Vol. 4 Num 178 Sat. November 22, 2003  

Indian Poetry in English: Henry Louis Vivian Derozio

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, described by Kolkata writer and eminence grise P. Lal as a 'Calcutta Eurasian of Portuguese Indian ancestry', was born on 18 April 1807 into a respectable merchant family and educated at Drummond's Academy in Dharmatala. The Drummond program was well-known throughout India as being of high Scottish tradition with an emphasis on European classics. Drummond was equally well-known among the British in India for his 'free thinking', scholastic efforts and poetic endeavours, all of which Derozio came to accept as a part of his personal lifestyle.

By the age of twenty Derozio was well-schooled in the classics and tradition of western thought, following the moral philosophy of thinkers such as David Hume. Thomas Edwards, one of his early biographers, wrote that 'his chief delight, his sole pursuit outside of the cricketing, the amateur theatricals, and other sports natural to boys of his years, was the literature and thought of England, as he found these embodied in the poets, novelists, dramatists, and philosophers of that country. Till the last day of his short life, poetry and philosophy were the chief charm of his existence. There were two places in India where the most recent works issued from the presses of Britain could be found. These were the shelves of the most enterprising booksellers, and the library of Derozio, frequently the latter alone.'

When his father died, Derozio left school at 14 and joined his uncle in indigo planting at Bhagalpur. It was from here that he sent his first poems to the Indian Gazette, whose editor Dr. John Grant published them. When Derozio came to Kolkata in 1824 at age 17 he found himself well received as a poet and a writer. In short order he published his first volume of poems, and became the editor of several periodicals, including The Calcutta Magazine, The Indian Magazine, The Bengal Annual and The Kaleidoscope. The next year Derozio published his second book of poems, which included the long poem 'The Fakir of Jungheera: A Metrical Tale' and which drew upon his Bhagalpur experiences. It is with this poem that Derozio's name is most closely associated, written in fairly regular English iambic tetrameters but with a radically different subject:

'Jungheera's rocks are hoar and steep
And Ganges's wave is broad and deep.'

On the strength of his school performance (he had been Drummond's star pupil) and literary publications and activities, Derozio was appointed Master of English Literature at Hindu College (which later became Presidency College). A post from which he was compelled to resign in 1831. It is this particular period of Derozio's career and life which is the object of much curiosity among Indian academics rethinking English studies in postcolonial India. How should he be viewed, as an iconoclast driven out by the orthodox Hindu founders of the college, or as one of the earliest writers of Indian literature in English? As a flash in the pan, or one of the earliest results of the Indian encounter with the English educational program in India?

Derozio became legendary for the brilliance of his teaching as well as his unorthodox teaching methods. He made his students read a wide variety of texts, from Homer's Iliad to Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. Through an Academic Association which he set up, Derozio encouraged free discussion and debate on ideas. Such discussions, notably critical of established religions, continued long after college hours. Somewhere along the line, students picked up from their mentor the habit of eating what were for them forbidden foods such as pork and beef, and drinking beer. Hindu College students adopted two precepts, derived from Derozio. The first was: 'He who will not reason is a bigot, he who cannot reason is a fool, and he who does not reason is a slave.' The second: 'Cast off your prejudices, and be free in your thought and actions. Break down everything old and rear in its stead what is new.' Derozio was also loudly supportive of female emancipation. One has to remember that this was Calcutta of the 1830s, where religious and social conservatism was deeply entrenched, and soon rumours began that Hindu College was a den of atheists. Derozio was identified as 'the root of all evil' and asked to 'show cause,' even to answer questions such as 'Do you believe in God?' 'Do you think the intermarriage of brothers and sisters innocent and allowable?' Though Derozio countered these questions easily enough, he was not reinstated.

In the months remaining till his death, from cholera in December 1831 at age 22, Derozio continued to edit and write for various journals, surrounded by his devoted students. Just before his death, Derozio made a strong appeal to his fellow Eurasians to integrate themselves with native Indians rather than identifying with European colonists: 'They will find after all, that it is in their best interest to unite and be co-operative with the other native inhabitants of India. Any other course will subject them to greater opposition than they have at present. Can they afford to make any more enemies?' Prophetic words indeed!

How is Derozio to be judged as a poet? Though historians of the Anglo-Indian community praise him highly, probably S. Kripalani's words sum him up the best: 'Derozio might be said to be on a cusp between the Romantics and the Victorians. He was born the same year as Tennyson and Darwin, and died only a few years after Byron. His poems have a light lyrical touch--in its sensuosness, its detailed natural observation, its patriotic fervour. He is everywhere a creative reader in his poems, in which Homer, Tasso, Hafiz, Byron, and Moore are all grist to his mill. Western and Indian mythology mingle easily in his poems but the setting is always determinedly Indian and painted in vivid colours. Derozio's strength lies in his shorter poems...It is not easy to say what kind of poetry Derozio would have written had he not died so young. The extant verses are often derivative (thus his The Harp of India' mourns the fact of a subjugated India in strains very similar to Moore's 'The Harp of Erin')...but we glimpse through his poems a lively and sensitive mind.'

The Harp of India

Why hang'st thou lonely on yon withered bough?
Unstrung for ever, must thou there remain;
Thy music once was sweet--who hears it now?
Why doth the breeze sigh over thee in vain?
Silence hath bound thee with her fatal chain;
Neglected, mute, and desolate art thou,
Like ruined monument on desert plain;
O! many a hand more worthy than mine
Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave,
And many a wreath for them did Fame entwine
Of flowers still blooming on the minstrel's grave;
Those hands are cold--but if thy notes divine
May be by mortal weakened once again,
Harp of my country, let me strike the strain!

That 'sensitive mind' is evidenced in the moving sonnet reproduced below:

To the Pupils of the Hindu College

Expanding like the petals of young flowers
I watch the gentle opening of your minds
And the sweet loosening of the spell that binds
Your intellectual energies and powers
That stretch (like young birds in soft summer hours)
Their wings to try their strength. O! how the winds
Of circumstance, and freshening April showers
Of early knowledge, and unnumbered kinds
Of new perceptions shed their influence;
And how you worship truth's omnipotence!
What joyance rains upon me, when I see
Fame in the mirror of futurity,
Weaving the chaplets you have yet to gain,
And then I feel I have not lived in vain.

Derozio could also write merry playful verse, which was modelled on his favourite Byron:

Don Juanics (xlviii)

E'en hearing scandal is a cruel way
Of killing time--some ladies think not so--
With them 'tis 'chit-chat, rumour, trifling play'--
O'er cups of tea they'll tell a tale of woe,
Defaming others, and then smiling say,
'O dear! Indeed 'tis what all people know,'--
So tea by folks aspersed is called, in wrath,
By a most fitting title--'Scandal broth!'

Mary Pereira was born in Dhaka and lives in Toronto. She works in public radio.

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio