Toru Dutt was born in Calcutta on March 4, 1856, into a Bengali family that had converted to Christianity. Her father was Govind Chandra Dutt and her mother was Kshetramoni Dutt. The Dutt family was one of the first Calcutta families to be strongly influenced by the presence of Christian missionaries. Toru Dutt’s grandfather Rasamay Dutt and her father held important positions in the colonial government. Her cousin Romesh Chandra Dutt was also a writer and Indian civil servant. Dutt’s father converted to Christianity in 1862 when Dutt was six years old. Her mother initially resisted the conversion, but eventually became a practicing Christian as well. Both of Dutt’s parents published some texts: her father wrote poetry and her mother published a Bengali translation of a religious monograph.
Toru was the youngest of three children, after her sister Aru and brother Abju. She and her siblings spent most of their childhood in Calcutta, dividing their time between a house in the city and a garden house in the suburb of Baugmaree. Dutt was educated at home by her father and Indian Christian teacher Babu Shib Chunder Banerjee, learning French and English, and eventually Sanskrit, in addition to her first language, Bengali. During this time, she memorized John Milton’s epic poem about the Christian allegory, Paradise Lost. She also learned stories from ancient India from her mother. Abju, Toru’s brother died when he was eleven years old, and Aru died of consumption on July 23, 1874.
Toru Dutt: Life in Europe
In 1869, Dutt’s family left India when Dutt was 13 years old, giving the opportunity for her and her sister the first Bengali girls to travel to Europe. The family passed their four years in Europe. They spent one year in France and three in England. During these years they also visited Italy and Germany. They first lived in the south and Paris of France from 1869 to 1870. Dutt studied French when she was briefly in a boarding school in France. In 1870 the family lived in Onslow Square, Brompton, London, where Dutt learned music. In 1871 they moved to Cambridge, where they remained until 1873.
In 1872, the University of Cambridge offered a series of lectures called “Higher Lectures for Women”. Toru Dutt attended it with her sister Aru. At the time, women were not eligible to enter the University of Cambridge, and for women the higher education options were limited. It was a chance for women to gain access to university lectures. The family left Cambridge in 1873, living in St Leonards, Sussex from April to November 1873 before returning to Calcutta.
Toru Dutt: Later Life
The Tomb of Toru Dutt is at Maniktala Christian Cemetery. When Toru Dutt returned to Calcutta in 1873 at the age of 17, she found it challenging to return to a culture that now seemed to her Europeanized and Christianized eyes to be “an unhealthy place both morally and physically”. Her sister Aru died of consumption in 1872 at the age of twenty. Three years after her return she wrote to Mary Martin: “I have not been to one dinner party or any party at all since we left Europe,” and “If any friend of my grandmother happens to see me, the first question is, if I am married.” Both notes expressing frustration with what she saw as a restrictive and conservative society. But she also realized that Europe could not replace India as her true home. She consoled herself by reviving her father’s Sanskrit studies and listening to her mother’s stories and songs about India. Likewise, like both her siblings, Toru Dutt died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of 21 on 30 August 1877.
Toru Dutt: Writing
Toru Dutt was a natural linguist. In her short life, she mastered Bengali, English, French, and later Sanskrit. She left behind an impressive collection of prose and poetry. Her two novels, the unfinished Bianca or The Young Spanish Maiden in English and Le Journal de Mademoiselle D’Arvers in French, were set outside India with non-Indian protagonists. Her poetry appears in A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, consisting of translations of French poetry into English, and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, consisting of translations and adaptations from Sanskrit.
A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields was published in 1876 without a preface or introduction. Her 165 poems were translated from French to English by Dutt, except for one poem she composed, “A Mon Père”, and eight poems translated by her sister. At first, the collection attracted little attention, although it was eventually noticed in 1877 by Edmund Gosse, who reviewed it favorably in the Examiner that year. A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields saw a second Indian edition in 1878 and the third edition by Kegan Paul, London in 1880, but Dutt did not live to see either of them. The second edition added 44 new poems, a portrait of Toru Dutt and her sister, and a foreword by their father.