SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 13 NOVEMBER, 2019
A Tribute to the Dynamic Nabaneeta Deb Sen
(1938 – 2019)
Nabaneeta Deb Sen, the most dynamic woman I have ever met, passed away sticking out her thumb to Death in her last column a few days before her passing away. My late mother introduced me to this great woman at their residence when I was quite young. I was in awe of meeting her and also her mother, the noted poet Radharani Debi but their disarming candour put me at ease. She was a good friend of my late mother, also a poet, though there was an age gap and listened to my mother’s poetry patiently with the grace hid behind her robust personality. Till the last time we met at an all-India Conference at the Tagore Centre in Delhi on Satyajit Ray, she was spilling over with energy though bound in her wheel-chair and travelling with an escort. I had no clue about her illness then because she never spoke about it.
She moderated our session peopled by women only and as usual, dotted her moderation with her witty anecdotes touched with her gifted sense of timing and humour she had honed over many years with her reading and her writing. Many years after that first meeting, I fixed up an appointment to interview her when she won the Sahitya Academy Award and the Padmashri almost at the same time. The second-floor apartment – the whole house belongs to the Sens – was spilling over with her students of all ages, waiting on her and ready to do anything at her bidding. Nandana was there too, unassuming and grounded like her mother while the elder daughter Antara was away at Cambridge.
Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s marriage to Amartya Sen was the most celebrated event in Kolkata when it happened. Her home is like a miniature art gallery, though not by design. Jamini Roy gifted them with one of his paintings. It stands out in her living room. Paintings, photographs, calendars with art work, a carpet that has seen better days, carved furniture, define a marked aesthetic sensibility. Nabaneeta’s dynamic presence gives the home the warmth it exudes – you could almost feel it wash all over you.
She was one of the luckiest women to have been born and to die in the same residence. One wonders how many women, Indian or otherwise, have had this kind of luck. Rabindranath Tagore christened her Nabaneeta. Her home in South Kolkata is called Bhalo-Basha, which means 'love,' when the two words are joined, and 'good home' when one lets them be. Born in 1938, Nabaneeta is the only child of illustrious parents. Her father Narendra Deb and his wife Radharani Debi were a gifted poet-couple. Brilliant in academics, Nabaneeta had to come back from Cambridge half-way through her doctoral studies to marry Sen, went back to finish the degree, and stayed there with her husband. She travelled extensively. Her travels have often spilled over into her writing. Her pen unfolds a rare fluidity, an insight into human nature, a gift for satire capped with feather-light touches of humour. In terms of its spirit and its content, her writing transcends barriers of caste, culture, religion and race.
The Sahitya Acadeny Award came for her book, Naba-neeta, a strikingly original piece of work spanning several years of creativity that strides not one, not two, but nine formatic genres of creative writing. These consist of two travel narratives, two novels, six essays, three humour pieces, six short stories, two autobiographical narratives, thirteen poems, one play and a few translations from the Kannada poet Vasavanna's works! Some of the purely academic essays are translations from the original English while the rest are penned in her mother-tongue, Bengali. Therefore, the name Naba-neeta, the 'naba' here, standing for the figure 'nine.' The book is journey of discovery both for the reader not familiar with her writing as well as for the bookworm who has grown along with Nabaneeta since she first began writing in 1959. She was basically and academic and was as famous as a very successful academic teaching Comparative Literature at the Jadavpur University for decades together. She also did teaching stints at Oxford and at the University of Colorado.
You never knew when her mood changed though. Nabaneeta could get angry for your having forgotten an appointment. Quite as easily, she would be thrilled like a child who has found its lost teddy bear when her e-book in Bangla, the first of its kind, had its public release at the Calcutta Book Fair. And took in the Sahitya Akademi Award (she also got the Padmashri the same year) with mixed feelings, as a long-overdue prize that should have come much before it actually did. She was right on all counts. It is this ambivalence that made Nabaneeta the woman she was – very much at the centre of the Kolkata intelligentsia. Yet, distanced from it in terms of her no-nonsense, open-house, lifestyle. She had mastered the ability of looking back at life lived constantly in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Her talents with the pen are multi-layered – poetry, essay, drama, humour, satire, travelogue, short story, novel, play, -– you name it, and Nabaneeta Deb Sen had written it. What’s more – she writes with equal fluidity in both languages – Bangla and English. Among all the formative genres of creativity, Nabaneeta found poetry the most satisfying.
About her writing she said, “"It is not easy to write, but it is satisfying. I work harder than most writers because I am an indisciplined person and also because I continue to rework on a piece to make it simple. Then too, it leaves me dissatisfied. It's silly for a certain section of critics, mainly women, to accuse me of not writing for women. I don't need to raise slogans or hoil flags. I have, and still am, living the life of a true feminist. Since my divorce, after 16 years of marriage to Amartya, I have headed an all-woman household across three generations since 1975. My mother, poet Radharani Devi, who passed away in 1989, was a widow, I, a divorcee and my two daughters were two single women. The deadliest combination one can imagine. We have survived, and we have triumphed, despite all odds. Of course, I have missed the presence of a man, the strength of a pair of strong shoulders to rest my head on. But then, I felt I would be stepping into another trap all over again. I do not think any man would have stood my independence, my writing and my scholarship for long. And that's a fact" she said, with her brutal forthrightness.
She felt very happy to have been made the first lady President of the Presidency University Alumni from where she had graduated and stories go that that is where she had met her husband Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Though the two had divorced, they kept in touch mainly for the two daughters, accomplished and successful in their own respective fields. Two decades ago, she founded a women writers’ conclave called Shoi (Friend) which celebrated its foundation day in November every year. Though initially, it was a Bengali writers’ exclusive, it gradually opened its doors to Indian women authors and even awarded veterans like Shashi Deshpande and Kamla Bhasin for their rich contribution in their respective fields of endeavour.
The entire literary world of India in general and Bengal in particular, will find it impossible to fill the vacuum she leaves behind.