Oral history interview with Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Sen, Nabaneeta Dev

Manjapra, Kris


Nabaneeta Dev Sen, interviewee (female)
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)
  • Interviewed in Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Kris Manjapra
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This is a Bengali intellectual history interview-oral history interview on January 9th 2010. And I am sitting with Professor Nabaneeta Deb Sen in Kolkata, thank you very much for this opportunity; and I wanted to begin as I began all the other interviews which is to ask just where you are born, when you are born and then from there enter in to some of the memories of childhood leading up to your college time so, could you say the date of birth and when you are born?
Yes, 30th of January 1938, in this house, upstairs
And this house is 72, Hindustan Park?
Hindustan Park, Calcutta 700 029.
Very nice
Can you close this door to keep the noise out?
Sure.. sure, mam and I know that your family, your mother and your father are-were very important influential poets, writer and poets in Calcutta-world and were the owners of 'Brownies of Kolkata.'
Kolkata, yes
So could you tell...
'Brownies of Bengal'
The 'Brownies of Bengal'....'Brownies of Bengal'
Don't forget the two 'B's'
That's true
so it's a very important literary family?
That you came in to....
I am very lucky
came in to your birth. Can you tell me about what that was like to be born with two great literary figures as parents?
It was....It was a great....I must say I have been very lucky that way-this house you know, it's a heritage building-have you seen the thing out side?
I have not yet
it's say heritage. It's a heritage house because it has a long history of intellectual....
...interactions that have take place, in this house -writers, painters, singers-my parents were interested in many things. My father had written the first book on cinema in Bangla, in India, which was published in '34(1934) when only 4 or 5 books in English.
what was the name of that book?
it was called "Cinema"?
And it was about the art of film making.
Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, they have spoken very highly, you know also about this book-there is nothing in else in India or any Asian language at that time-so I mean, you can imagine they had very.. very wide area of interest, intellectual interest in many things and so all these people came home, and I have been exposed to the most wonderful people of my time.
I think....I don't know weather it know I was named by Rabindra Nath Tagore, my name was Nabaneeta, Nabaneeta means newly brought in....or newly born or newly married, so Naba is more new than Neeta is the others. So she....this is name that he gave me, and I have been very lucky I must say because I was three years old when he died.
I suppose, nobody asked for the meaning-he also wrote a beautiful letter with, it said that this is a name that you are getting as a gift, as a heirloom, a gift, which your getting as a heirloom because I had offered this name to your mother when she got married to your father because she was being brought in to a new life. But she refused it and said she's been living for 28 years with another name and she cannot adjust another one, a new one.
So now that you are just born you don't have the ability to refuse a gift that's why I am giving you this name-so it's a beautiful letter he had written to me when I just born
you still have this letter?
Yes, my there
And so my....I have had a very beautiful beginning as far as life is concerned, but I am afraid I have not been able to, do justice to the beginning, but it is in my nature
so the.. the childhood when in terms your education, as you were in your childhood period....did you go to school early where you studying at home with tutor how did you begin this
I .. I .. I .. I first I learnt my alphabets from my mother and I could read and write those English and Bangla and Hindi-which I have lost-I have not lost the alphabet but you know the language. She taught me the alphabets when I was two, from three I have been to school and...I finished school rather early.
What school did you went to?
I went to Gokhle Memorial (Gokhle Memorial Girls School)
Where is that located?
Gokhle Memorial Girls school is on Harish Mukherjee Road.
It's a....it's a very interesting school, it was started....it began with a nationalistic...flavor is not it....inspiration. It was a school for women who are going to grow up and know the nation and work for the nation and it had a lot of...Brahmin teaching education, women's education was behind it and all and you know Gopal Krishna Gokhle was a very important person.
And, they had started two schools one in, one is English medium which was Gokhle (Gokhale memorial Girls School), another was Bengali medium which was Bramho Girls school, both were Bramho media, Bramho....efforts. It was interesting because in our prayer....we had prayers from...the Bible and we always had you know a prayer, and then from the Upanishads and of course Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore) songs.
But I don't remember....I do not remember, having anything to do with....just these two, my puran Upanishad, and not nothing to do with formal Hinduism but only with Brahmoism. And this is interesting we did not have Saraswati Puja for example, in school. They were-they would give us any-they would been no they were no...religious...festivals in our school,
but any way it was..it was lovely while we were there-and we had-many of the teachers were from England
Were there women or men?
