A year ago I attended a birthday party in Kolkata: Nabaneeta Dev Sen had just turned 80. It seemed to me that all of Kolkata’s substantial literary establishment had turned up to celebrate the occasion.
Tables were laid out for a traditional Bengali meal — complete with a menu card, banana leaves and an array of chutneys. The guests were to be accommodated in two or three batches.
We waited for Nabaneeta di , as she was affectionately called, to arrive. Soon, to the sound of ululating voices, she walked in, looking resplendent and basking in the warmth that greeted her. It was as if the affection and awe affected even those on the road outside the venue. People stood still, the traffic stopped, no cars honked. It was, after all, Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s birthday.
Last week, two months shy of her 82nd birthday, Nabaneeta di died in Kolkata. She’d been diagnosed with cancer and, despite her courage, determination and infectious sense of humour, there was no getting away from the inevitable.
We spoke about a week before she passed away. We’d been in conversation about the possibility of publishing some of her books from Bengali into English, and she called to discuss the first of these — selected translations of the 16th-century work Chandrabati Ramayana , where Sita is a character in her own right.
Nabaneeta di was excited that the work that she so loved would see the light of day in a few months. “I’m going to stay around for its publication,” she told her daughter Nandana.
Daughters were important to Nabaneeta di . She loved the two who were “natural” to her and the third who became hers — “she just walked into my life,” she said. And it was the daughters who stood by her as she left, holding her and singing to her, a fitting farewell for a poet-writer-teacher-mother.
Sometimes, when you lose a friend, the loss is much more than just personal. A larger moment, a deeper history goes with the departure. Something like that happened with her passing. As her friends and admirers shared the news of her going, several said it seemed like the end of an era, or a particular kind of history.
There was so much we were mourning. Nabaneeta di ’s life encapsulated many lives. She was, first and foremost, a writer. Critical essays, novels, short stories, travelogues, satire, poetry, journalistic pieces — all were part of her oeuvre.
But it was poetry that she loved the most. This was why the verses of the Chandrabati Ramayana — written by a woman in Bengal — so touched her heart.
She was also someone who supported many causes related to women, joining in campaigns, voicing her views, giving her time, and crossing the barriers of state, language and age.
She also didn’t stay away from the “political” and what were considered difficult issues. When she wrote humour and satire, she often said, the male literary establishment was, in her words, “a little surprised — they thought women don’t have the right to laugh”.
With the mourning, there was also much to celebrate. Her spirit, indomitable, self-critical and full of fun. She would often tell the story of how she was known in Bengal as herself, the writer. But when Amartya Sen, her former husband, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, she suddenly became “Mrs Sen, the wife of...”. “Suddenly the writer disappeared,” she said. “I wonder if it happens to men too — what if it were the other way round?”
On one of her recent visits to Delhi, she called and asked if we could meet for dinner at the India International Centre (IIC). The distance from her room at the IIC to the dining hall was short, but she did not feel up to walking. A wheelchair was arranged. She sat in a corner, alone, as I went around the dining hall in search of a table. Within minutes, a group of friends and well-wishers had gathered around her. She greeted them, laughed and joked with them, and the wait for the table turned pleasant. I marvelled at her ability to spread love and warmth.
When her family took her for the last rites, they made two stops on the way. The second of these was at the Bangla academy. The first, however, was Jadavpur University, her home for many years.
Here, hundreds of students, faculty, clerical staff, security staff and others gathered to greet the cortège. Her students and friends stood around and sang to her — songs she had loved, which included, in typical fashion, Tagore and Joan Baez, bringing together disparate cultures and transcending borders, a legacy she leaves behind.
Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan