Nandana Dev Sen is in Kolkata at a time when the city, and its neighbouring districts, are reeling under the impact of the third COVID wave. But for the actor-author-activist, this is a homecoming worth the long, long wait and anguish. While her mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s birth anniversary today is an occasion for her to revisit her intense and impactful poems about love, loss, longing and identity, this visit has also taken her to the Sunderbans, where she is working with children orphaned by the pandemic and cyclones. In a freewheeling chat with CT, Nandana talks about some of the most difficult and delightful memories of her wonder years, and her exceptional bond with Kolkata. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about your work for child protection, and what takes you to the Sunderbans.
I am spearheading a programme with a child rights’ NGO to protect the most vulnerable children of my beloved Bengal, orphaned by COVID and the cyclones. We had started with a plan to take care of 200 orphans and needed `72 lakh to protect them for a year until we were able to place them in a safe environment. I was touched by the incredibly strong response to this initiative, because of which we crossed `1 crore and raised over `50 lakh more. As a result, 315 kids can be now supported through this programme, thanks to the generosity of many organisations and individuals. I have just come back from spending two wonderful days in the Sunderbans, playing with the most resilient children, reading aloud to them, speaking with youth leaders, consulting with the affected families and the gram panchayats. In the three decades of my work as an activist for child protection, I have always worked on the ground, so it is great to be back at the grassroots level once again, after this enforced period of long-distance advocacy.
Your trip to Kolkata this time is also to celebrate your mother’s Bengali poems, some of which you have translated. You have talked about how “Nabaneeta in her prose could laugh at herself; whereas in her poetry she was unafraid to cry.” Could you elaborate on this aspect of Nabaneeta’s writing?
My mother had left Kolkata as an incredibly glamorous person, a brilliant student on her way to Harvard, engaged to someone on the brink of becoming a star. She was the darling of Kolkata; her parents were super celebrities, literary luminaries close to Tagore. (Both my parents were in fact named by Rabindranath.) Ma had already published a celebrated book of poems, she was also a visual artist who had a lot of admirers, When she came back a few years later, with two young children and a marriage that was disintegrating, she tried to put the pieces of her life together. It was a scandal – even in her circle of liberal, openly radical, progressive friends, no one really knew anyone who was divorced. Upon her return, poetry took an even more central and visceral place in her life.
While in her prose, Ma found a way – through irreverent honesty and self deprecation – to make fun of the truth of her life. In her poetry she did not wish to be clever like she was in her prose. Poetry was the most intimate work she ever created – it was a reflection of her deepest emotions. There was no artifice in it, no distancing through humour, it was very raw… and that’s the only way she could write poetry.
She stopped publishing poetry for a short while, even though she continued to write it, as she felt it was “giving her away”. Because of this combination of her identity as a daughter of celebrity poets, a sparkling talent and a fascinating young woman, there was a lot of curiosity about her. But the moment she started talking about her personal life in her poetry, it was up for grabs in terms of what questions people wanted her to answer. My mother expresses that in a heartbreakingly lyrical way in the last poem — Return of the Dead (Acrobat).
What she went through is what a lot of women in the public eye, across the world, have always confronted, when all their choices are judged upon. If you’re an artist, what you choose to paint about gets dissected. If you’re Hillary Clinton, you get criticised for your hair or shoes. It is about how, as women, our personal choices – as significant or insignificant as they may be – somehow get appropriated as fairplay for public discourse.
What was it like to grow up in this kind of environment?
