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Nabaneeta Dev Sen, A Legacy of Literature

“I was conceived in the womb of one poet and sired by another. Poetry, I suspect, was ruling my stars from the very first moment of my being. I had no way of avoiding its grips.”

It's 2022 — and here we are, still having wars. We are still playing with bricks and bones and guns. But through centuries of battles and bullets, I have seen a surreal journey of poetry. I have seen poems capturing the darkest moments in human history, and also the most luminous. When there is nothing left besides mud, wire, and slaughter, there is art. It is the most powerful weapon in the hand of the disempowered. So today, in 2022, to read Nabaneeta Dev Sen's six decades of poetry that explored a range of experiences, celebrated victories, mourned losses, and rebelled against those who turned a blind eye, is more important than ever.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a really important name, a figure in my life. For the world, she was a creative genius, a scholar, an academician, with over one hundred books to her credit. Her many honours include the Padma Shri, Bangla Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, among many others. But for me, she was a woman who taught me how to read between the lines, how to think, and how to write my heart out. I am blessed to have grown up in the warm embrace of Bengali literature, thanks to my parents. I have grown up reading her poems, her stories, her magazine, named Soi-Sabud — a part of Soi, the West Bengal Women Writers’ Association. She had created Soi to bring together creative women and their ideas of self-expression. So my life, in more ways than one, is an ode to her.

On 5th June, 2022, I had the extreme honour of having a conversation with Nandana Dev Sen, who has stunningly translated her mother’s works and given birth to ‘Acrobat’.

Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, child-rights activist, and award-winning actor. She has written six children’s books (translated them into more than 15 languages globally), and starred in 20 featured films from four continents. She has represented UNICEF, RAHI, Apne Aap, and to end human trafficking, Nandana is the Child Protection Ambassador for Save the Children India.

Here is a glimpse of a conversation of a lifetime, and a legacy that lives on.

1. Acrobat is a collection of 6 decades of works, 91 pieces of poetry. Each poem strikes a different chord, makes us feel something unique. Can you tell us what 'Acrobat' (মাদারি) — the poem — particularly means to you? What emotion does it strike in your heart? And why did you choose it as the title for this extraordinary collection?

Answer: Answer: That's a great question. So first, let us read the poem and feel it.

She thought she knew acrobatics rather well,

That she could juggle time with both hands,

Play with the now, right next to the then,

She would make both dance, she thought, fist to fist—

And she would glide, so smooth, along the tightrope,

She thought she could do absolutely anything at all.

Only once in your life will the rope shiver.”

— Acrobat | মাদারি

Actually this was a poem that originally came out in my mother's book called Tumi Monosthir Koro. The story of the book goes back a few years. What happened was, I translated some of the poems for Tumi Monosthir Koro, because we were asked to read them in Beijing, in this wonderful bookstore called The Bookworm. Maa didn't have any of her poetry available in English, so I quickly translated some, including this one, and my mother really loved them.

Her 75th birthday was coming up, and I decided to surprise her by publishing, Make Up Your mind, which is a bilingual book. I read Pablo Neruda and a couple of bilingual collections and they were fantastic. I was very inspired by them to make this bilingual book for my mother.

We initially published 75 copies because it was Maa's 75th birthday (75 copies for her to give away). The book did rather well and fell into the hands of the publisher of Acrobat in America, who is this wonderful visionary.

The founder of this publishing house publishes the best of contemporary and classical literature only in translation, and nothing originally written in English. So she found this book, loved it, and found a way of getting in touch with me. She asked, "hey, can you do a collection of your mother's poetry?" The timing was great because my mother had always wanted to do that and she was already very ill. So we said yes, and we signed this book exactly 2 weeks before my mother passed away. But Maa was really delighted to have this book because, as you mentioned, she had 100 books in print - but this was the first book to be published for a truly international audience.

