In a letter to a critic, Charlotte Bronte asks, is not the real experience of each individual very limited, and if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is he not in the danger of being an egotist?
Well, Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938- 2019) happened to be a lady whose life was as interesting as her work. In a single, ailment-ridden life, she managed to pack in experiences and achievements of several lifetimes. Whether it is her distinguished parentage, or her childhood, generously sprinkled with prolonged stays in major European countries churned by historical upheavals, or her unique student life — at one point she got dragged out of Presidency College where she has enrolled as an English Honours student and presented, a tremulous slip of a girl, before Buddhadeb Bose who was frantically looking for students to populate his fledgling Comparative Literature department in Jadavpur University.
Then, there’s her stormy marital life in Trinity College, Oxford, or her experiences as teacher, scholar, poet and mother; whether it was a prestigious literary festival in which she raised her voice against the discriminatory treatment meted out to bhasha sahityiks in contrast to the princely hospitality extended to English literature practitioners like VS Naipaul, or a song-bird on the terrace of Bhalo Basha (her residence) that snags her attention with the sweetness of its melody; the endless, rainbow variety of life was more than enough to galvanise the merry litterateur.
In the corridors of the Arts department of Jadavpur University, Nabaneeta di would often be seen hurrying down in signature Odissi drape, hair casually collected in a neck-bun, large bindi anointing forehead, and eyes twinkling behind thick glasses. Her childish lisp was a deceptive front to a penetrating, analytical and retentive mind.
My teachers in JU, her personal friends and admirers, often drew her reference. Discussing patriarchy, a senior teacher would recall how, at the age of seven, Nabaneeta dihad sent my teacher detailed letters from abroad penning her adventures. Reading the letters, my teacher’s father had remarked, Nabaneeta’s parents must have helped her write them since it was impossible for a seven-year- old to write so maturely. My teacher ended the story saying she knew for a certainty that no one had helped her since as an intimate friend she was well-acquainted with Nabaneeta di’s writing skills, but in those days seven year olds never contradicted their fathers. Another teacher explained the mysteries of creative energy by simply referring to the case-study of Nabaneeta Dev Sen, a scholar brought up in the finest literary and cultural traditions of the West, a fluent reader and speaker of diverse foreign languages, but a writer, who, like a homing pigeon, unequivocally chose Bengali as her creative medium every single time.
Nabaneeta diwas a poet, essayist, novelist, erstwhile teacher and animating spirit of the comparative literature department at JU. But, more than that, she was a legend. Anecdotes about her Oxford days, Jadavpur days, Shoi days (a club of female litterateurs) and Bhalo basha days blow in the winds worldwide, since like her friend Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Nabaneeta diwas an early recogniser of the global presence of the Bengali. Her prose, fiction and non-fiction, appreciated widely by all, are especially loved by non-resident Bengalis.
Denizens of London and New Jersey may identify Chokher Baliwith Aishwarya Rai and Raima Sen, but the majority has read Ami Anupam, the scintillating tale of a razor-sharp intellectual of international fame and an incorrigible womaniser who wakes up one morning to find he has lost his voice.
Only the other day a colleague casually said to me; did you know, Nabaneeta diwas a cab-driver in London for a time? This was right after she had had to leave her Oxford home with her two children. Stories about her gung-ho attitude towards life do the rounds among educated and humourous Bengalis on a regular basis.
The biggest source of anecdotes about the author is the lady herself. In her innumerable essays, Nabaneeta di laughed at her foibles, not harshly but wittily and with full-throated ease. And so we came to know about how in a train somewhere in Europe, a couple of white girls pull the author’s feet into their laps much to the latter’s consternation. Do they intend to pilfer her silver chutkis is the first thought to cross her wily Indian mind. But no, the girls lovingly massage her poor little tired feet, and in that faraway foreign land, ensconced in a plush railway coach, our writer forges a love relationship with a couple of white daughters.
Nabaneeta di cracked her best jokes in the context of her former husband’s Nobel victory. Her book, Ye Hain Nobel Meri Jaan is redolent with wit and joviality. One story goes like this — on the auspicious day of Amartya Sen’s Townhall reception, Nabaneeta di’s daughter was anxious about her mother’s attire. Pin your saree securely and don’t hitch it up, she insisted; otherwise the people in the back will nudge each other and whisper, do you see that woman tripping over her saree? Well, that happened to be the economist’s first wife. And a knowing look will be exchanged.
And then there is the Nandan incident that awakened her to the fact that Amartya Sen’s achievement had made her the universal bowdi. Late for her appointment, even as Nabaneeta dihurried up the Nandan steps, she was accosted by a smiling man who, at a glance, seemed to be her age. “Bowdi,” requested the dedicated grinner, “Could you please give me dida’s Shantiniketan address? I would like to congratulate her.” Puzzled for a moment, Nabaneeta di was quick on the uptake. “A molo ja,” she muttered to herself, “Don’t you know that bowdi’s motherin-law cannot be a dida?”
Nabaneeta di’s feminism was quiet, practical and grounded in action rather than theory. Statements such as, if you are a woman you have no option but to be a feminist, poured from her lips spontaneously. Like her mentor-teacher Buddhadeb Bose, Nabaneeta ditoo went the extra yard to encourage budding female writers. Her home named Bhalo Basha — connoting love and a good home — was the foster-hub of Bengali intellectuals from all over the world. Whether it was the IAS novelist Anita Agnihotri or the young Nobel Prize winner Abhijit Banerjee, Bhalo Basha was the numero uno destination once a Bengali intellectual landed in Kolkata.
Bengal’s soil is rich in nutrients that nurture cultural and literary creativity. In the third home of every third lane, there is to be found a budding poet, singer, musician, writer-composer, teacher, critic and of course, filmmaker. Bengal has produced prolific writers, cultural rebels and trend-setters in style and technique.
But there rarely comes along an artistic personality whose large heart and amazing people-skills equalled her formidable talent; a lady, who nurtured, taught, entertained, confabulated, guided and inspired others by word, deed and praxis, as busily as she created and produced. Our Nabaneeta dibelonged to that rare breed.
Long live Nabaneeta di, and long live Bengali literature and language that the frail “Amazon” loved so fiercely and to the end!
The writer is associate professor and head, department of English, Vivekananda College for Women, Kolkata.