If there is one Indian writer who made me believe in a life of freedom and endless possibilities, it is the late Nabaneeta Dev Sen. The Bengalis know “Nabaneeta di”, who died in November 2019 at the age of 81, as one of our greatest. writers – of novels and short stories, humorous travel stories, columns, essays and poems – and as a scholar and teacher.
This fall brings the publication of Acrobat, a historic collection of 113 of his poems, written over six decades, many of which were first translated into English. Only a small part of his vast and infinitely inventive work is accessible to readers in English: one or two novels, of which Me, Anupam, two of his travelogues (The sacred trail: the fate of a pilgrim and On a lonely truck in McMahon). Acrobat offers a window not only to the emotional depth, modernity and scope of Nabaneeta-di’s work – and the riches of contemporary Bengali literature – but also to her influence as a feminist.
The last few times I saw her she was mobbed by fans and readers at book fairs in Calcutta and Jaipur, mentoring and encouraging new generations of female writers and students. In Bengal, she was both an icon, like Gloria Steinem, and a beloved popular author.
Most of the work in Acrobat have been expertly translated into English by her daughter, actress, screenwriter, editor and children’s author Nandana Dev Sen. “Raised by two famous poets, Radharani Devi and Narendra Dev (and nominated by [writer and polymath] Rabindranath Tagore), she published her poems in a magazine at the age of seven, in Bengali and English.
She was later married to economist Amartya Sen, until their divorce in 1976, and their daughters grew up in a house filled with books and recitations of poetry, and conversations by authors and scholars. In 1975, as a birthday surprise, Nandana attempted her first translation of her mother’s work, the poem “Acrobat”.
She thought she was quite familiar with acrobatics.
That she could juggle time with both hands,
Play with the now, right next to the then
She’d make them both dance, she thought, fist to fist –
The work is a skillful sketch of what it means to be a poet – maintaining that delicate balance where one too many words can throw you off the hook. In other poems, she constantly returns to the power of words and of language itself. In “Combustion”, she offers a warning about the alphabet – Touch it / And you’ll burn to ashes / Instantly. And in “Broken Home”, she asks a question that all women writers have probably asked themselves: Do you break your house just for poetry, / over and over again?
Nabaneeta-di’s poems claim the world and all that it contains: love, motherhood, the body, politics, myths everywhere. “A Night Drink,” originally written in English, has the sharp and effective sting of this ancient Indian poetic form, the doha:
Drinking water in the dark
From a bowl of pickled peppers
Thirst is quenched
But the lips continue to burn.
From bloody placentas to twisted umbilical cords, she revisits motherhood by shining a spotlight on herself: Twice now pretending to be a goddess / I created humans out of my desire.
Poet Bhanu Kapil pays homage to Nabaneeta-di’s work in a conversation at the end of September 2021 with Nandana Dev Sen :, how to expel shame from the body, how to settle in an empty space under a blood red moon. . . ”
For my generation of women, especially those of us who grew up in Calcutta, Nabaneeta was an imposing presence but also inspiring and accessible. She would sometimes exhort us to be less shy, to live and write in complete freedom, to claim the scholarship and the pleasure that society would prefer to deny us. She urged us to write in our native languages, although she settled down in English with the same comfort.
New translations in Acrobat give me an insight into the history of women translating women. It feels like brotherhood, rekindling and reclaiming women’s voices – whether it’s Anne Carson translating Sappho, Jennifer Croft translating and forcefully advocating for Polish author Olga Tokarczuk to be more widely read, or Nabaneeta’s own influential translation of the 16th century version of the Ramayana written by Chandrabati, who explored this great Indian epic from the point of view of its female characters, from Bengali to English.
Nandana Dev Sen joins that legacy, a daughter highlighting her mother’s work in a touching act of love and skill, in this family of three generations of female writers.
In his final weeks, Nabaneeta-di’s pen was never still. She wrote some of her hugely popular columns, edited those translations, and stuck with her beloved and busy author’s life until the end. As she wrote in her poem “The Lamp”: –
“… Keep that lamp on, please.
I just have one page left. . . “
More than one page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence –
give me one more word, dear nurse,
Just one more day.
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