I remember when I was in school we heard ridiculous stories about how our mother was to blame for this famous marriage falling apart. Those were not true of course, and she laughed them all off without any trace of bitterness. But what I admire about my mother is that as a writer, she never stopped being true to her feelings, or changed the way she wrote just because people were judgmental or uncomfortable with her poetry.Homecoming for my mother was not only about coming back to the house where she was born, Bhalobashar Bari. But it was also a very deliberate return to her mother tongue. Ma chose to write all her creative work in Bangla, while she continued her academic work as a scholar in English. Once back in Kolkata she committed to writing all her poetry and fiction in Bengali. She was intensely aware of the dynamics of the consequences of that choice, but she established herself again quickly as a formidable literary figure by being uncompromising in the emotional honesty with which she wrote both her prose and her poetry. In the process, she became an inspiration to a generation – as a mentor, a teacher, a language activist, a feminist writer for all ages, a beloved role-model. We had a privileged childhood in so many ways… There was this joy and freedom of growing up in a family of female writers, who were so obsessed with writing that we took it for granted as what everyone in the family was meant to do. And I was addicted to reading. In sheer quantity, I think I read more books in my childhood and early adulthood than ever since. And we wrote to each other all the time, even under the same roof — letters and poetry for birthdays and other occasions kept flying between us. My mother was someone who could make up rhymes at any time for anything at all.
How has your bond with Kolkata changed over time? It is not the same city of your adolescence anymore.
My connection with Kolkata is deep and visceral, like an umbilical cord that was never cut. I love NYC, Boston and Mumbai – all wonderful cities where I have lived and worked, but Kolkata has my heart in a way no other city ever has or ever will. My home in the US is close to my mother’s place – we call it Chotto Bhalobasha. I have furnished it in the old fashioned style Ma loved, to resemble Bhalobashar Bari. Ma lived here with me for a while when she was ill. It allows us to feel close to my mother yet it is independently ours as well. Ma passed away just before the pandemic hit the world, and after that, I came to Kolkata twice – once for Ma’s birthday two years ago, when my father gave a tribute in her honour, and once for the Nabaneeta Dev Sen Memorial Lecture on Children’s Literature that I was invited to at boi mela in February 2020. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from Kolkata, so it’s good to be back. But everything feels absolutely different without Ma. I miss her every minute.
Now that you are juggling multiple roles – that of an editor, writer, translator, activist and mother – there are fans who would love to see you back on the big screen, or perhaps do something on the OTT platform. What has kept you away from films for so long? Do you have plans to get back to films in the near future?
Cinema is an abiding love for me, and I’m absolutely sure I will return to it one day. My choice in films has always been esoteric and political, which often took me to faraway places (such as South Africa, to shoot a film on apartheid). So, I made a conscious decision to take a break from filming when I chose to become a mother, as I wanted to settle in one place and fully focus on my daughter, and my books. A favourite filmmaker of mine – one with whom I’ve loved working before – recently asked me to work with him on an extraordinary film that resonates with me on many levels. I’d love to take it up when the time is right. Everything is on hold right now because of the pandemic.
Nandana on growing up in Bhalobashar Bari
It was a unique, all-female family with Ma, dimma (poet Radharani Debi), didi and me – and lots of free-spirited cats that sauntered in and out of Bhalobashar Bari. It was extraordinary for all of us to come back to the house in which Ma was born. Bhalobashar Bari had held a central place within the intellectual and artistic circle in Kolkata under my dimma and dadu – with literary soirees and kobi sammelans, impromptu concerts and dance performances. In many ways we felt the warm embrace of an exuberant homecoming when we came here.
Because of Ma’s love for life, there were spontaneous gatherings at Bhalobashar Bari all through the year. Baul gaan with Purna Das Baul, kobitar ashor by the Krittibas group, Rabindrasangeet by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and many others… The time I spent in Kolkata – mid ’70s to mid ’80s – made for the most formative, critical and precious years of my life – way more than my early childhood spent in England and Boston.
Kolkata had this culture of adda and argumentation, which I loved. Everything that came out of the city then – songs, music, drama, theatre – was steeped in a very strong political consciousness, which was also wonderful. Along with songs by Tagore, Nazrul and Sukanto, I loved the IPTA songs. We debated over music, books, art, cinema, politics, food, and global affairs. We would save up for boi mela and eagerly wait for it each year. Youngsters grow up with a different political sensibility these days.
Source: Times of India