Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Assembling a Biography of Toru Dutt

Because her life was cut short at the age of 21, because she published only one work during her brief life, and because she primarily gained renown only after her death, assembling a biography of Toru Dutt proved to be a difficult task. Luckily, because she was born into the well-known Dutt family of Calcutta—counting magistrates and writers among their ranks—biographers who wanted to learn more about Dutt had at least a solid foundation with which to begin their work. For example, many of her relatives, including her father Govin Chunder Dutt, had contributed writing to an anthology of work, The Dutt Family Album. By reading these works and other historical sources about her ancestors, biographers could start unpacking and excavating the context within which Toru was born and raised.

Still, for early 20th-century biographer Harihar Das, such historical background was not substantive enough in shedding light on Toru's own life, and he claimed that "biography is a subject which [until the start of the 20th century] Indian writers [...] somewhat neglected." Citing the need for an emerging Indian nation to produce works which cherish the memory of those who have contributed to both its own and global literatures—as well as a personal interest in producing a realistic work of biography that elides heavy historical or theoretical components—Das set out to assemble what would one day be considered the monumental achievement of his life and career, the Life and Letters of Toru Dutt.

Das had first encountered Toru Dutt as a young boy, when one of his friends' exam books cited Dutt's "Buttoo." "After reading these verses," Das writes, "a desire to know something of its author was immediately born in me," but this craving was to go unsatisfied for years. Later, Das discovered "a Bengali book, which contained sketches of famous Indian women." Still, even this book's understanding of Toru's life was quite fragmentary, and it only deepened Das's thirst for Dutt-related information. The final important development that led Das to undertake the writing of a Dutt biography was his discovery of a copy of A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields in his father's study. When this volume failed to supply much information about its author, Das resolved to compile this information himself, and he began his project in December of 1911.

Key to Das's efforts in assembling a biography of Dutt was his introduction to many of Dutt's living relatives in Calcutta. There, Dutt's living family members connected him with Mary Martin, who had met Toru in Cambridge and remained a devoted pen pal to her for the remainder of Toru's life. Mary Martin visited India in 1913 and met extensively with Das, both granting him access to all the materials on Toru she had in her possession—including their correspondences in the form of letters—and providing him with "constant and stimulating encouragement." These letters provide most of the information Das assembled in his biography of Toru Dutt, but he also gleaned some information from Toru's letters with Clarisse Bader, a French writer whose works Dutt hoped to translate later in her life.

Upon publishing the completed Life and Letters of Toru Dutt, renewed historical and literary interest in Toru took off in both the West and in India. Understanding the home life context that gave rise to many of Toru's works not only revealed additional evidence of her precociousness and talent, but also helped to distinguish her work from that of her contemporaries, solidifying her place as a true forerunner of Anglo-Indian literature, as well as her place as one of India's first women writers.