Nabaneeta Dev Sen once said she took up the pen because there was no escape for her as “everybody who came to our house, was a writer”. It was a typical witty take on her childhood, the sort of sharp humour that pervades most of the engrossing large body of works spanning all literary genres which Dev Sen effortlessly delved into, and almost always struck gold”.
The immensely talented Dev Sen, known for the life force in both her persona and literary creations, spontaneously wore multiple feathers in her cap – she was a brilliant student, internationally acclaimed academician, linguist, polyglot, thinker, a liberal, a curious globe trotter, mesmerising speaker, and one who fearlessly expressed her mind on various issues affecting the society and the polity.
Born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) on January 13, 1938, to the poet-couple Narendra Dev and Radharani Devi, Dev Sen delightfully listened to her mother reading out to her poems from Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal composition for children “Sishu” (child).
But her childhood was really shaped by the historic happenings of the period, of which Kolkata – “luckily” as she said later – was the epicentre.
The experience of living in air raid shelters during World War 2, the famine of 1946 when she saw “famished people begging for a morsel of thrown away rice water” and dogs fighting with men and women for leftover food in the dustbin, left an indelible impression in the small girl’s mind.
Then came the Calcutta riots “in which we lost my father’s best friend” and the flood of refugees in 1947-48 soon after the country’s partition. Suddenly, the city seemed to be teeming with people, all struggling to make a living and begin life afresh.
Dev Sen grew up in this milieu, and her scholarship took root in some of the finest institutions of the city – Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School, Lady Brabourne College, Presidency College and Jadavpur University from where she obtained her M.A. degree.
Side by side, her literary endeavours took flight.
Dev Sen’s first collection of Bengali poems Pratham Pratyay was published in 1959, months before she got married to economist Amartya Sen and moved to England.
Interestingly, her second book came out in the 1970s after she got divorced from Sen, who later won the Nobel prize for Economics.
In between, however, she wrote poems, with some of the compositions Apoignant in their portrayal of the marriage breaking up and her painstaking effort to hold on to her life.
Dev Sen Ajoined the comparative literature department of Jadavpur University, from where she retired as a professor in 2002.
She obtained a Masters from Harvard University, and completed her PhD from Indiana University, and did her post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley and Newnham College, Cambridge University.
It was also one of the most productive phases of her literary career.
Her first novel Ami Anupam (1976)A was about the Naxalite movement, and also talked about the intellectual dilemma of the so-called intellectuals of Bengal during those turbulent times.
In all, Dev Sen has to her credit close to 100 books spanning almost all literary genre – Bengali poetry, short stories, plays, novels, literary criticism, essays, travelogues, humour writing and translations.
She also delved into children’s literature, churning out popular and engrossing fairy tales and adventure stories, with girls as protagonist. There, the princess goes to rescue the prince, the queen decides everything.
Dev Sen gave credit to her parents.
“Both of them were children’s writers. My father even used to edit a children’s magazine.for 25 years,” she once said.
Dev Sen researched for years on “Ramkatha”, playing a pioneering role in analysing it from Sita’s point of view. “Chandrabati Ramayan” is one of her ble works. Her witty and fun-filled takes on the epics and their characters also provided much joy to the readers.
Venerated writer Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay doffed his hat to Dev Sen.
“She was so full of life. She was like a dynamo, a prolific writer. Whichever literary genre she delved in, she struck gold. She was witty and had her own style of writing.
“Whenever she sat beside me, I could sense her life force. She had asthma since childhood, she often suffered, but I never heard her complaining about her health or remaining glum,” he said.
Mukhopadhyay described Dev Sen as a gutsy woman, who travelled all over the world, “on many occasions alone”, and came up with great adventure stories.
Dev Sen won the Sahitya Akademi for her autobiographical humour writing Nati Naba-Nita in 1999, and a year later was honoured with the Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award in India.
Celebrated Bengali poet Joy Goswami referred to some “priceless serious essays” penned by Deb Sen.
“It was from her that we got serious essays like Ishwarer Protidwandi o Anyanyo (God’s Rival and Others). Another great series was Bhalobasar Baranda. From college goers to 80 year olds, everybody waited eagerly for these pieces,” he said.
Her works also dealt with varied themes like homosexuality, AIDS, child abuse, and obsession, uprootedness, immigration and exile, but there was never any sloganeering.
“I have only written what I saw. So there is no scope for raising any slogans,” she once said.
However, writing for children seemed her biggest passion.
“I have one aspiration. I think as long as I can write, I hope and pray, I can write for children, and children read me,” she said at the age of 80.
Dev Sen was also worried about the distractions drawing away children from literature.
“We have to work very hard to incorporate the magic in our words., or get the colour in our words. We must get first rate illustrators,” she said.
But with her advanced years, realisation dawned on Dev Sen that life is not a fairy tale.
“You have to make it a fairy tale. You have the right and power to make it a fairy tale,” she advised youngsters.