeds of Buttoo (Eklavya), Sindu (Shravan Kumar), Dhruva and Prahlad. The last legend is of "Sita". It depicts the painful suffering of women in the form of Sita. Though she presents beautiful natural description of the forest where lies Valmiki's cottage but the poem is unforgettable for its sense of sorrow, fatality: here everyone is in tears because Sita is weeping.
The first thing which strikes us that these ancient stories are very near to the pathetic life of the poet herself. Like Shelley's famous line, "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought (l. 90)", the sorrowful incidents of her life moved the poetess most. Secondly, these traditional stories expose very vividly our ancient ideals and customs. Toru's poetry is deeply soaked in Indian wisdom, its ancient culture, philosophy, myths and legends. She has great love to India and through her poetry she has presented its great spiritual light, rich tradition of sacrifice and suffering, vibrant values, beautiful imagery to the world of the West. She was an original genius for she captured the roots of her race very soon and she trod her self-made path. She was very conscious to the social and political scene of India and how the Indians were humiliated and undervalued before Europeans. It would be fitting to end this discussion by her sharp comment showing her deep sensitivity and social consciousness when a European who had killed his 'syce' and was fined only £ 2 : "You see how cheap the life of an Indian is in the eyes of an English judge."12
1Edmund Gosse, "Introductory Memoirs", Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1882), p. xiii.
2Amarnath Jha, "Introductory Memoirs", Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (Allahabad : Kitabistan, 1969), p. 30.
3Quoted from Talookdar, K. The Poetry of Toru Dutt (Journal of the University of Bombay, May 1936).
4K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian Writing in English (Bombay : Sterling Publishers Private Ltd., 1984), p. 62.
6Ibid, p. 63.
7A.N. Jha, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, p. 33.
8"Savitri", Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, p. 46.
9"Lakshman", Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, p. 84.
10Harihar Das, The Life and Letters of Toru Dutt (London : Oxford University Press, 1921), P.65.
11"The Royal Ascetic and the Hind", Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, p. 115.
12Quoted from Naik, M.K., A History of Indian English Literature, (Delhi : Sahitya Academy, 1982), p. 38.