Death no peace haven

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  • Published 24.08.07
The Maniktala Christian Cemetery

The full horror of the phrase “fate worse than death” stares you in the face when you visit Maniktala Christian Cemetery, where Toru Dutt, the first Indian woman to write prose and poetry in both English and French, was buried along with her father Govin Chunder, mother Khetramoni, elder sister Aru and younger brother Abju.

Before March, the four modest graves covered with slabs of marble used to lie inconspicuous, neglected and forlorn amid the romantic surroundings of the graveyard. Under nature’s sway the damp, squishy grounds are covered with lush green weeds which grow waist-high in some of the remote corners.

Champak trees are heavy with the cream-and-white blooms as bright as stars under the dark monsoon sky. An ideal setting for Toru Dutt who waxed eloquent about the moon peeping through the bamboo grove and the white lotus turning into a cup of silver under its gaze.

The grave of Toru Dutt and family

Crows flutter around like scraps of soot, their raucous cries unable to drown the voice of the man making a call on his cellphone from the top floor of a flat in a block overlooking the grounds.

The graveyard is surrounded by a low wall and beyond it is a slum. Children and dogs have easy access to it. They laze around.

The cluster of Rambagan Dutt family graves is situated in a sequestered corner hemmed in by tall grass and red and yellow canna in bloom.

Many of these have been trampled underfoot and if one looks carefully one can discover a beaten track amidst this riot of sap green.

The graves here have little to write home about. The headstones are simple with equally unspectacular inscriptions. Many are of plain cement with the humblest of crosses. Then you notice this black thing jutting out from the canna shrubs.

It turns out to be a huge plaque of black (perhaps granite) and inscribed on it in white are words to the effect that the graves of Toru Dutt and her family were rehabilitated through the good offices of a local organisation and were inaugurated in their new avatar by honourable sports minister Subhas Chakraborty.

All three graves have been turned into one large, solid piece of concrete with only the marble tablets visible. Now it resembles a large, dirty cake left to rot.

The Dutt graves are within a boundary wall of gleaming black and white, and the total effect is quite appalling. Indignity following death.

Toru Dutt. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Toru belonged to the Dutt family of Rambagan and the administrator and writer Romesh Dutt was her cousin. Nilmoni was paterfamilias of the family, whose three sons were Russomoy, Harish and Pitambar. Russomoy’s five sons were Kishen Chunder, Kailesh Chunder, Govin Chunder, Hur Chunder and Greece Chunder. Aru, Toru and Abju were Govin’s offspring.

Kailesh’s son Omesh embraced Christianity along with his three uncles Hur, Govin and Greece in 1854. They were conscience Christians, as opposed to the “rice and pice” variety. They had come in contact with William Carey, David Hare and Alexander Duff.

At a time when devout Hindu women never learnt English for fear of inviting widowhood, Toru wrote Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends in India.

In November 1869, both girls went to Europe, visiting France, where they first went to school, Italy and England, where they attended lectures in Cambridge.

A scion of the family, K.C. Dutt, who took it upon himself to get Toru’s Bianca republished last year, wrote this in the introduction about the poet’s demise: “Both Toru and her sister Aru were plump girls when they went to Europe in 1869 and stayed there for four years. They tried to be fashionably slim like some of their white counterparts with disastrous results on their delicate health. Aru caught the deadly germ first as noted by their cousin Romesh Chunder Dutta. Govin was advised by European doctors to take his daughters back to the warmer climate of their native land which was done. Toru, the ever-loving sister, nursed Aru devotedly and caught the disease from her in those pre-antibiotic days and died a lingering death on 30th August 1877. The disconsolate father took upon himself the responsibility to get the bulk of writings published posthumously.”

But even after death they could not rest in peace.