Yashodhara Ray Chaudhuri's tribute to Nabaneeta Dev Sen
She had a radiant smile. Her eyes were always alive and shining. She never indulged in small talk. I believe she never needed to do that. Every time she met someone her mind was alert, her intellect was alive, she talked sensibly and passionately about everything.
I became a member of Soi, the group which Nabaneeta-di formed for women writers and artists, quite late. She called me, almost cajoling me into joining. She used to attract people like a magnet. And in my case, I used to be her fan even before I met her.
When we were schoolchildren we used to read her stories – not only children’s stories, but also her travelogues, and even the anecdotes which came out in newspapers and magazines. My elder sister and I used to pore over her stories about how she and her two daughters rescued a cat from the cornice, with the help of the fire department. Absolutely fantastic true tales. Hilarious.
Her wit and humor were contagious. Everything seemed lighter after you read those autobiographical pieces. And that was what made Nabaneeta-di a household name for Bengali readers. Still, she was primarily an academic, a poet, a serious author. A renowned teacher of Jadavpur University. A feminist. She had a public persona. But she hated to be separated from people by any high wall of intellect, instead, she used her magical humor to endear herself to them.
On second thoughts, though, I also feel that her kind of wit was itself a product of a great intellect. She could master it thoroughly because of her upbringing. The daughter of poet and scholar Narendra Deb and poet Radharani Debi was brought up in an intellectual atmosphere. She was named by none other than Rabindranath Tagore.
Radharani Debi in her own times was a lyric poet and later used a pseudonym, Aparajita Devi, to write satirical and subversive poetry using contemporary slang and English words, making fun of relationship dramas in drawing rooms. Nabaneeta-di’s poetry was her “first source of confidence” (prothom protyoy) in her own words. She always went back to her poetry which was very close to her heart.
Nabaneeta-di wrote about gender and women’s rights with total clarity. She worked and wrote about the Ramayana as retold by Mymensingh poet Chandravati, seeking the gendered perspective in this retelling. Her academic background helped her to crystallize her thoughts in a lucid way. And her humor never clouded her serious pursuit, which was this area of gender – in fact, it honed it.
Soi was the outcome of her serious thinking about women’s rights and the voice of creative women. She wanted to consolidate their voices. Every year she could attract a number of women writers from different parts of India to Kolkata for her seminars at the Soi mela. And she personally mentored younger women writers.
Although women’s rights was Nabaneeta-di’s first love, she was always a humanist. She protested unflinchingly against each and every atrocity against humans. It is fitting to say that she represented liberal educated secular Bengal, and remained a beacon of light for others. In these times when the middle-class Bengali is disappearing, the values she stood for are being fast eroded, and there is a question mark over much of what we grew up cherishing and believing.
I feel we have lost a guardian. We are a little more insecure today than we were yesterday.
(This article was first published on Scroll.in)