Women, everybody-all women, all women-it was Girls school, Gokhle Memorial Girls School-it also had a girls college attached-all the teachers were women.
And....the memories would be the big....we paid a lot of attention to sports also, sports and...little thing's like....washing clothes and stitching and things like that, at the same time other things like...learning language's is an all that-really good place I .. I enjoyed it
Did you have any brother and sisters?
I am an only child
So when you would come home would there be a different kind of education or induction into, you know Bengali cultural life or Calcutta based intellectual life and what it that local life?
that's....you right. Yes that's what it was absolutely.
How did that happened? I mean what-in what's from did that take?
There was not....I mean...I must say that there was not a...there was no sudden change or..or...or sudden change form one atmosphere -one intellectual culture to another-not like that..not like that because my school....within the school...they didn't allow this and that-but
then they did teach Sanskrit and Hindi also and... there was a....they being....we were being taught in English but not taught to become...Westernized. The language was English but there was always an idea behind it, which reminded us that we are Indians and the nation is important because it was still-it was not '47 (1947), it was '46 (1946) and in '47 (1947) things changed, but it hadn't changed that quickly. So...
so 1946....before going into let's say past 1947, I was wondering about what you had any childhood memories of this era, this traumatic era, famine, war?
I do..
so forth but what kind of memories come to you?
I remember 1943, I remember the famine, I remember all this skeleton like men and women...and children, who didn't look like human beings at all, asking for....I don't know what you call in English, the water that you take out of rice
In Bangla that's called
" Fan ache", "Fan dao", "Fan dao" we always heard that. And everybody tried to give some rice, with the fan and all that-and I have seen human beings and dogs...fighting over....food leftovers in the dustbins on the road-
and in '43 (1943) I was hardly five. But I remember....these are visual memories that don't go away, then I also remember....the sirens of the war-the whole area changed, the park's became....army...tents, camps- all the parks became army-we came there to play-and the resident parks were dug up, street trenches were dug up and the roads had become-we used to play on the roads because there was not space in the parks.
The roads were all...it had huge pot holes because of these army trucks, and..up down. So....it was something, it was a change, it was a...external....a kind of intrusion, something that changed our lifestyle to a certain extent-only nothing happened-but all these....foreigners in military dress and we saw them behind the barbed wire inside it-they were nice and smiled at children offered us sweets..candy and all.
They were not frightening anybody-we didn't know what harm they were doing, they were doing a lot of harm-at night, two young women, poor women, they were buying them-but we didn't know all this. I was a..
These were the Americans? Black and White, did you see black soldiers as well or do you remember
I didn't see
Mostly they were White soldiers
Because if I had seen that, I would have remembered
When in 1947- after 1947 after this was all over
This was over by 1945 but... and...in 1946 I remember the riots, the Hindu-Muslim riots. Nothing happened in this area, nothing happened in this area, it was a very, very safe area, where it was mostly Hindu's area but the Hindus...there were no Muslims in this area-they were protected so nothing happened.
But we were continuously hearing...horror stories-what was happening in Park Circus, what was happening in Bahabanipur, what was happening....what the Muslims were doing to the Hindus and what the Hindus were doing to the Muslims. We kept hearing all these stories and that was...really, really....that was much more shocking and the war....the war hadn't stopped-we didn't know what was happening-
except of course sometimes there were...we knew one day the Japanese are going to come and bomb Calcutta etc. but that was, that was...not a....it hadn't become a reality, but this was-the stories were real-and the..and as you know I could read-and newspaper's were there and I could read the news on paper. And then the radio was on all the time and so we give our-in those days...those were days of radio-
and it was on all the time, and we could hear, what was happening in those days. Then of course in '47 (1947)
How did on one side, lets say Politics meaning either Left politics or Congress Politics, how did that come in to your home, and on the other side how did religion come into your life or not come into your life. Was it still a very Brahmo family, was it a Secular family?
This was a secular family. My mother had a tendency to be a Brahmo but she wasn't a Brahmo. It was a Secular family because my mother was a child widow; she was married at 13 and was a widow at 13, within a few months. Then later on she became a writer-a very well known writer at a very early age.
What is her name again?
