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Sudeshna Kar Barua


Sudeshna Kar Barua : Toru Dutt’s ‘Our Casuarina Tree’







That trees have a special attraction for poets, notwithstanding differences in caste, creed, colour, culture, time is known to most lovers/readers of poetry. Birches, Beeches, Cedars, Fig Trees, the Neem, the Oak, the Palm Tree, the Pine, the Sour Lemon Tree, the Yew, whether in gardens or in grave yards, whether on road-sides or by windows, they continue to inspire poets of both the East and the West who, in response, write lines either on their hugeness or on the thickness of the foliage, or on the meaning they add to their lives or on the advice they seem to silently offer and so on. For sheer passion for trees, a writer like Scott Alyn has even changed his name to Ilan Shamir meaning, ‘the protector of trees’, and written books entitled Advice from a Tree, Poet Tree and Tree Celebrations. (Web 1) Hence, it is reasonable to assume that a poet as sensitive as Toru Dutt, (whose full name Torulata means a ‘creeper’ and the shortened Toru a ‘tree’) who lived in a bagan-bari, a country house with a beautiful garden, must have, at some point, turned her attention to the one that stirred her imagination the most. And she did. The “beautiful last poem” in the Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan , published in 1882, five years after her death, in which the “loving and observant spirit” of this gifted Indo-Anglian poet “finds, perhaps, its highest expression”, bears a simple but attractive title Our Casuarina Tree. (Web 2) The title of the poem is self-explanatory but the poet’s thoughts, the intensity of her feelings and the depth of her emotions are revealed gently and clearly through five eleven-line stanzas with the abba, cddc, eee rhyme scheme.1 Readers of her sonnet Baugmaree are more at ease, even though there is in it a rapid cataloguing of different kinds of trees. But, familiar with most of them, they can easily visualize the rich garden where:   

… light-green graceful tamarinds abound
Amid the mango clumps of green profound,
And palms arise, like pillars gray, between;
And o'er the quiet pools the seemuls lean,
Red-red… (Baugmaree)


But what does a Casuarina Tree, not as common as tamarinds, mangoes and palms, look like? And, will Toru Dutt’s poem, with this tree as its subject, provide an answer and satisfy our curiosity? Unfortunately for readers, whether a poet will offer a detailed description of the object that he/she has chosen to write lines on or will remain deliberately silent, depends solely on his/her will. John Keats’ Nightingale, for example, is no more than a disembodied voice in a poem consisting of as many as eight ten-line stanzas while, in a much shorter poem, Ted Hughes draws our attention to both the “hooked head and hooked feet” of a roosting Hawk. However, fortunately for her readers, Toru Dutt has, though only in the opening stanza, described her beloved Casuarina tree almost photographically, savouring, as it were, the beauty of every branch, every blossom and every leaf. The Dutts’ Casuarina tree is an entity that stands tall with its “rugged trunk, indented deep with scars”, perhaps somewhat like Thomas Gray’s “rugged elm” or Tennyson’s poplar, “All silver-green with gnarled bark”, interesting and differently-attractive. Dutt, as versed in English as in French, was an avid reader of poetry who not only appreciated what she read but, evidently, also remembered lines, images etc. that touched her the most and obviously stored them in her memory. 

Her sturdy Casuarina tree, she informs in the first stanza, is in the clutches of a climber that has worked its way to the top, drawing nourishment from its body. The description of the creeper that has wrapped itself around the trunk may not be to a reader’s liking because Dutt has compared it to a “huge python” winding up “to its very summit near the stars”. The creeper may seem serpentine like the “intertwisted fibres” of Wordsworth’s Yew Trees, it may resemble a reptile that can crush its victims to death but the Dutt’s Casuarina tree is too strong to be so subjugated and destroyed. Instead, it displays its might by standing firm and erect and effortlessly wearing the luxurious creeper laden with crimson blossoms as a mere “scarf”, beautifully and brightly patterned. At this juncture, Toru Dutt perhaps remembered The Cedars of Lebanon, her own translation of one of Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine’s French poems, one of the one hundred and sixty five published in her highly-acclaimed book A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields. The “firm-rooted” cedars withstand the storms that “round” them “blow”, just as the gallant Casuarina defies the parasitic creeper that clings to it. One may also sense a similarity between the tree in the clutches of a creeper attempting to sap its strength and the three young Dutts in the grip of a killer disease. The tree remains invincible and, even though the siblings ultimately succumb to tuberculosis, Toru’s spirit remains unbroken till the end.

