By Meenakshi Malhotra
What do you say when a doyenne in the field of literature dies? That she was a colossus in the field of literary studies? Any summing up of the achievements of Nabaneeta Dev Sen would sound and seem like a comprehensive survey of a substantial chunk , if not the entire field of comparative literature in India.
Nabaneeta Dev Sen was one of the finest minds in the world of literature, in terms of both her creative and critical work. A pioneer in the field of Comparative Literature, she is often perceived as having played a transformative role in transforming Comparative Literature as a discipline in India, from a mechanical reading of texts across languages to a rigorous theoretical discipline. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s scholarship brought her international fame and acclaim. She was not only a scholar and researcher , but also a popular teacher both in Jadavpur, as well as in the many institutes where she taught ranging from reputed academic institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany, France, Japan and Israel. A graduate of Presidency College, she had masters’ degrees from Jadavpur and Harvard universities and a PhD from Indiana university.
Winner of the Mahadevi Verma Prize in 1992, Sahitya Akademi award in 1999 and a Padma Shri in 2000, Dev Sen was a poet, novelist, columnist, short story and travelogue writer, in short, a litterateur of many parts. She also served in leadership positions in many state-level, national and international literary institutions and acted as a member of the jury for many important literary prizes in the country. She was the vice president of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad and the founder and head of the West Bengal Women Writers Forum.
Born to the poetic lineage of Acharya Narendra Dev and his wife, Radharani Debi, in Kolkata on January 13, 1938, Nabaneeta got married to the Nobel laureate and economist, Amartya Sen in 1958. They divorced in 1976. In her early poems, she did not hesitate to lay bare the pain she must have gone through as a divorcee under 40 and a single parent to two children. At this juncture, however, she worked on her doctorate and then joined Jadavpur University.
Dev Sen has more than 80 books in print, in multiple genres. Her books have been translated to many languages. Dev Sen herself knew more than a smattering of languages, ranging from Bangla, English, Hindi, Oriya, Assamese, French, German, Sanskrit to Hebrew. To paraphrase the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty in the Indian Express, it is challenging in a brief obituary to convey the spectrum of Dev Sen’s interests or to convey a sense of her extremely versatile talent. Her versatility was moreover, always mixed with a “distant, penetrating but, ultimately, forgiving sense of humour” which permeated her writings. She moved almost seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly between many genres of writings, from poetry, short stories, novels and novellas, travel writing , children’s literature, one-act plays, essays, belles-lettres to academic literary criticism.
Her writings in English belong only to the last category, all of her other writings which add up to about 80 volumes, are in Bengali. Chakrabarty also mentions that, in one of her autobiographical essays, Dev Sen with her characteristic humour, described her two eyes as being different in the way they saw the world and gazed upon it. Her right eye, she said, was always full of mirth and laughter and was drawn to all that was fun and pleasurable in life. Her left eye, however, was forever turned inwards and nothing that was deeply ironical or sad about the human condition could escape its notice. This, Chakrabarty observes, was probably her way of explaining why all her critical observations of the world were always tinged with a gentle and wry sense of humour.
Recently, just a few weeks before she passed away from cancer at the age of 81, she echoed a funny line from Sukumar Ray’s nonsense verse –‘Alrite, Kamen Fite‘ (Alright , Come and Fight) as a title to her short essay where she wondered if cancer and death at the age of 81 is such a “big deal’’ after all. She wondered why friends and well-wishers were grieving. Whether this self-ironic stance and almost a tinge of black humour is born out of indomitable courage or a stoic acceptance of the inevitable order of things, is left to the reader to decide.
Among her popular works are Bama Bodhini (Fair Bodhini), Nati Nabanita ( Actress Nabanita), Srestha Kabita (Foremost Poem)and Sita Theke Suru (Starting with Sita). A forthright and strong advocate for women-centred narratives, many of her works focus on the figure of female protagonists. Among other significant pieces is an archival piece of research along with a commentary, called Chandrabati Ramayana. Her English translation of the 16thcentury Bangla poet Chandrabati’s version of the Ramayana –together with her discussion of the text, the 16thcentury Telegu poetess Molla’s Ramayana, some texts in Marathi and Maithili, as well as the more contemporary Telegu writer’s Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Vishavruksham(1974-76), will remain an enduring contribution to feminist scholarship on the study of the epic.
Her essay/critical commentary on Chandrabati Ramayana details the rediscovery of a version of the Ramayana by a sixteenth century rural woman, called Chandrabati. Dev Sen’s piece is a tour de force of feminist criticism where she speculates on the possible reasons for its dismissal by the male custodians (often self-appointed) of the literary establishment. Chandrabati’s book, dismissed by these critics as a fragment and therefore incomplete, focuses on Sita’s Baromashi (in the genre of a seasonal tale), Sita’s story details her birth in the form of an egg to Mandodari, her subsequent journey to the court of King Janak and then her marriage to Rama. The account of her birth puts a very different spin on Sita’s genealogy. According to Chandrabati’s version, Rama’s credentials as a husband and father are questionable. Rama, in the Chandrabati text, is a bad husband and an irresponsible father. This contrarian view is perhaps unacceptable to the literary establishment, and a systematic ‘silencing’ of the text took place.
Uncompromising in her belief in personal and intellectual freedom, Nabaneeta Dev Sen belonged to a generation of academics who did not hesitate to speak truth to power. She will continue to inspire coming generations of students, scholars and writers.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Life writing, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender in literature and feminist theory at national and international levels. Some of her recent publications include articles in ‘Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings’ (Routledge,2019) in ‘The State of Hurt’ (Sage,2016), in ‘Ways of Seeing/Ways of Queering’, (Interdisciplinary Press,2016), in ‘Unveiling Desire'(Rutgers University Press, 2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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