Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s versatility was mixed always with a penetrating but forgiving sense of humour

Dipesh Chakrabarty
Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019).

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the popular, award-winning, and feminist Bengali author, poet, teacher, raconteur, and literary critic, passed away in Kolkata on November 7. She had been fighting cancer for a while. She was 81 at the time of her passing. Born to acclaimed writer-parents, Narendra Dev and Radharani Dev, she married, in 1959, Amartya Sen, the economist who would later go on to win the Nobel prize.

Their marriage ended in 1976. Antara, a well-known editor in Delhi, and Nandana, a noted screen actress, are their two daughters.

It is difficult in the space of this brief notice to convey a sense of the versatility — mixed always with a distant, penetrating but, ultimately, forgiving sense of humour — that marked the writings of Dev Sen. She moved effortlessly between many different genres of writing, from poetry, short story, novels, novellas, travel writing, children’s literature, one-act plays, essays, belles-lettres to academic literary criticism. Her writings in English belong only to the last category, all of her other writings — adding up to some eighty volumes — being in Bengali. In one of her famous autobiographical essays, with signature humour, Dev Sen described her two eyes as being rather different in what they saw of the world. Her right eye, she said, was always full of mirth and laughter, and was naturally drawn to all that was pleasurable and fun in life. Her left eye, however, was forever turned inwards and nothing that was deeply ironical or sad about the human condition could escape its attention. This was her way of explaining why all her critical observations of the world were always tinged with a gentle sense of humour. But humour was also a genre she excelled at. Even a few weeks before she died, she wrote a funny newspaper piece on her illness that made the rounds on numerous WhatsApp groups in West Bengal and Bangladesh. She borrowed an immortal and funny line from a children’s poem written by Sukumar Ray, the father of the nonsense rhyme in Bengali, and of Satyajit Ray — “Alrite, kamen fite” (Alright, come’n fight!). This was the title she gave to her short essay, where she wondered if cancer, at 81, was such a big deal after all. And, if her friends who seemed to her to be rather sad at her suffering, were not confusing her imminent passing with the mahaprayan of a child! It was, in any case, time to go. So why so much grieving, she asked of them.

Dev Sen’s accomplishments were many. A winner of many honours and prizes, including the Mahadevi Verma Prize in 1992, Sahitya Akademi award in 1999, and Padma Shri in 2000, she was a professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, until her retirement in 2002. She held many distinguished positions, either as a visiting professor or as a visiting creative writer, at many reputed academic institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany, France, Japan, and Israel. She also served in leadership positions in many state-level, national and international literary institutions and acted as a member of the jury for many important literary prizes in the country. She was the founder of West Bengal Women’s Writing Forum. Her English translation of the 16th-century female Bengali poet Chandrabati’s version of the Ramayana — together with her comparative discussion of this text, the 16th-century Telugu poetess Molla’s Ramayana, some texts in Marathi and Maithili, as well as the more contemporary Telugu writer Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Vishavruksham (1974-76), will remain an enduring contribution to feminist scholarship on the study of the epic.

It was through her creative writing that Dev Sen gave herself a sovereign presence in the Bengali literary sphere. I say “sovereign” because Dev Sen did not bow to any expectations that the Kolkata society might have had of a woman whose life had been the subject of gossip and speculation among the literati of the city. She was not afraid of baring her pain in the early poetry she wrote, nor did she ever compromise on questions of freedom. Finding herself a divorcee and a single mother when she was not even 40, she went to Indiana University in the United States for her doctoral degree and secured a teaching position in Jadavpur on return. She thus made a new life for herself, a life of which she was the sole author and became exemplary for many. Her writings won her a permanent place in the hearts of her readers.

Professor Dev Sen’s death will be deeply mourned in the literary and scholarly circles.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2019 under the title 'With a twinkle and a smile'. The writer is Lawrence A. Kimpton distinguished service professor of history, South Asian languages and civilizations, University of Chicago