Toru tells her readers that her Casuarina Tree, a haven for the winged, birds and insects, is almost visibly alive, alive with the buzz of bees and with the chirping of birds. She informs:

…oft at nights the garden overflows
 With one sweet song that seems to have no close,
  Sung darkling from our tree….

This song sung from the tree soothes its listeners and has a tranquilizing effect on men who relax and rest as the bird sings. That Toru Dutt was very well acquainted with the British Romantic poets is evident if one were to read the lines “…oft at nights the garden overflows / With one sweet song …” (emphasis mine) alongside one from To a Skylark. A “high-born maiden”, Shelley writes, comforts herself with “music sweet as love, which overflows her bower”. (emphasis mine) Furthermore, the bird in her garden sings “darkling” like Keats’ nightingale. However, a reader may be tempted to question if at all a bird sings a song that “seems to have no close” in the dark, or can one say with Emily Dickinson:

The ‘tune is in the tree’,
The sceptic showeth me;
‘No, sir! In thee! (To Hear an Oriole Sing)


Interestingly, it is only in the first line of the second stanza of her poem that Dutt brings in the “I” which instantly connects it with the “Our” of the title of her poem. As the tone as well as the approach is more subjective in this stanza, the Casuarina tree too seems much more than a mere tree in the poet’s garden. Every morning, when the “casement is wide open thrown”, two “delighted eyes” rest on it. And at times, “most in winter”, they gaze at a solitary “gray baboon”, on the “crest”, watching the glorious sunrise while on the lower branches, in direct contrast to this silent, “statue-like” creature is its playful “puny offspring” oblivious of Nature’s magic and the serenity of the quiet morning. Gradually, as the sun rises, the “kokilas” begin to greet the day with their song and a mesmerized Toru Dutt watches “sleepy” cows that have not yet shaken off their lethargy, on their way to the pastures. But while they plod on in search of food, our poet feasts her eyes on the beauty of their “hoar tree” and the water-tank filled with white lilies, in full bloom, a soft, white carpet of snow. As our poet describes the scene that is before her when she looks out of her window, a reader may be reminded not just of the title of Robert Frost’s poem Tree at My Window but also of the marked difference in their attitude. Notwithstanding his closeness to the tree, Frost says:

Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

While in the third stanza of Our Casuarina Tree, Dutt establishes that it is neither the stateliness of the tree nor its external beauty that endears it to her. She writes:

But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:

The beauty of the tree is no more than an added gift. Its actual importance lies in the fact that it is a part of the Dutts’ existence, a reminder of family ties, of the warmth shared by three siblings. The Abju-Aru-Toru bonding was indeed strong and in Sita Toru mentions, “Three happy children…” sitting in a dark room listening to a story and then sighs because she knows that they will never again “by their mother’s side/Gather”. The extent of her anguish, as, quite helplessly, she had to watch her brother and sister die, may actually be felt. Yet, this is what the very young Toru has written to her friend Mary informing her of Aru’s demise: “It is a sore trial for us, but His will be done. We know He doeth all things for our good…” (qtd. in Iyengar 2000:57) It is this silent acceptance of God’s Will that has kept her verse free from the gloom generally associated with sorrow and death. Her brother died when he was just a boy of fourteen, Aru was the next to go in 1874 and there was a time when Toru too was coughing up blood and knew that the end was near. Hence, she could have legitimately wallowed in self pity and wailed that the world was an unhappy place where people just sit and hear each other groan. Instead, even when memory is heart-wrenching and “hot tears” well up to blind her, Toru does not express any desire to fade “far away” and “dissolve”. Their Casuarina tree does not make her long for “easeful” death. Instead, even though its “timelessness” mocks the transience of the human world, the tree is to her a support, a reminder of the joy she once experienced with Abju and Aru. So, with the passion of a loving sister she remembers her “sweet companions” and cries, “For your sakes shall the tree be ever dear!” Her brother and sister, though dead, are never too far away from her and she does not wish to erase them from her memory. One feels that Toru may have been influenced by Thomas Hood’s sobriety. He too had lost a brother to consumption but in I Remember, I Remember he has contrasted, but with restraint, man’s mortality and the seeming deathlessness of the Laburnum tree planted by James on his birthday. Toru Dutt may have been much impressed by Hood’s simple, meaningful line, “The tree is living yet!”