Radha Rani Debi. And then my father and my mother married when she was 28 and he was 43. He hadn't married he was a....my father's family comes from a very old Calcutta...family, 300 years we had been in Calcutta. Our old house is still there and....
Where is the old house?
Ton Tone Kali Tola...there's a Kali Bari, Ton Tone Kali Bari-very famous- Kali Gem, just opposite-it continues of College Street-not, I mean it's very close to College Street
Manick Tola
No, College Street
College Street Ok.
Not Manicktola
Not Manicktola
College Street is..is is where all the book store's are
where Presidency College is. If you continue on that road, then you will come to Ton Tone, not Manicktola, Kali Tola. And in that building, that house-actually housed the National Congress office in Kolkata. So all the famous Congress leaders were there, and all meet in that house. And 2 of my uncles were famous...Congress workers.
What was there names?
Rajindra (Rajindra Chandra Deb), Rajindra Chandra Deb and no I should not say he was famous-he was famous, the road is named after him Rajindra Deb Road it's called, and the other one is not famous-I don't know why I said that-he was a Congress party worker-but he was very young-
because he was a terrorist and ran away from home when he was 14 or 15, something like that
He was a Swadeshi
Yes, Swadeshi movement. And he ran away...finally was...it took....he went into the Rama Krishna Mission-
ultimately he couldn't find a place to hide himself-he became a Sanyasi, very early in his age when he was about 17 and he stayed there- he became a Sanyasi. I saw him as a child, as a Sanyasi and he wasn't...but he studied at the Rama Krishna Mission- I think we already established that-but all this began from the Congress Party.
What was his name again, this Uncle who became a Sanyasi?
His name was Nalin Chandra Deb.
And your...
Rajendra Chandra Deb was the elder brother, Nalin Chandra Deb was the younger brother. My father was the member of the Original Samiti-Anushan Samity was the place where all the young men, with Nationalist intentions went and he was one of them. They, had made all these promises never to get married and all that, that's why he was unmarried till '43 (1943) and then he married my mother
This is about Narendra Deb
Narendra Deb, he married her because Bidhoba Bidhoba Bibah was different, so...it was a very interesting wedding, where my mother gave away herself, "Atmo Sampradan"-" Kanya Sampradan," usually the father does it or male member does it and if no male member is available then the mother.
But there is also a possibility of a grown up daughter offering herself, her own hand-that's what my mother did
So was there a feeling of?....there was a unique family that you had, your mother was very strong
very strong
And very liberated in that way in that sense
Very Strong and very liberated
So how did that influence your imaginations as a young girl or your or your experiences as a young girl
You know...I mean it was a very complex....experience, because she was a very strong person...till the end of her life. And my father was a...tall and handsome, healthy, non interfering poet. He did not know what was happening in the family as long as he is allowed to do his own work-so he was happy. Only thing is....he is interested, only in he's interested in his books all the books and all the dogs.
I grew up with a dog always-because I was the only child they felt that there must be a dog to keep me company, and to make me responsible-so always I had a dog in the house. My father took care of the dog and my mother took care of me. That was the division of labor- and my father took care of all the books, and my mother took care of the rest...of everybody's life. And ran the family and everything.
ut she was a very sickly person, she had bad asthma, and quite a lot of time quite a lot of time in bed-but she did she did whatever from the bed. I think after my birth, she decided to...spend their energy on... bringing me up, rather than continuing as the young intellectual person that she was. She was very famous not only for her poetry, also for her criticism
And would it appear in magazines or...
Yes, those were the times of magazines, that is where everything took place, all changes were there-were taking place-were reflected in the magazines. Very important journals were coming out then, and a lot of women were writing
Mam which were the most important ones? That were the most important of these 'Patrika' (Same Patrika)
Several, depending upon the time. 'Same Patrika' was not important all over the time At some time it was 'Sabuj Patra' and at some time it was in my time it was called.... In the middle it was 'Probasi' and 'Bharat Barsha'-you know but what a 'Bongo Bashi,' you know whatever...The magazines were important because they had a very serious impact on...on the....readership and on a...building the....
thought process of people, because you could see there was a lot of discussion about what was coming out. People responded, people wrote letters, people...even if something in one magazine, you have reply in another magazine-it does not normally happen, but in Bangla in those 20's (1920's), 30's(1930's), and 40's(1940's) that was happening. And so it was a small group, but very active and aware and I am lucky that my parents were a part of it.