As you also mentioned, she had a very popular column that everybody would wait for every week. The very last piece of writing she did was the last column in the magazine - where she wrote about how excited she was about Acrobat. So this will always remain a very special book, you know.

Now coming to the titular poem.

What's fascinating about that is when I translated it, I had to do it originally as a part of Make Up Your Mind. Because that was a secret kind of birthday surprise, I couldn't ask her about the choices I was making as a translator, or the intentions that she had had as a poet. Otherwise, there would be no surprise. So once it came out, I asked her particularly about this poem, because it has the word 'সে' in it. It is the third person pronoun in Bangla, and not gendered, unlike in English. So I had to choose between a 'he' or a 'she' for the translation, and I chose 'she'. This is because the poem always seemed to me like it was about the precarious multitasking that every woman has to go through to survive. When I gave it to her, I asked her -

"Maa, did I make the right choice there?"

And she said, she wasn't actually thinking about the gender when she wrote this poem, because for her, it was about the balancing act that every poet has to go through. Word that is too heavy, or any sentence that is too long can throw you off the tightrope of poetry. So when I changed the translation a bit, she said, "No, absolutely not. Please don't touch a word because it works perfectly as a feminist for 'him' as well". So when we were deciding what to call this book, we decided on 'Acrobat' because there was this history of story behind it. We felt that this particular title really worked well with the book, because this collection was as much about the multiple identities that women have to inhabit as it is about the delicacy of creating and surviving through poetry, right? So that's why we chose the step.

Ques 2: My father, Sekhar Roy, is a writer and a prime part of the Indian police force. I have seen him writing poems in the most difficult of situations — amidst gun fights, bloodbaths. And I believe I have inherited that trait from him — of writing political poems and questioning the people in power — because at the end of the day, when our hands are tied and mouths shut, words are all we have. So throughout my childhood, I have seen books being born out of need. You, too, have inherited the gift of words from your parents. So how do you perceive art? And how did you give birth to Acrobat?

Answer: You know it was a very intense experience. I think just to go back to what you had mentioned about art. I think it is. Really certainly, for it was for my mother and it is for me and I think it is for many artists, not all artists. But I can only speak for myself and to some extent for my mother. It truly is a coping mechanism I think. The work that I've done as an artist has been quite varied. I've worked in. literature, I've worked in cinema, I've worked for children's writing which is quite different from adult but all of them have in some ways in my case been connected to what I pulled closest to my heart and what I believe in. To give you an example against the question you asked him - A general question about arts, so I will give you a more, not just an answer but what I mean is that for me, it is both a way to cope with the world, but it's also a way of understanding, interpreting, and having a dialogue of what you believe is important in the world right now so all the films that I chose as an actor, you know there were kind of eccentric films, independent films that I shot, made in different languages, but all of them, every single one of them, actually, with the exception of one which was an action film, which I somehow thought which I loved doing, and I believed that if I did an action for life suddenly stopped being as clumsy as I am, and, you know, become graceful. But all the films I've done have had a very strong social or political consciousness. So for instance, and I'll give you examples from different countries. The last film that I did in India was a film called Rangrasia which is about Raja Ravi Verma and it's about the first Indian court case about censorship of art. It's a film that's essentially about freedom, the importance of championing freedom of expression, and it's also a warning about the dangers of religious fundamentalism. And these are both issues that I felt. Even though this film was set almost 200 years ago when we made it, they were very relevant to the times, right? So that's there. I mean, in New York, I did an independent film called The War, which was about the radicalization of a peace-loving Muslim family. So they're all very political.