Toru Dutt will not abandon the Casuarina tree even though it is a constant reminder of her irreparable personal loss. Her eyes fill as she recalls the happy past and remembers the three care-free children playing in the garden, under its branches. And the tree loyally responds to her plaintive mood. With the poet, we strain our ears to hear the rustling of the leaves, the “dirge-like murmur”, somewhat like the “murmuring” that Wordsworth once heard “from Glaramara’s inmost caves”. Her tree, their tree, mourns her loss and the “eerie speech”, she hopes, may reach the un-traversed terrain of the dead. Unfortunately, the comparison that Toru draws between this moaning and the breaking of the waves on a shingle beach may underline too boldly her reliance on poets of the West, on Matthew Arnold and his Dover Beach in particular and may call into question, for a moment though, the authenticity of her verse.

For a better understanding of the fourth stanza of this poem a reader needs to be acquainted with certain biographical details of Toru Dutt who, in the words of her father Govin Chandra Dutt, was:

Puny and elf-like, with dishevelled tresses,
Self-willed and shy ne’er heeding that I call,
Intent to pay her tenderest addresses
To bird or cat,-but most intelligent....

Born into a family of poetsi Toru spent some years of her short life in England and France. Young, imaginative and intelligent, she took to poetry instinctively and is considered one of the first Indians to have translated French poems into English. Toru Dutt , who lived in England for some years and enjoyed her life there, who spoke French, wrote in French and once erroneously even referred to Indians as “natives”, gradually realized that her ties with the land of her birth was strong.. So, her A mon Pere opens with, “The flowers look loveliest in their native soil” and, she, a Christian, baptized at the age of six, began to learn Sanskrit and read Hindu epics, myths and legends. Her ambition was to publish another ‘Sheaf’ but one gleaned not in French but in Sanskrit Fields. The significance of the word “unknown” that connects the third stanza with the fourth may thus be fully realized if her personal sorrow as well as her once-diasporic existence is kept in mind. In the closing line of the third stanza, she speaks of the “unknown” and unexplored territory that Abju and Aru had entered, never to return.

But, as the opening line of the next stanza claims, the unknown is “yet well-known” as it can be reconstructed/imagined or even viewed through “the eye of faith”. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar is of the opinion that the fourth stanza of Toru Dutt’s poem “humanizes the tree, for its lament is a human recordation of pain and regret…” (Iyengar 2000: 73) and the “tree’s lament”, which may reach the land of the dead, transcends territorial boundaries and is heard by her in “distant lands” and even on the “classic shores” of France and Italy. Toru’s description of both the silent Earth, “tranced in a dreamless swoon”, bathed in the silver light of the moon and the “sheltered bay” with its gently undulating waves is enthralling. For the sheer beauty of her verse, readers may wish to overlook the fact that she has borrowed the “water-wraith” from William Wordsworth's Yarrow Visited. September, 1814" which actually looked back to John Logan’s The Braes of Yarrow. But the “water-wraith” of these British poets which give a “doleful” warning and groan, has been substituted in Our Casuarina Tree by one that slumbers in its cave. But, even while in a land so beautiful, whenever “the music rose”, her mind’s eye would see “a form sublime”. Even on foreign soil, her Casuarina Tree would appear before her “inner vision” just as she had seen it in her “own loved native clime”, and also connect her even more strongly both with her native land and with the memory of her dead siblings. Interestingly, the eighth-century Arabian poet Abd-ar-Rahman I too had expressed such oneness with a tree and the last four lines of the poet’s The Palm Tree read:

You also
Grew up on a foreign soil;
Like me,
You are far from the country of your birth.

