In Conversation Books

‘Ma carried her poetry notebook everywhere’: Nandana Dev Sen

Nandana Dev Sen (left) with Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Anusua MukherjeeJanuary 29, 2022 16:00 IST
Updated: January 28, 2022 12:40 IST

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poems exemplify her belief that poetry is central to women’s freedom

Academic and littérateur Nabaneeta Dev Sen was the life of Bengal’s literary circles till her death in 2019. The Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi winner wrote poetry, novels, short stories, plays, literary criticism, travelogues, translations, and children’s books. But she identified herself as a poet, as her daughter Nandana Dev Sen, also a writer and poet, says in the introduction to a recently released poetry collection, Acrobat, which contains poems Nabaneeta wrote in English, a few she translated from Bengali, and some she translated with Nandana. The majority are, however, Nandana’s independent translations of poems Nabaneeta composed over six decades.

Nandana says in the poignant introduction: “If my mother were introducing this book to you herself, as I had fervently hoped she would, I know she would have begun by telling you how deeply she believed in the vital necessity of poetry, and in every freedom it delivers: ‘I speak for poetry as being central to a woman’s freedom. Yes, I am partial, I cannot be and do not wish to be objective in this one respect...’” The poems are expressions of deeply felt emotions told in a language sharp, controlled and precise. Excerpts from an interview with Nandana Dev Sen:

You must have seen Nabaneeta writing. What was her creative process like? Did she have a favourite space — a room or a desk or a nook — where she always wrote?

Ma carried her kobitar khata (poetry notebook) everywhere, so she was always prepared for poetry to come to her — and it often did in the oddest of hours and places. At home, she loved to write on her bed (which had belonged to my poet grandmother Radharani Debi), with all her papers spread out around her. In fact, Ma wrote many books poring over her notes, sprawled out on that bed. Her other favourite spot was the beautiful antique desk of my grandfather Narendra Dev (also a beloved writer). Ma was often up all night writing, and she had to write each and every day. She often said that a day without writing was for her “a sad day,” a barren day.

We know Nabaneeta as this well-known public figure — the intellectual, the feminist, the academic. How was she as a private person, as a mother?

She was an exceptionally fun and attentive mother, but not like any other mother I knew. She didn’t oil my messy curls, or cook my favourite dishes, or do my homework with me. But she took Didi (Antara) and me with her everywhere she went (often to literary parties and poetry meets), stood up for me fiercely in school whenever I got into trouble for “bad comportment” (which was often), and had playful conversations with us in rhyme (which continued in blue aerogrammes after I left for Harvard).

Ma had an extraordinary capacity to love — not just her family, but her students, her peers, her readers, her mentees, the whole world around her. She was never afraid to show her affection (or indeed her disaffections); she would openly laugh, cry, argue, rally, scold and cuddle. Looking back I realise that because of her, I learnt not to be embarrassed by my feelings. I learnt, at a young age, the importance of being emotionally honest. That my voice mattered and even a little person had the agency to make a big difference. Which meant that even as a child, I had to take responsibility for everything I said or did.

In the Introduction, you mention Nabaneeta saying that there aren’t enough English translations of Indian regional literatures. In the last few years, translation has seen a resurgence. Did she notice the change? What did she say?

Yes, Ma was very glad to see that the urgency (and artistry) of translation was finally getting more attention in India, a trend that has in turn motivated talented translators to become much more proactive. Although she wrote beautifully in English, Ma insisted on writing in Bengali, and spent a lot of time translating other Indian writers (especially women poets) because she felt that Indian books in the mother tongue were at risk of becoming obsolete, and were insufficiently shared with international readers (or even with other Indians).

She pointed out that the literature of our nation was almost exclusively represented in the world by the new Indian writing in English, which she admired as much as she loved our rich regional literatures. It’s certainly a cause for celebration that excellent translations are becoming more available now and that translators have much more support and recognition now than they had even a few years ago. But there is still a huge gap between what we need and what we have.

You write that Nabaneeta “had a profound and primal need for poetry, not only as a way to cope, but as a way of forming herself.” What is your coping mechanism — is it poetry, novel, cinema, activism, family, or something else?

All of the above. Especially reading poetry, listening to Rabindrasangeet, and working and playing with children. The wise advice of my seven-year-old Meghla, who is incredibly sensitive, is another mighty coping mechanism. The other day she took one look at me and knew I was thinking of Ma. “Don’t be sad, Ma,” she said, “because Dimma (grandmother) is your imaginary friend now. She follows you everywhere!” In the past year we have watched many of the films Ma and I had loved seeing together, from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne to Jungle Book to Mamma Mia .

I must say that working on Acrobat in the aftermath of losing Ma was deeply painful in a way, as I could hear her voice with every poem — she was so close, yet so far away. But translating Ma’s poetry allowed me to continue “speaking” with her, to understand her struggles in ways I hadn’t earlier, to be honest. Looking back, I see that finding the language to voice her pain helped me enormously to cope with my own grief.

Nabaneeta has seminal studies on the position of women in Indian literature. Much of your activism is centred on the girl child. Is it your way of carrying forward Nabaneeta’s legacy?

I’m sure it is, even if I may not have consciously connected my activism to Ma’s pathbreaking work, but both my mother and my grandmother were formidable feminists. Much of Ma’s academic and creative work had a strong focus on social justice and women’s equality, as did the poetry of Radharani Debi (a child widow who remarried, most scandalously, and reinvented herself as a bestselling poet).

Throughout her career, Ma wrote stunningly powerful poems (and fiction) that spoke out against gender-based violence and injustice, many of which are included in Acrobat. I don’t doubt that the way I was raised by them both had a great deal to do with my interest in girl-child protection, especially the fight to stop child marriage and to end violence against women and girls, which, as we know, are huge and frightening crises in our country.