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Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019): Writer and fighter till the end

  • The acclaimed Bengali poet, writer and scholar, who died last week, leaves behind a larger-than-life legacy
  • It was typical of Dev Sen’s feminist convictions to be clear-eyed, feisty, and unsentimental about her strengths and vulnerabilities

Writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen died on 7 November at the age of 81
Writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen died on 7 November at the age of 81 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons )

Although she was ill with cancer for a while, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who died at her home in Kolkata last week, kept writing till weeks before her death. In her last column for the Bengali daily Pratidin, she wrote about the disease with a crisp irony, without elegy or any sense of regret. She had enjoyed a long and rich life, Dev Sen wrote, but wasn’t quite dead yet. “Alright, come ’n fight!" she challenged her adversary, quoting a poem by Sukumar Ray. And writer and fighter she remained till the end.

“I was a poet before anything else," Dev Sen once told an interviewer. In her 81 years, she embodied several other roles with aplomb, though: prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction in Bengali, popular newspaper columnist, polyglot translator, erudite scholar of comparative literature, feminist thinker. Yet, it is telling, but not entirely surprising, that she preferred the identity of a poet above all else.

Dev Sen was born, after all, to an extraordinary poet couple, Narendra Dev and Radharani Devi, in 1938. Her father was also a critic, who translated, among others, the poems of Omar Khayyam. Her mother, a widow, caused a stir not only by getting married again but also by publishing avant-garde poems under the pseudonym “Aparajita". Even Rabindranath Tagore, who gave Dev Sen her name, was startled by Radharani Devi’s distinct voice.

Dev Sen inherited this twin legacy of excellence, along with her parents’ love for travel and people. She began writing poems in English and Bengali in school and published her first collection when she was 21. After a degree in English literature from Presidency College, Kolkata, she studied at the first department of comparative literature in India at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, founded by acclaimed Bengali writer Buddhadeva Bose.

In 1959, Dev Sen married economist Amartya Sen, the future Nobel Laureate, and, for the next several years, lived with him in the US and UK as he went on to teach at different universities. She completed her PhD from Indiana University in 1964, gave birth to two daughters, then returned to India in 1974 as her marriage began to fall apart. By 1976, she was divorced, teaching at the department of comparative literature at Jadavpur University and living in Kolkata as a single mother of two.

Dev Sen belonged to a generation of English-educated Indian writers for whom writing in their mother tongue was perhaps the most sophisticated expression of their cosmopolitanism. She wrote beautiful and lucid academic articles in English, particularly on the epic traditions of India and women’s retelling of the Ramayan. But it was in Bengali that the full range of her wit, empathy and irrepressible joie de vivre came alive—all of these were part of her larger-than-life personality.

“I remember her warmth, her vitality and her characteristic humour, also her extraordinary hospitality and generosity," says Supriya Chaudhuri, professor emerita at the department of English, Jadavpur University, who knew Dev Sen for nearly 45 years.

Dev Sen began her career as a fine and sensitive poet before she moved on to prose fiction in the mid-1970s, when her first novel, Aami, Anupam (I, Anupam), was published. Her poetic sensibility, she later admitted, had become darker with the breakdown of her marriage. She continued writing poems sporadically and published several volumes in the years to come.

In prose, though, Dev Sen radiated warmth and joy, enlivened by her trademark self-deprecating humour and a robust sense of hope and compassion even in the direst of circumstances. She wrote novels and stories for adults as well as children (her younger daughter, the actor Nandana Dev Sen, also writes for children). But it was in her personal essays, travelogues and columns that Dev Sen flourished. So compelling was her wanderlust that she went off on solo trips to remote corners of the world. Slumming it at the Kumbh Mela or hitchhiking her way to the McMahon Line between India and China, she set an example at a time when women in India seldom travelled by themselves. These journeys resulted in sparkling travelogues (On A Truck Alone, To McMahon, written in 1977, was translated by Arunava Sinha last year) that are at once hilarious, eccentric, daredevil and tender.