Had Toru Dutt come across this poem during one of her many poetry-reading sessions with her father? One is also tempted to believe that the present generation American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, daughter of a Palestinian writer Aziz Shihab and an American mother, might have read Toru Dutt before writing My Father and the Fig Tree which records her father’s yearning for figs that remind him of his ‘native clime’. And, this is how, writes Naomi, he feels after discovering a fruit-laden fig tree in Dallas, Texas:

"It's a fig tree song!" he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
emblems, assurance
of a world that was always his own. (emphasis mine)

The Fig Tree , it is evident, is as much an intrinsic part of Aziz Shihab’s life as the Casuarina tree was of Toru Dutt’s, a reminder of happy days lost forever. So close is their association that these trees need not say, “Remember your roots”, just as one does in Ilan Shamir’s Advice from a Tree.

So, in the final stanza, Toru Dutt, aware both of Druidism and the customary tree-worship in India, wishes to “consecrate a lay” in the Casuarina Tree’s honour. Yet, interestingly, notwithstanding the depth of her feelings, Toru Dutt makes little or no attempt to deify their Tree or bestow on it holy powers as Wordsworth does in The Oak of Guernica. Instead, the Casuarina tree, standing in their garden, is a part of her existence and this poem is her simple but sincere homage to a Tree loved also by Abju and Aru who now “repose” in what she euphemistically calls a “blessed sleep”. She knows that soon she too will have to bid farewell to this world and her only wish is that the tree should live forever and be “numbered” amongst the “deathless”. Toru Dutt places the Casuarina tree beside Wordsworth’s Yew tree, “pride of Lorton Vale”, standing in Borrowdale in the Lake District, under whose branches “lingered pale”:

Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow (Yew Trees)

Wordsworth, it is evident, has never been too far away from Toru Dutt’s mind and heart. Moreover, as the Yew Tree is known for its amazing longevity, she quite naturally looks upon it as “deathless”, as immortal as she wants the Casuarina tree to be. Interestingly, in ancient times, Yew Trees, which grew even near cemeteries, were looked upon as death-defying as some were said to be about two thousand years old or more. However, in poems such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard the Yew has been associated with death while Toru Dutt’s Casuarina is a reminder of happy memories in spite of the poet’s personal loss.

Surprisingly, in the closing lines of the poem a reader finds a subtle change in the poet’s tone. Against the strength of the Casuarina tree she places her “weak verse” and hopes that Love will “defend” and shield the tree from “Oblivion’s curse”. Toru Dutt, unfortunately, died before the volume containing this poem was published and thus was not to know that for the sheer quality of her verse and its rich emotional content, one ‘unknown’ Casuarina tree would gain both fame and immortality.

It is common knowledge that no discussion on Toru Dutt is considered complete without a mention of Our Casuarina Tree, one of the best of her shorter poems which leaves her readers in no doubt about her love for trees. Though not a ‘Nature Poet’ like Wordsworth, she is happy describing a Casuarina tree or writing about a “rose-red” Lotus or the “negessur with pendant flowers” or including tall trees and creepers with gigantic flowers in a poem like Sita or comparing the collapsing pillar from which Narasimha emerged in Prehlad as a tree “severed by axes from the root” or writing The Tree of Life. So when her love for trees in general combines with her attraction for a particular one which makes her nostalgic, the result is Our Casuarina Tree. The poem bears further evidence to her power of expression and the beauty of her descriptions. The Casuarina tree in the Dutt garden comes alive after one reads the first stanza of this poem just as her Yama with skin “dark as bronze, his face /Irradiate, and yet severe” does. Her poems are often mosaics of colours but perhaps because of the mood expressed and the constant awareness of death and the dead, Our Casuarina Tree allows just one splash of red, the “crimson clusters”, and then there is no more than grey and white. Time and again Toru Dutt has been compared to Keats for the beauty of her verse and has been praised for the neat structure of this poem, her skilful use of some of the most common figures of speech like simile, metaphor, personification and also for the rhythm and of course the content. Still, a reading of her poems will show that at times Toru Dutt repeats her own words and expressions. In Our Casuarina Tree, for instance, the Earth lies dazed in a “dreamless swoon” (emphasis mine) and in Baugmaree she writes:

