Nandana Dev Sen on ‘Acrobat’ (Juggernaut), a collection of translated poetry by her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen

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

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

nandana says in the poignant introduction: “If my mother presented this book to you herself, as I had ardently hoped, I know that she would have started by telling you how much she believed in the vital necessity of poetry, and to all freedom he delivers: “I speak for poetry as being at the heart of a woman’s freedom. Yes, I’m biased, I can’t and don’t want to be objective in this regard…’” Poems are expressions of deeply felt emotions told in vivid, controlled and precise language. Excerpts from an interview with Nandana Dev Sen:

You must have seen Nabaneeta write. What was his creative process? Did she have a favorite space – a bedroom, an office, or a corner – where she always wrote?

Mom carried it kobitar khata (poetry notebook) everywhere, so she was always ready for poetry to come to her – and it often happened at the oddest times and places. At home, she liked to write on her bed (which had belonged to my poetess grandmother Radharani Debi), with all her papers scattered around her. In fact, Ma has written many books while hunched over her notes while lying on that bed. His other favorite place was the beautiful antique office of my grandfather Narendra Dev (also a beloved writer). Ma often spent the night writing, and she had to write 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 caring mother, but not like the other mothers I knew. She didn’t oil my messy curls, cook my favorite meals, or do my homework with me. But she took Didi (Antara) and me with her everywhere she went (often to literary evenings and poetry meetings), fiercely defended me at school whenever I got in trouble for “bad behavior” (which was often the case), and had fun conversations with us in rhyme (which continued in blue aerograms after I left for Harvard).

Ma had an extraordinary ability to love – not just her family, but her students, her peers, her readers, her mentees, the entire world around her. She was never afraid to show her affection (or even disaffection); she openly laughed, cried, argued, rallied, growled and cuddled. Looking back, I realize that thanks to her, I learned not to be embarrassed by my feelings. I learned, at a young age, the importance of being emotionally honest. That my voice mattered and that even a small person had the power 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 are not enough English translations of Indian regional literatures. In recent years, translation has experienced a resurgence. Has she noticed the change? What did she say?

Yes, Ma was very happy to see that the urgency (and art) of translation was finally gaining more attention in India, a trend which in turn motivated talented translators to become much more proactive. Although she writes beautifully in English, Ma insisted on writing in Bengali and spent a lot of time translating other Indian writers (especially female poets) as she felt Indian books in the mother tongue risked becoming obsolete and were not sufficiently shared. with international readers (or even with other Indians).

She pointed out that our nation’s literature was almost exclusively represented in the world by New Indian Writing in English, which she admired as much as she loved our rich regional literatures. It is certainly cause for celebration that excellent translations are increasingly available and that translators now enjoy much more support and recognition than they did just 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 deep and primordial need for poetry, not only as a means of coping, but as a means of formation”. What is your coping mechanism – is it poetry, novel, film, activism, family or something else?

All the foregoing. Especially reading poetry, listening to Rabindrasangeet, working and playing with children. Another powerful coping mechanism is the sage advice of my seven-year-old daughter, Meghla, who is incredibly sensitive. The other day she looked over at me and knew I was thinking about mom. “Don’t be sad, mum, she said, because Dimma (grandmother) is now your imaginary friend. She follows you everywhere! Over the past year, we’ve watched many movies that Ma and I loved seeing together, from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne at The jungle Book at Mom Mia.

I must say that working on Acrobat following the loss of Ma was deeply painful in a way, as I could hear her voice with every poem – she was so close, yet so far. But translating Ma’s poetry allowed me to continue to “talk” with her, to understand her struggles in a way that I hadn’t before, to be honest. Looking back, I see that finding the language to express my pain has helped me enormously in coping with my own grief.

Nabaneeta has fundamental studies on the position of women in Indian literature. Much of your activism is centered around little girls. Is this your way of carrying on Nabaneeta’s legacy?

I’m sure I did, although I may not have consciously linked my activism to Ma’s groundbreaking work, but my mother and grandmother were wonderful 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, very scandalously, and reinvented herself as as a successful poet).

Throughout her career, Ma wrote incredibly powerful poems (and fiction) that spoke out against gender-based violence and injustice, many of which are included in Acrobat. I have no doubt that the way I was raised by them both has a lot to do with my interest in protecting girls, especially the fight to end child marriage and to end violence in regard to women and girls, who, as we know, are huge and frightening crises in our country.

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