He was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction for the year 2000 for his
novel Freedom Song. Three Novels, the collection of his first three novels
was published by Knopf in the US last year. An extract from his first novella A
Strange and Sublime Address was included in the Anthology of Indian Writing edited by
Born in 1962 in Calcutta, he got his education in Mumbai. He is a Creative Arts Fellow at
Wolfson College, Oxford and has received the Harper Studentship for English Literature and
Poetry from St.Joseph's College, Cambridge.
His other notable achievements are first prize in the 1991 Betty Trask Awards, the 1992
Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best first Book (Eurasia) and a runner up award for the
1991 Guardian Fiction Prize for his first novel A Strange and Sublime Address. His
second novel, Afternoon Raag (1993) won The Southern Arts Literature Prize,
the Encore award and a second place in the 1993 Guardian Fiction Prize.
His fourth novel, A New World (1998) by Picador India seemed to have
made little impact on the literary world. A reviewer at India Today calls it a
"somnambulist fiction by an author capable of doing better than going into a
for his novel Freedom Song
'Capricious and tender......exquisite and supremely haunting, a work of contemporary
fiction by a world-class novelist that deserves a major prize.'
The earliest Indian writers in English were poets and they wrote in a time when there was
no category such as 'Indian writing in English'. The first important Indian writer in
English, too, is a poet, Toru Dutt (1856-77); a handful of English poems testify to her
position at the source of this tradition that is not quite a tradition. At a time when
Indian writing in English is seen to be largely synonymous with fiction, and fiction with
the novel, it is worth remembering this figure. The journeys Dutt made in her short life
presage other similar journeys that later Indian writers would make; the way she and her
creative work stand at the confluence of languages and traditions is prescient of how the
Indian writer in English, not to speak of the Indian writer in general, is almost always
to be found at that confluence. She was born in Bengal, educated in France and Cambridge,
and returned to Bengal to write at least three great poems, Our Casuarina Tree, Baugmaree
Dutt, besides being a poet, was also a translator of poetry. Her intimacy with the French
language and with French Symbolist poetry palpably informs her poetry and the French poets
she translated into English with her sister Aru are to be found in the book, A Sheaf
Glean'd in French Fields. Translation and creative practice and the mysterious, fecund
connection between these two in the post-colonial world - in this, and in other ways, Dutt
points towards the most influential poet of a later generation, A.K. Ramanujan.
Ramanujan, a master of the line and the image in his English poetry, was also a translator
of Kannada and ancient Tamil verse. Toru Dutt's sonnet Baugmaree is perhaps the first
artistically satisfying example of those texts in Indian writing in English that occupy
the space between translation and transformation. Baugmaree, or Bagmari, is on the
outskirts of Kolkata; it is where Dutt's family had a country house. In a climate in which
most of Dutt's contemporaries and predecessors were writing of historical figures or
events, or turning to English literary conventions for their models, Dutt takes a form -
the sonnet - that came to her from the English language and opens it on to a vista such as
the English language had not known before:
A sea of foliage girds our garden round,
But not a sea of dull unvaried green,
Sharp contrasts of all colours here are seen;
The light-green graceful tamarinds abound
Amid the mangoe clumps of green profound
And o'er the quiet pools the seemuls lean,
Red, - red, and startling like a trumpet's sound.
The list of colours - the variations of green - does not prepare us for the sudden
intrusion of the auditory in the eighth line: Red, - red, and startling like a trumpet's
sound. In its transition from one of the five senses to another, from the visual to the
auditory, the analogy rehearses the poem's own act of translation, its movement from
English to Baugmaree and back again. It also returns us to the 'startling sound' in the
previous line, the word 'seemul', the local name for the silk cotton tree - the
incorporation of the lovely local word in the frame of the English sonnet - 'startles'
with its resonance. It is meant to disturb, disturb both the 'quiet pools' and the diction
of the sonnet. It opens the way to further such usages in Indian writing in English.
The sort of simile that Dutt uses, in which a colour is compared to sound, is unusual in
English poetry. It shows Dutt's readings in the poetry of the French Symbolists. T.S.
Eliot, an American in exile in London, used the French poet Jules Laforgue to bridge the
different realities and registers of English he inhabited. Chinmoy Guha, in a recent,
illuminating study, quotes from a late Eliot essay: 'The kind of poetry I needed to teach
me the use of my own voice did not exist in English at all; it was only to be found in
French.' The same could be said of Dutt and of other Indian writers in English - that, in
the business of 'finding their voice,' of both using English and exploring new territory,
they turn to, and have at their disposal, a variety of languages and literary traditions.
These transactions are still not, and perhaps can never be, fully understood. Dutt, poised
between English and French in her vision of a Bengal landscape, foreshadows what Arvind
Krishna Mehrotra, who began to write poetry about a hundred years after Dutt, once wrote
to me in an e-mail message: 'Is it possible Surrealism helped me to resolve the awful
contradiction between the world which I wanted to write about, which was the world of
dentists and chemist shops, and the language, English, I had to write in? How does one
write about an uncle in a wheelchair in the language of skylarks and nightingales?
Surrealism provided the answer, or so it appears in hindsight. It's almost as though
I had said to myself that since I can't write about these things in English, let me try
doing it in French, so to speak.' Thus, too, for the earlier poet, the incursion of
'seemul' into the 'language of skylarks and nightingales' is, for her, and all of us, an
important one; and the odd simile, composed of unlikes, red, and startling like a
trumpet's sound, reminds us of the simultaneous coming together and breaking apart of
languages that makes that incursion possible. With Baugmaree begins a journey, which many
others since have undertaken.