Vol. 5 Num 315 Sat. April 16, 2005  

Introducing South Asian Poetry In English: The Dutts Of Rambagan

Readers of this page might remember that I embarked on a series of short introductory pieces on South Asian poets in English. Very soon, however, various other commitments forced me to transfer the project to the back burner, from where I wish to retrieve it now and, hopefully, pursue it (forgive the mixed metaphor) without further hindrance.

I left off after briefly discussing Michael Madhusudan Dutt, whose greatness of course far exceeded his rather modest achievements as an anglophone poet, and I resume with a glance at a remarkable extended family of literary enthusiasts that bore the same surname. There were no blood ties but between Govin Dutt, who was the linchpin in the literary life of the Rambagan Dutts, and Michael Dutt there was a strange connection--strange because it was more of a disjuncture.

Michael and Govin were contemporaries at the Hindu College, and had a close mutual friend in Rajnarayan Basu. In his Bengali autobiography Basu recalls that he and Govin "used to read volumes of poetry written by the most obscure English poets, both ancient and modern." Michael and Basu shared an interest in both alcohol and literature. But it is certain that Michael and Govin didn't become friends; there isn't a single mention of the latter in Michael's letters. Michael's most definitive biographer, Ghulam Murshid, surmises that a sense of rivalry and concomitant jealousy kept them apart. And when an essay in the Calcutta Review of December 1849 ("The Poetry of the Dutts") rated Govin Dutt's poetry above The Captive Ladie, we can be sure that Michael wasn't amused.

I am sure the rivalry and jealousy of the two Dutts had a deeper significance. They differed in their personalities, their poetic orientation, their broad philosophy of life. Michael's heroes were Milton's Satan, Byron, Ravana; he was a romantic rebel. Govin Dutt admired Wordsworth and was more of a Victorian than a romantic. Thus the incompatibility of the two contemporaries is indicative of a transition in literary history.

The Dutts of Ramnagan were descended from Nilmoni Dutt, who had moved to Calcutta from his ancestral Burdwan in the eighteenth century and quickly established himself as a leading citizen. Of his children, the eldest, Rosomoy Dutt, and the youngest, Pitambur, feature in our story as the progenitors of the literary Dutts. Rosomoy was a judge of the Small Cause Court in Calcutta and secretary of the management committees of both the Hindu College and the Sanskrit College. His second son, Kylash, was probably the first Indian to publish fiction in English, and his third, fourth and fifth sons, Govin Chunder (1828-1884), Hur Chunder (1831-1901) and Greece Chunder (1833-1892), respectively, were anglophone poets, as was Pitambur's two sons Ishen Chunder and Shoshee Chunder (1825-1886). In the next generation, Kylash's son Omesh Chunder (1836-1912), Govin's daughters Aru and Toru, and Ishen's son Romesh Chunder (1848-1909) were poets and writers.

As interesting as the Dutts' wholesale poeticising was the dramatic conversion to Christianity of one branch of the family. The eldest son of Rosomoy Dutt, Kishen Chunder, fell mortally ill immediately after their father's death in 1862, saw a vision of the next world on his deathbed and asked to be baptised. The cleric sent for evaded the request--lest, one assumes, Hindus accused him of stealing a dying man's soul. The youngest brother Greece, who himself was unbaptised, then administered the baptismal rites. The dying Kishen adjured his brothers to embrace Christianity, which they presently did, en famille. The wives seem to have lagged behind in the zeal for conversion; witness Govin Chunder's poem "The Hindu Convert to His Wife" in which the woman in entreated not to "join the scoffing crowd,/The Cold, the heartless, and the proud,/Who curse the hallowed morn/When, daring idols to disown,/I knelt before the Saviour's throne."

However, true to the Hindu wife's irrevocable vow of conjugal fealty, the women followed their husbands to church and in time acquired a name for Christian piety. Govin's wife, who survived the rest of her family, translated a religious tract from English to Bengali and left money for building a church.

Pitambur's side of the Dutt family remained Hindu. Though relationships between the Christian and the Hindu branches of the family remained cordial as ever, the conversion did result in a slight difference in outlook, which noticeably affected their literary productions. The poetic showcase of the Christian Dutts is the Dutt Family Album (London: Longmans, 1870). An anthology of 184 poems, about three-quarters of them were by Govin and Omesh, the rest by Hur Chunder and Greece Chunder. A number of them are expressions of Christian piety; others include romanticised poems on Western subjects, Orientalist poems on Indian themes, and a few translations from French and German. One could regard them as a conspicuous expression of the desire among a section of the Indian upper classes for complete assimilation into the culture of the coloniser. There is unabashed toadying in "To Lord Canning, During the Mutiny" and the celebration of British power in "Gibralter". It was in the very nature of colonialism, of course, to make assimilation impossible, and an awareness of this is poignantly reflected in a few lines in the poem "Wordsworth":

There are some faces I have never seen
Which haunt my spirit like a music-strain;
There are some places where I've never been
Which stand minutely pictured on my brain.

The unconverted Dutts aren't distinguishable in their poetics from their Christian cousins, but otherwise seem to be more responsive to the emergent nationalism of the time. Romesh Chunder, the first Indian ICS officer, and a poet, novelist and historian, also became an active nationalist and once chaired the annual session of the Indian National Congress. His uncle, Shoshee Chunder, too, was like him a writer of both verse and prose and a critic of colonial excesses. There is a stronger Indian focus in the works of both; Romesh Chunder's most ambitious poetic work, available till recently in Everyman's Library, is a retelling of the Indian epics in the metre of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall". The political difference between the Christian and the Hindu Dutts is well illustrated by two sonnets with the same title, "India". Both evince the self-conscious Indianness fostered by the Bengal Renaissance, but with different accents. The poem by the Christian Hur Chunder, after declaring "boundless love" to the "Land of my birth" mourns her lost glory and looks towards the future: "But Time shall yet be mocked:--though these decay,/I see broad streaks of a still brighter day." There can be no doubt that the Hur Chunder's "brighter day" is materialising under the aegis of British colonial rule. Shoshee Chunder's "India", on the other hand, is an exhortation to seek independence:

I dreamt a dream of strange and wild delight,
Freedom's pure shrine once more illumed did seem,


Science again aspired to the sky,
And patriot valour watch'd the smiling strand:
A dream! A dream! Why should a dream it be?
Land of my fathers! Canst thou never be free?

Despite such differences the critical judgment on the Christian Dutts of the Album and their Hindu, nationalist relatives is the same. They are generally disparaged as imitative writers, merely of historical interest. But the youngest writer produced by the family, Toru Dutt (1856-1877), is a talent of a different order--the appellation "genius" in its fullest sense may not be inappropriate for her. She deserves an essay all to herself.

Kaiser Huq teaches English at Dhaka University.

The Young Zeminder by Shoshee Chunder Dutt under the nom de plume Horatio Bickerstaffe Rowney