MOTHER IN VERSE
THE WEEK|January 30, 2022
In translating Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry from Bangla, Nandana Dev Sen understood her mother a lot better and also found a place of refuge
MANDIRA NAYAR

In Nandana Dev Sen’s family, poetry is inherited, cherished and very much a daily affair. Her grandfather Narendra Dev, her grandmother Radharani Debi and her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, were all poets. It is also part of tradition—instead of birthday cards, the family would write birthday poems. And this year was no different. On her mother›s birthday (January 13), Acrobat, a book that captures 60 years of Nabaneeta›s poetry, hit the shelves. A perfect present, one that her mother will never read.

Nabaneeta died barely two weeks after the contract for Acrobat was signed. A feminist, writer and poet, Nabaneeta di—as she was known to her fans—could fill up a whole room; she left the world emptier in November 2019. For Nandana, losing Ma, whom she spoke with many times a day, came at a time when the world was about to stop. Poetry, which was a refuge for her mother, became hers, too. “I retreated into poetry,” she says. And Acrobat, which is a collection of her mother›s poems Nandana has translated from Bangla, became this tangible link to Ma.

It is the hour before midnight. But across continents, on a bright day in New York, Nandana is at home. A picture of her mother is on the shelf behind her. “I still cannot see a video of her,” she says. “I am now at a point when I can look at her photos with gladness. Even that was hard for a long time. But I still cannot bear to see a video of Ma, or hear her recorded voice.”

A fat, grey cat walks across the corridor. Lekhika, with a name worthy of a family of writers, loves books and computers. “I was keen to rescue a cat from a shelter,” says Nandana. “When she came to us her name was Lake (her wilder twin was called River). At one point in our Kolkata home, we had 17 cats.”

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