Early life and education
Toru Dutt was born in Calcutta on 4 March 1856 in a Bengali family that had converted to Christianity. Her father was Govind Chandra Dutt and her mother was Kshetramoni Dutt (nee Mitter), of the Rambagan Dutt family. The Dutt family was one of the first Calcutta families to be strongly influenced by the British colonial and missionary presence. Toru Dutt's grandfather Rasamay Dutt and her father both held important positions under the British government. Her coursin 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 conversion, but eventually became a practising Christian as well. Both of Dutt's parents published some writing: her father wrote poetry and her mother published a translation into Bengali of a religious monograph.
Toru was the youngest child of three, after a sister Aru and a brother Abju. She and her siblings spent most of their childhoods in Calcutta, splitting 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 by the Indian Christian tutor Babu Shib Chunder Bannerjea, learning French and English, and eventually Sanskrit, in addition to her first language of Bengali. During this time, she learned John Milton's epic poem of Christian allegory Paradise Lost by heart. She also learned stories of ancient India from her mother.
Dutt's brother Abju died of consumption in 1865, when he was fourteen.
Life in Europe
In 1869, when Dutt was thirteen, Dutt's family left India, making Dutt and her sister some of the first Bengali girls to travel by sea to Europe. The family spent four years living in Europe, one in France and three in England. They also visited Italy and Germany.
They first lived in France, from 1869 to 1870, in the south of France and in Paris. During this time Dutt studied French in Nice and was briefly a student at a boarding school. In 1870, the family lived in Onslow Square, Brompton, London, where Dutt studied music. In 1871, they moved to Cambridge, where they remained until 1873.
In 1872, the University of Cambridge offered a lecture series, ‘Higher Lectures for Women,’ which Toru Dutt attended with her sister Aru. At the time, women were not entitled to become members of the University of Cambridge, and opportunities for higher education were limited. This was an opportunity for women to access University lectures, set up by a group including philosopher Henry Sidgwick and suffragist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett. 'Lectures for Ladies' became Newnham College in 1871, but Toru Dutt did not herself matriculate as a member of the women's College, presumably because she was living in Cambridge and had no need for College accommodation. Her correspondence does refer, however, to 'Merton Hall', then the home of Newnham College, and to Miss Clough, Principal of Newnham College. While not a member of a Cambridge college, therefore, Dutt would have had access to the college's stimulating intellectual discussion and critical thinking. At the end of 1872, Toru Dutt met and befriended Mary Martin, the daughter of Reverend John Martin of Sidney Sussex College. The friendship that developed between the two girls at this time continued in their correspondence after Toru’s return to India.
The family left Cambridge in 1873, living in St Leonards, Sussex from April to November 1873, and then returning to Calcutta.
When Toru Dutt returned to Calcutta in 1873, at age seventeen, she found it challenging to re-integrate with a culture which now seemed like "an unhealthy place both morally and physically speaking" to her Europeanized and Christianized eyes. Her sister Aru died of consumption in 1872, aged twenty. Three years after returning to Calcutta, she wrote to her friend Mary Martin that "‘I have not been to one dinner party or any party at all since we left Europe," and that "If any friend of my grandmother happens to see me, the first question is, if I am married," both statements expressing a frustration with what she saw as a restrictive and conservative society. However, she also recognized that Europe could not replace India as her true home. She took consolation in reinvigorating her studies of Sanskrit with her father, and hearing her mother's stories and songs about India.
Like both of her siblings, Toru Dutt died of consumption at a young age (only twenty-one), on 30 August 1877.