Why did they choose that? To answer your question is that I think it's really important for me personally for my art to reflect what I believe, and for my art to be elected, connected to the work that I do even as an activist and at the same time for me to be able to use it, to actually make sense of and cope with the world. Coming back to Acrobat, you know my mom passed away shortly after we signed the book and then just after that the pandemic hit the world. So it was a dark time for everybody. The birthing of Acrobat was labor, was quite intense, it was quite painful because. On the one hand, I felt like it was kind of the birth of acrobats and I'm using that metaphor of taking that one step further. It was urgent. I felt like I couldn't hold it back. It had to happen, but it was really, really painful. So it was. It was coming out of me. There was a lot of pain because with every line and every word. I was missing my mother and yet I could hear her voice. These were poems that I knew so well, poems that I had heard her read. It was almost like she was standing next to me. I was so aware of the fact that I had lost her. The other thing that I understood is how much pain there is in my mother's poetry. So to find the language to express her poetry at a time when I was lost in my own grief was difficult. It made for a difficult birthing. But going back to the other thing we were talking about earlier, which is how I use art to cope how your dad uses art, his writing to respond to what's happening around the world. My mother often said that poetry had saved her from disintegrating emotionally at multiple times in her life, and I now when I look back at that dark time, I realized that Acrobat was absolutely a survival tool for me as well.

Ques 3: Nabaneeta Dev Sen was a truly bilingual writer. She was the first student to be enrolled in Jadavpur University's Department of Comparative Literature, founded by Buddhadeva Bose. She has done extensive works in both Bengali and English — from academics to literature. But Bengali was the language that set her imagination free. She said something that really stayed with me, "In this country, mother tongues we have many, father tongue just one". I am a person who thinks and has the most intimate conversations in Bengali but writes in English. I guess things hurt more in our mother-tongue. What is your take on this? What language do you think in? What language liberates you more?

Answer: I definitely think in Bangla. I had the choice at my first language. My early childhood was spent in England and my mother tongue was Bangla but the language that I was surrounded by was English and then my mother came back with my dad and me to Kolkata. When my parents separated, I was admitted to an English medium school -very middle class, not a kind of an elite school but it was an English medium school because. She thought that would be easier for me. But she gave me the choice. All my friends took English as their first language and she said that's what you want to do, don't you? It's your choice. I chose Bangla as my first language and I'm so glad that I did because the level at which you read and continue reading Bangla and learn Bangla, write in Bangla, think in Bangla, all of that is different when you're learning it.

When I go back to Kolkata now, I find that a lot of younger people don't have that connection to their mother tongue anymore. And my mother was worried about that. That's one reason why, as you said, she was truly bilingual and all of her academic work was in English. Of course, I mean she was an international scholar. When she went back to India, she wrote all of her creative work in Bangla. And it was a political decision for her which she wrote about. And she did that because she felt that regional languages and literatures were at risk of becoming obsolete. She wrote about this in the 70s. She anticipated the fact that Indian writing would be represented in the world through Indian writing in English. And while she thought Indian writing in English should certainly be part of that representation, because that's a very strong and powerful part of Indian literature. She was worried that would drown out the voices of Indian recruiting in India and Indian languages, which is why the win of Gitanjali is just so fantastic. I was just thinking my mother would have been so thrilled. This is the moment that she had been waiting for. But anyway, so those are all the reasons why she chose to write in Bangla.

And yes, the most profound emotions always come to me in Bangla, which doesn't mean that I don't ever think in English. I live in an English speaking city, so of course, I think in English too. I guess I think bilingually.

“Boy, are you scared of bloodshed?

Are you terrified of plucking virginity?

If the taste of blood goes to your head,

Do you fear that it will be a calamity?

The truth is, whether wrong or right,

Your blood calls out to you each night.

Listen, boy, it’s time for you to grow.

Words can be as fierce, don’t you know?

The treachery that lingers on tongue tips—

Beyond the world that all your dreams show,

Know that blood can be easily shed by lips.”

