Literary great Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s “absence will be felt”

Published : November 08, 2019 18:56 IST

Nabaneeta Dev Sen at her residence in Kolkata with economics Nobel winner Abhijit Banerjee. Photo: PTI

On Thursday, November 8, Kolkata lost one of its most beloved literary figures. The great novelist, poet and scholar Nabaneeta Dev Sen, 81, passed away in Kolkata after battling cancer. She is survived by her daughters Antara Dev Sen and Nandana Sen and Srabasti Basu, whom she had adopted.

Though it was poetry that first thrust Nabaneeta into the literary limelight with the publication of her book of poems Pratham Pratyay (First Belief) in 1959, she forayed effortlessly into different genres of literature, including novels, short stories, plays, travelogues, children’s literature, and academic books and articles. She was among the most serious and powerful voices of feminism in Bengali literature, who also never ceased to delight her readers with her humour and her zest for life and adventure. She was equally well-loved in the academic world and was a darling of her students in the classroom

Born on January 13, 1938, to eminent poets Narendra Dev and Radharani Devi, and named by none other than Rabindranath Tagore, Nabaneeta grew up in a literary environment in a house called ‘Bhalobasha’ (a clever play of words which means Love and a Good Home). After graduating from Presidency College, she earned two Master’s degrees, from Jadavpur University and Harvard, and got her PhD from Indiana University. She did her post-doctoral research in the University of California at Berkley and Newnham College, Cambridge. She held prestigious academic positions in various institutions and bodies both in India and abroad, and retired from Jadavpur University as a professor of Comparative Literature.

In 1959, Nabaneeta married Amartya Sen, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in economics in 1998. They had two daughters, Antara and Nandana. Although the couple divorced in 1976, they remained close friends throughout Nabaneeta’s life. “We have been divorced for 45 years but we remained in touch. I have pleasant memories…. Nabaneeta had extraordinary talent. Her absence will be felt,” Amartya Sen reportedly said after learning of her death.

The entire literary world of Bengal was grief-struck. The famous writer Sankar (Mani Shankar Mukherjee) described her as the last of the finest women authors of contemporary literature. The novelist Sirsendu Mukherjee said, “The loss is not just a personal one, but also as a reader. For, where else will I get such writing.” Throughout her life Nabaneeta had won innumerable awards, including the Sahitya Academy Award and the Padma Shri.

Warm, witty, outspoken and down to earth, she never allowed her iconic stature and reputation to isolate her from the world around her. She was one of the most approachable superstars of the literary world, who always found time for her legion of fans and admirers. However busy she may have been with her writing commitments, she was hardly ever known to turn down a request for an article or a write-up; and if she had to, she would do it in such a sweet manner that one could not even think of harbouring hard feelings after that.

A rebel and a writer until the very end, in her last article, throwing a challenge at the cancer that was killing her, she wrote tongue in cheek: “Listen Kid, in this vast world, there are major wars and fights taking place. Do you think I am scared of your bullying?” Then quoting Sukumar Roy, the famous creator of nonsense rhymes, she wrote, “I don’t care Kanakori (a damn, literal translation) – Don’t you know I know how to wrestle.”

Her humour never left her.

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