“Nabaneeta-di started breaking gender norms from a very early age. Not many people know she was a keen sportswoman in school: She did gymnastics, she was a swimmer, played basketball, and took part in inter-school events," says Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, a writer, scholar and activist based in Kolkata. At the same time, Dev Sen was also interested in dressing up and looking good as a young woman, something that was frowned upon at her school. “Ami shajteo bhalobastam (I loved dressing up, too), she told me once," Dutta Gupta says. “Sajley bujhi bhalo meye howa jay na (Is it not possible to be a good girl if you love to dress up)?"

Dev Sen’s sartorial elegance stood out until the end. One of the last times she saw her, wrote Sajni Mukherji, former professor of English at Jadavpur University and a friend of Dev Sen’s, in her recent remembrance in Firstpost, “I told her she was looking gorgeous" in a red sari. Dev Sen replied, “with the characteristic asthmatic hoarse chuckle that was her sine qua non: ‘Hyan, ekhon aashi botshor boyesh hoye gechhe, aar lal chhara manayna (Yes, I guess at the age of 80, only red looks good on me)’."

It was typical of Dev Sen’s feminist convictions to be clear-eyed, feisty and unsentimental about her strengths and vulnerabilities. Self-pity wasn’t in her nature; she wasn’t intimidated by adversity. In her reminiscences of Dev Sen, an aunt by relation, journalist Deepanjana Pal, recalls an incident from the 1970s when the writer was stopped by the US customs for carrying rasgulla and mishti doi into the country.

Dairy-based products, an official told Dev Sen, were not allowed in. After failing to persuade him, she sat down on the floor of the airport and opened the pot of sweetmeats. “If this can’t enter America with me, then it will enter America through me, she said as she declared her intention to eat every damn rasgulla rather than let the sweet rot in quarantine," writes Pal. “Also, she told the official, let’s hope they had an ambulance handy because she just happens to be highly diabetic."

From her misadventures as an occasional actor to the ups and downs at her ancestral home “Bhalo-Basha" in Hindustan Park in Kolkata, Dev Sen infused tears and laughter into everyday moments. Her readers felt understood by her stories, they derived solace from the grace of her wisdom and wry world view, untainted by bitterness.

“In everything she was, writer-teacher-feminist, et al, her luminous, poetic legacy is this: She (and her words) embraced life with critical exhilaration, anticipated and experienced its short-changes, and came back to life again with one more pirouette after the lights dimmed," says Brinda Bose, associate professor at the Centre for English Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

While Dev Sen wrote over a dozen novels and many short stories, she remained a comparativist all her life, learning several Indian languages to widen her scope of research. “Translation is the primary tool of recognizing Indianness in this wonderfully rich multilingual motherland of ours," she said at the inaugural Sujit Mukherjee Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Hyderabad in 2014. She applied this principle in her research into women’s retelling of the Ramayan, particularly by a 16th century poet called Chandrabati of Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh).

“If patriarchy has used the Sita myth to silence women, the village women have picked up the Sita myth to give themselves a voice," she wrote in an article based on her investigations into Bengali, Telugu, Maithili and Marathi Ramayan songs by women. “(These women) have found a suitable mask in the myth of Sita," she added, “a persona through which they can express themselves, speak of their day-to-day problems, and critique patriarchy in their own fashion."

Dev Sen’s own fight against patriarchy took the form of literary activism. She wrote about women’s lives across generations with acute feeling, often using the modernist device of bricolage. In novels such as Bama-Bodhini, she used a range of genres to create a multilayered experimental narrative. She set up a group for women writers and artists called Soi (friend) and mentored younger colleagues.

It is for her inventiveness, fortitude and regal bearing that her friends, like Urvashi Butalia, writer and founder of the independent feminist press Zubaan, remember Dev Sen for.

“I remember going to Nabaneeta’s 80th birthday celebration last year. It was held in (former West Bengal chief minister) Jyoti Basu’s house and all of Kolkata’s intelligentsia was there," Butalia says. “After we had all gathered, she glided in, looking beautiful, accompanied by ululations by women as she crossed the street from her home to Basu’s across the road. The traffic stopped. No one honked. Nabaneeta was walking across the road, it was her birthday. How could they blow their horns?"

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