— Growing-up Lesson | বড় হওয়ার পাঠ

4. I cannot talk about languages and not talk about the importance of translation in literature. Louis Kelly once said, "Western Europe owes its civilization to translators". Nabaneeta Dev Sen was a dedicated translator. She worked with the linguistic composition of epic poetry and re-imagined the epics from the perspective of women — much like Tagore - the way he gave centrality to Mahabharata's Chitrangada, and made one of the first Indian statements on gender equality. She translated into English the 16th century Ramayana of Chandrabati — the first woman poet who wrote in Bangla and rewrote Ram's story from Sita's perspective. Dev Sen also wrote "Shara Prithibir Kobita", where she brought together myriads of poets hailing from different parts of the world — from the Greek Sappho, Japan's Fumi Saitō, Russia's Marina Tsvetaeva, to Dickinson, Atwood, and even our own Gulzar and Dilip Chitre. She wanted Bengali readers to taste world literature. You have inherited that power, too. Words have memories, a history of their own. There are no two words with exactly the same meaning. To recreate the unspoken in another language, one needs to understand what went into making the original, then one must dismantle it and rebuild it in the other language. So how was this experience for you? How did you make sure the Bengali words don't lose their intimacies and nuanced vulnerabilities?

Answer: In poetry, it's not just the words, but it's everything that you see on the page. It's the word. It's the sentence. It's the rhyme, It's the metrical structure. It is also the resonances that my mother loved, the alliterations and the assurances, the reputations of sounds that she was beautiful in capturing and using. One thing that I found challenging was that my mother loved making up new words. She would just create words - yes, which is much easier to do in Bangla than it is in English, right? So that was a wonderful and kind of unique challenge in her writing. The other thing is she would use words that could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

To me, the context into which I was translating the poem was as important as the context in which it was written to preserve the ultimacy. The circumstances of when the poem was written is as important as the circumstances that exist around the language. When you read a poem, it's very different. Even if you're reading it as a daughter or if you're reading it as just a reader or admirer, or even as someone who really is familiar with their work, it's very different from entering it as a translator. It's not just that you're reading, you actually have to claim that emotion. You have to find that language, you have to enter the poem.

It wasn't until I did that that I realized, there were many layers to my mother's emotional history that I hadn't recognized fully when she was alive even though I knew these poems very well. I had taken my intimacy with the poetry for granted, in the same way that I had taken my intimacy with my mother, which was always very strong, for granted. I realized that there were so much about her. About her life about her. Fears or anxieties, her loneliness, her pain that I hadn't really fully understood as a daughter when she was alive, partly because she protected me from it as a mother.

“Stay alive

Show yourself clearly

Like the unfailing passport photo

Stay awake in every line, you,

Like an unquenchable thirst

Yes, you,

The pain that tears my heart apart,

Show yourself clearly

Like a flower in full bloom

Don’t hide from me

As long as I live in poetry.”

— In Poetry | যতকাল কবিতায়

Women have been writing throughout history, yet often remained anonymous. The artistic journey of female writers has been characterised by lots of challenges and restrictions. As Virginia Woolf said in A Room of One's Own — "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman". In Afghanistan, it has never been acceptable for women to write poetry on any subject. But to write to a lover has been considered a sin. So they began writing Landays — short poems of love and liberation. Much of an Afghan woman's life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honour — a gap between who she seems to be and who she is. The story is not that different for Indian women. Kamala Das once said, "I am expected to tame my talent to suit the comfort of my family". Acrobat pays homage in rhyme to the balancing act, the amazing feat that women must pull off in the tightrope of life.

Having read the poems in Bangla before experiencing them in English, I can tell you, for a fact, that the way the translations speak of an intimacy with the language and an understanding of the landscape that shaped a woman’s existence is unparalleled. Read Nabaneeta Dev Sen — a woman who spoke her heart out, who was not afraid to be strong and vulnerable, all at the same time. Read poems that are so earthy, they calm your soul and warm your heart, and bring back memories you never thought you had.


Written by Aishwarya Roy

Aishwarya Roy is a Biotechnology post-graduate. The engineer in her tries to solve life-problems, and the writer in her scribbles art on forbidden walls.

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