On 13 January, poet and writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen would have turned 84. According to the tradition in her household of all-women writers—her mother Radharani Devi was a fiercely feminist poet, her elder daughter Antara is a journalist and the younger one, Nandana, an author—the presents she would have got would have included poetry written or translated by them for the occasion.
Now, two years after her death in November 2019, Nandana is harking back to this tradition by publishing her translations of her mother’s life’s work around the time of her birth anniversary. Titled Acrobat, the anthology of 91 poems has been published by Juggernaut Books.
Nabaneeta was around to see this anthology taking shape, even helping Nandana pick out a Rabindranath Tagore painting as the cover of the book’s international edition, published last year in the US by Archipelago Books.
“I had two other book projects that I was committed to (at the time) but this was the only one I was able to focus on and complete during lockdown because it was a promise I made my mother,” Nandana says in a video call from the UK. “It was a dark time for everybody, everywhere in the world...but I think for me there was the added disorientation and proximity to grief, which made the process of translating her work in a way more painful, but it also made it not an option really. In the long run it helped me, as painful as it was, to cope with the loss,” Nandana adds.
She talks to Lounge about what it meant to understand Nabaneeta as a poet, on translation and interpretation, and how the same feeling can find diametrically different articulation in different languages. Edited excerpts:
In the introduction, you say one reason your mother stopped writing poetry for a while was that she felt it was “giving her away”; you have also said her work was “always breathtaking in the power of its truth”. While translating, did you come across things about her you didn’t know, or would have known differently as her daughter? How did you navigate this?
I already knew all the poems—many of them by heart, because my mother loved to read out to us in Bangla, and because she also loved kobi sommelan (poetry meets). That was a big part of the way we grew up. So I knew the poems intimately but I took them for granted, just like the way you take your family and the fact that you love them for granted—you assume that you understand all there is to understand about them, right?
During the process of translating the poetry, I was initially looking at it in a chronological way. As I was kind of getting my head around it, it read like a journal of her life. I (realised) that I knew the facts but I didn’t really understand the emotional truth of them. For instance, I knew the fact of my parents’ separation but I understood much better why it hadn’t worked between them through her poetry.
There were other things too…. I kind of understood the anxiety she felt as a mother through a lot of her poetry. To us, she was an amazing mom—loving, fun, larger than life, had an optimistic personality, and empowering. But as a child, at any age, you don’t learn to put yourself in your mother’s (shoes). There are lots of poems in the book about the anxiety and responsibility of being a mother, and the surprise of suddenly finding yourself in charge of another life. It’s fascinating that she wrote about her fears as a mother so starkly at a time when it was…seen as something that would make you less good of a mother if you spoke about how stressful motherhood was. I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t been able to step out of my role as her daughter, or because I found myself confronted with this anxiety as a recent mother myself, that those poems spoke so true for me.
The experience of translating her made me see her not only as my mother but as a woman going through all of these emotional challenges. As a writer, as an artist, (she was) relentlessly true in the way she embraced her emotions, in the way she expressed them without any artifice.
You have observed that she felt freer to express herself in English, and quote her on this too. As an objective translator, how do you view Nabaneeta making the political (and perhaps thoughtful and linguistically responsible) choice to write most of her poetry in Bangla?
I don’t think she necessarily said or felt that she felt freer in English in general. I think she felt that there were certain topics that were easier for her to address in English, and there were others where Bengali was the language that set her imagination free. For instance, she felt freer to evoke sexual images and metaphors in her English poetry than in her Bengali because…I think she felt that there’s a kind of censure that naturally comes with writing in the mother tongue. And the freedom that she felt in English is just freedom from that scrutiny that she felt was unavoidable in Bengali.
She also wrote beautiful poetry in English when she lived in England. Some of those poems, she actually translated into Bengali. For instance, there’s a poem in the book, called The Last Gust. I encountered it first as a Bengali poem and was in the process of translating it into English when I discovered that she had originally written in English; and it had come out in Hyperion (a bimonthly literary magazine published in Munich) in the 1970s. I have included this original (in Acrobat), although now I also have my own English translation of it.
It was a revelation for me—her English original has more vivid sexual imagery that she didn’t include in the Bengali translation, like a line that reads: “hide our scars under strange pubic hair”. If I hadn’t read the original, I wouldn’t have thought there was anything missing in her Bengali translation. It’s essentially a poem about displacement, feeling unprotected and on the verge of losing your shelter. The feeling of vulnerability and of being exposed and cowering to hide yourself—she finds another way of doing that in Bangla.
Can you tell us about what the poem ‘Acrobat’ means to you? What made you use it as a title for the collection?
When I (first) translated this poem, it was part of the collection I had translated for her 75th birthday, called Make Up Your Mind: 25 Poems About Choice. Because I was putting that book together as a surprise birthday present, I couldn’t discuss with her the choices that I was making as a translator.
To me, this poem had always seemed to be about the precarious multitasking that every woman must do to survive. And because that’s the way I had read it, I chose (to use) the pronoun “she” over “he”— in Bangla, pronouns are not gender specific. To me, therefore, the Acrobat was a “she”.
After I gave her the book, I asked her (about this), and she said, “Well actually the gender of the Acrobat was never important to me; because to me the poem was about the balancing act of a poet, where if you have one word too long or heavy, the whole poem can fall off the tightrope.” Once she said that, I could see that it could absolutely work as a poem about art and creativity. I offered to rework it but she said “absolutely not, it works really well as a feminist poem as well”. This is the translation you see in the book.
We chose Acrobat together as the title because we felt that it worked for the book in both senses—it’s very much a book about the multiplicity of identities that a woman goes through in her life, but also about the delicate balancing act of a poet.
‘The Lamp’ gives the reader a sense of the strong literary relationship Nabaneeta and her mother Radharani shared. Does this speak in any way to your relationship, both as a daughter and a writer, with your mother’s literary legacy?
My grandmother and my mother shared a constructive and argumentative creative relationship. My grandmother was my mother’s most passionate reader, meticulous editor, and also outspoken critic. She was the first person my mother always shared anything she wrote with. And I did the same (with my mother). I am only realising that connection more strongly now that you are asking me this question—anything that I wrote I always sent it to her first.
‘The Lamp’, one of my favourite poems in the book, was written by my mother a few years after my grandmother died, on my grandmother’s birthday. It’s such a beautiful poem about the relationship between the two of them, but also about how important the power of the word was for my grandmother—how important it was for her to keep reading, writing, and engaging with the world of words.
To me, it could have easily been a conversation I had with Ma because she had become exactly like her mother. It was impossible for my sister and me to get her to go to bed at night. Even when she was unwell, she wanted to keep reading, writing. Her last column came out a week before she died.
To me ‘The Lamp’ feels like a conversation between my mother and me, although of course that’s not the way it was written. But the truth of it feels like the truth that I shared with her.