I got the news not from family, but from a hashtag. (That tells you everything about how far I’ve drifted.) #RIPNabaneetaDevSen popped up on my Twitter feed and I realised what it meant. Just for a moment, everything stopped and my head was filled with rasgulla.
Before I knew Nabaneeta Dev Sen, I knew stories of her. Like the one in which she carried rasgulla and mishti doi to America — this would have been in the 1970s, I think — but was stopped by customs officials. She was told that she couldn’t carry food into the country and certainly not dairy-based food. But these were delicacies, she protested. They’ll just rot if they’re kept quarantined for 40 days. The official shrugged, disinterested. Fine, she said and (allegedly) plonked herself down on the no-man’s land that was the floor of the airport, out of the theoretical reach of the customs official, and started opening up the pot of rasgulla. If this can’t enter America with me, then it will enter America through me, she said as she declared her intention to eat every damn rasgulla rather than let the sweet rot in quarantine. Also, she told the official, let’s hope they had an ambulance handy because she just happens to be highly diabetic.
That, for me, will be one of the abiding images of Khuku Mashi — radiating challenge, eyes twinkling, and holding in her hand the challenge of a rasgulla.
Or at least I think it will be. Right now, my head is a jumble of so many images of her that I’m certain I must be making some of them up because it’s been a while since I saw her. Her laughter — heartfelt and hard-won from the breathing ailment that made every intake of breath a small and crucial victory. The giant disc of her bindi, larger than her shining eyes. Her face lighting up as we talk about the Ramayana and she tells me about Chandravati’s version. Her bickering with Chhoto (her youngest daughter, Srabasti) and then laughing with her. Her feet — tapering and delicate; nails painted in a rich, glossy colour. Her reading using a magnifying glass, peering at the font as though it was tiny even though it was actually so enormous that each line was made up of one or two words. Her hair, thick as monsoon clouds. That striking, strong bone structure with the high cheekbones that gave her face a sculptural quality. The rasp of her voice, determined to be heard; gentle in tone and rough as a cat’s tongue in its tenor. Her being simultaneously unreasonable and endearing. Her looking me straight in the eye and seeing so much more than I was ready to share.
Nabaneeta Dev Sen — Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi award winner writer and teacher — was Khuku Mashi to me. She and my mother were cousins. Khuku Mashi was known for being the eccentric one, which is saying a lot given the collection of lovable cuckoos in that side of the family. We’ve got a lot of bright people in our brood, but I think Khuku Mashi and my mother stand out because they’re just dazzling. You’d never guess the two were related from their appearances, but scratch the surface and they had a lot in common: a ferociously-active brain, indefatigable energy, the ability to turn outsiders into insiders with the force of their affection, a determination to be joyful and an enviable work ethic. Khuku Mashi’s last published article is from October 9, 2019 (I think).
Frequently mentioned alongside her mother Radharani Devi as a writer, she quickly developed a distinctive voice as a writer and she was prolific despite a relatively late start. She wrote essays, novels, short stories, poetry and plays, and won awards for some of these. I haven’t read her enough, but whenever I’ve found her essays, they’ve drawn me in. There’s a fluency to her writing in Bengali — and English — that is so difficult to achieve. Writing so that the prose is insightful and elegant without becoming wordy or losing the easy lilt and rhythm of everyday poetics is a monstrous challenge. It’s easy to write simplistically and impossibly hard to write simply. Bengalis take pride in their language, like so many communities in India. Often, you can see showboating (a beautiful but impossible mouthful of a word here; an elaborate and laboured metaphor there; and so on). But not in her writing.
Khuku Mashi was born in Calcutta and British India, in 1938. Her name, Nabaneeta, was given to her by Rabindranath Tagore. Imagine growing up while a colony roils to unshackle itself and become a country. Her parents filled their home with books and conversations, which she listened to and took part in. While India pieced itself together into a country, she grew into herself and became the woman and writer who studied, spoke up and wielded words with grace. She’d always been beset with different kinds of ailments, but she’d also outwitted them with her willpower. The cancer, though, was different and she knew that. Uncannily, it surfaced in her around the same time that toxic conservative politics infected India.
Over the decades, she’d travel around the world, always returning to the home that was Bhalo-Basha (it’s a pun in Bengali. Bhalobasha means love. Drive a wedge between the two component words, it still has meaning. Bhalo basha means the good home). I’ve always thought it was the perfect place for her micronation because even if you had only known her for a moment, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her. I’m going to regret all those times that I’ve scuttled past Bhalo-basha without ringing the doorbell.
Newspapers and websites will probably refer to her as Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen’s ex-wife. It’s true, she was. Just as she was mother to three remarkable women. I’ve always found it curious that so many people found her divorce more fascinating than the way she built her family of choice. I always felt it was the latter that showed how radical she was — she was trying to reshape the family into a more supportive and adaptable construct than it traditionally is, especially in India — rather than the former. She was also a beloved teacher, a celebrated writer and a pillar of support to many. An alumnus of Presidency College, Jadavpur University, Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley, and Cambridge University, she had a resumé that was essentially plated in academic gold. Yet she didn’t flaunt these and neither did she make an exhibition of her erudition.
It’s possible that she will not be remembered for being a brilliant stylist or legendary author by future generations. Her writing is unlikely to enter canons. She wrote with the fluid ease of a river, and fluency is not considered artistic. Perhaps what will remain charming and endearing is how she folded elements, people and objects from reality into her writing, and created a record of what we fell just short of in our lives, like irreverent heroines and happy endings. Wittingly or unwittingly, her writing is a subtle record of what we (and she) wished was true of us as a society in these times.
A lot of her work was doomed to have the shelf life of the publication she was writing for, which meant it could be as short as 24 hours (in case of a newspaper) or months (the Puja editions of magazines remain items to be cherished). There are readers who will remember individual stories. There are writers and students who will remember individual conversations. There are others who will remember the things she said to them. We told stories about her when she was alive and we’ll revisit her in them now that she’s become a story.
Someone on Twitter just described her as “LIBERAL MAFIA QUEEN Nabaneeta Dev Sen”. I can practically hear her cackle delightedly.