One might swoon
Drunken with beauty then, or gaze and gaze
On a primeval Eden, in amaze. (emphasis mine)

In France: 1870 Toru exclaims: 

Not dead, oh no,-she cannot die!
Only a swoon from loss of blood! (emphasis mine) 

Indo-Anglian poets, especially of the early nineteenth century, were considered compulsive borrowers unable to stop themselves from turning to the West. A K Mehrotra’s strong comment is that early writings in English were often “audacious acts of mimicry”.( Mehrotra 2003 : 6) Toru Dutt is no mimic. At the same time, notwithstanding V K. Gokak’s opinion that “…utter authenticity and consummate self revelation reach their high water-mark of excellence in Toru Dutt’s The Casuarina Tree” (emphasis mine) (Gokak 2006: 24) as well as M K Naik’s comment that with Toru Dutt Indian English poetry “really graduated from imitation to authenticity” (Naik 1997:37), a reader may easily detect in her verses touches of British Romantic poets and French Symbolists.

But, if in Toru Dutt readers see a Wordsworth or a Keats, in later Indo-Anglian poets like Manjeri S. Isvaran or Gieve Patel they may feel the presence of our young poet. In his Coconut–Palms: Juhu Beach Raghavendra Rao Shreshta, for instance, describes “tall and slender” trees with “heads in the sky” much like the Casuarina tree with its “summit” close to the stars. Resembling the “rugged” and scarred Casuarina tree is Isvaran’s “old gnarled” Neem in The Neem is a Lady and also the one with a “leperous hide” in Gieve Patel’s On Killing a Tree, strong enough to withstand the blows of a wood-cutter’s axe. It is indeed difficult to overlook Toru Dutt, at least while writing verses on trees. Toru Dutt has amazed her critics with her talent. Edmund W Gosse was one of the first to discover in her a new Poet superior to many writers even of his country, when one day, quite indifferently, he had turned the pages of an unattractive book entitled A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields which had arrived in his office in London. To James Darmesteter this talented young Bengali girl is a gifted poet, multi-dimensional, writing in different foreign languages with equal ease. Usha Bande hails her as the first Indian poetess in English (Web 3) and V K Gokak praises her for the “Indianness” of her themes. To E J Thomas Our Casuarina Tree is perhaps the most remarkable and striking English poem ever written by a foreigner and Toru Dutt is one of those few women writers who have written poems of substance and standard in English. Yet, observes Alpana Sharma, the West is indifferent towards Toru Dutt as well as her poems. (Knippling 2000: 216) In India, Toru Dutt, a poet of the nineteenth century, continues to be read and discussed and anthologised. It is known that she was born during the Bengal Renaissance and interesting facts of her life in India and abroad have been well documented. But what remains completely unknown and will continue to remain so, is the height to which the writer of Our Casuarina Tree would have risen had death not snatched her away when she was no more than twenty-one years old.

Bibliography

Gokak, Vinayak Krishna. ed. 1970; rpt. 2006, The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry , New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi. 
Iyengar, Srinivasa K R. 1985; rpt. 2000, Indian Writing in English, New Delhi, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Knippling, Sharma Alpana. 2000, 'Sharp contrasts of all colours': The Legacy of Toru Dutt’ in Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers (eds. Amireh, Amal & Majaj,Suhair Lisa) New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc. pp 209-228.
Mehrotra, A K. 2003, An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Orient Blackswan
Naik, M K. 1982; rpt. 1997, A History of Indian English Literature, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi.

WEB

1. http://www.treegreetings.com/PressPacket/Ilan_Shamir_bio.pdf
Date of Access 03.11.11.
2. http://www.female-ancestors.com/daughters/dutt.htm Date of Access 03.11.11. 
3. Bande, Usha Toru Dutt –The First Indian Poetess in English http://pib.nic.in/feature/feyr2001/fjun2001/f270620011.html Date of Access 03.11.11

1 In some editions, the 4th and the 5th stanzas of Our Casuarina Tree are printed together, making it a poem consisting of just four stanzas.

2 The poems of her uncles, Hur Chunder, Omesh Chunder and Greece Chunder are included in the Dutt Family Album.

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