Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s ‘Defying Winter’ speaks about the inevitability of growing old

My memory is not always a good sieve. I tend to retain things which do not necessarily deserve a place in my mind space. However, as I discovered recently, courtesy Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s novella Defying Winter (Oxford), memory is not such a bad thing after all. It surely has its place even if occasionally it enfeebles you. As I started going through the author’s note of Nabaneeta, my mind went back to the time when I joined The Hindu. I was a young man then, it was easy to smile, easier to be amused. I had come from a publication where the youngsters brought out the edition every night and here suddenly I found myself being the youngest on the floor where we used to sit. Surrounded as I was with grey-heads, many needing help for administering eye drops every evening, I used to be quietly amused. Call it an indiscretion or my inability to think that one day, in none too distant future, I too will walk the same road. But honestly, then, I was a shade surprised to see a colleague using a simple lens to read a book, another doing the same to see the print-outs of the pages of the next day’s edition.

The period of amusement and surprises ended too soon. The other day, I struggled to read the price of a toothpaste from its crimp and a young man standing next to me , helped me out . The relief for me was fleeting; the disappointment lasting. I realised I could no longer take my vision for granted. I was no longer young. And in some ways I felt like many of my senior colleagues of yesteryears. Then came Nabaneeta’s book translated ably by Tutun Mukherjee.

Nabaneeta struck a chord with me with her simple little words, devoid of any ostentation, any trickery. Going through her novella Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok, she concedes, “Aparajita, my character of twenty-five years ago, seemed so much like me today. Like her, I have trouble with my eyesight and cannot read beyond the headlines without the help of a magnifying glass. Like her, I have continued to write….I look at the back of my hand, and fail to recognize it as my own; whose hand could this be, I wonder, with bluish veins sticking out? That was exactly what my central character Aparajita felt, when she was seventy, in 1988. When I wrote this book, I was still a young woman. I had enough distance to see the problems of ageing with a kind of neutral empathy. And like her, I can feel the existence of a blind spot in my rear vision today.”

That is the case of an author merging with her character, but as a reader I found many passages where Nabaneeta has been able to strike a bond. Of course, she refers to men and women in the autumn of their lives staving off winter, but all along the expression of emotion, the little rays of hope that filter through, the feeling of despondence that sneaks in unannounced, makes me feel it could have been about me, you or anybody. The feelings are both specific and universal at the same time.

Greater is the sigh when she writes, “I thought aging to be an unbearable condition. After a lifetime of ability and activity, to be imprisoned all of a sudden into a state of inability and inactivity is simply unbearable. Youth snaps its fingers at the incapacities of childhood. Then comes middle age….And beyond the autumn world of the middle age lies the realm of winter.”

Nabaneeta’s book is part of a six volume series of novellas brought out by Oxford and edited by Mini Krishnan. With Kesava Reddy, C.S. Chellappa, Saniya, Na. D’Souza and Johny Miranda’s works being translated, the series promises to bring back the whiff of soil, that warmth and exuberance of the first rainfall after a terrible summer. In many ways, Mini’s is a rare attempt to string together a series of translated novellas. The series is still young for this middle aged man. Lost on my own memory trip, I have only just finished Nabaneeta’s book. And come back with some wisdom: He who has taken a breath shall taste death too.