I had a sense....in little what I have read little about the magazine movement that these contributors were crafting a new Bengali language or so
Not always
Not always
your thinking of the 30's (1930's)
When they were thinking what words to use and influences from abroad and so forth, and so by the 40's (1940's) it would have changed? 50's (1950's) it would change?
No, no, no it was continued in different ways.
40's (1940's) was doing something else and 50's (1950's) was doing something else, but the basic thing was in the 30's (1930's)- the most important. 20's (1920's) were not that....because see even in the 30's (1930's)-The thing was Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore), as long as Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore) was writing he was the greatest impact and influence-so everybody was under his influence.
In the 30's (1930's) the young generation woke up to the fact, that they are not being able to do anything on their own...there can be nothing original, they are completely overwhelmed by Rabindranath Tagore and his style and his language, so they want to break out of that. And in order to break out of that, they wanted to look outside India, and go to foreign literature and borrow from them-and then...so naturally they did very well.
My father was a good translator, he also learnt a lot of languages. He had translated 'Umar Khayam,' and he's translated 'Hafiz,' and he had translated 'Megha Dutam' from Sanskrit and from Parsi-but Persian he was learning from a "Maullavi"-and the translations that he did was not from the Persian, it was from...
mostly from the English, but with the help of the 'Maullavi' to see that he's not...the English is not wrong, is not different you know-it's interesting, he was a very interesting man, he did a lot of work and he, he also had learnt German and French, so when I went into comparative literature I still had his old dictionaries not useful very much, and his...both his language teaching books, grammars.
So when you were an adolescent, then did you already....this is where... did you go to School? Your pre-college institution, where did you go?
There is no pre-college. From School you go to College. I went to Lady Brebourn College
Lady Brebourn College
Lady Brebourn College
Which-is that where you did your intermediate?
Intermediate. But the word-pre-school hadn't come yet-pre-college-pre-sch-pre-university is the word-hadn't come yet. Intermediate was the...term meaning that-we did that-I did that at Lady Brebourn College because Presidency College, which was the most famous college, did not accept women intermediate- so for B.A. Graduation we went in there
What year did you begin at Lady Brebourne College
I began when I was 14 and I began in '52 (1952)
In'52 (1952) and what year did you enter Presidency (Presidency College)?
2 years later... It was '54 (1954)
Did you know when you entered...even when you were at Lady Brebourne (Lady Brebourne College), that you want to be you surely want to be writer or a teacher or a professor?
Yeah, I was not interested in being a professor, I always wanted to be a writer. Because thats not out of choice. In my house I saw-both my parents wrote, all their friends wrote, the discussions they had, the social discussion, or you know who came in, they were exchanging their new books new publications, they were talking about what's coming out what you are writing next,
how was your book received and, and then who's reviewing your book? All the time discussions were about writing, about books, so as far as I was concerned I thought, when you grow up you will write books. So I didn't, I didn't really meet too many others-the others were singing or painting.
So I did some painting and....music is not my line, though I was taught to sing and dance, but I don't think I was brilliant in either. But....my parents tried to do whatever they could for me. I loved...I was good in sports-I was the sports secretary in Presidency College-I was...I loved to swim and...I have a life saving certificate-all these things. I liked to do physical things along with intellectual things but anyway....
When you entered Presidency (Presidency College) did- were you already writing poetry then?
Yes, yes
When did you start really writing, crafting language- writing feeling that you...
Crafting language-yeah you see I first wrote, my first...poem that came out....in commercial magazine when I was 12.
What magazine?
In 'Bharat Borsho'
And what was the name of the poem? You remember?
I am trying to remember...there were 2 poems actually, very similar. I think that this was called....this was about- this was later-that was "Jatri"- one Italian girl I had met.....well I am trying to remember her what it was....I don't remember don't ask me.
What I remember is the first poem that came out when I was 7 years old that I remember, but this one I don't remember it came out as Naboneeta Deb-it can be found
Yes, exactly.
If I remember, it said "Baro" in bracket 12 so if you look at it in library-when I was 12 it came out in 'Bharat Borsho.'
Great and then after that what was kind of your next publication major publication-you know when did your poems began appearing....
From when I was 16. But when, when I was in College, when I was 14, I had, I received the....I had written a poem, people were writing for the magazine and I had written a poem for the magazine and they liked it and it came as a first-everybody, quite a few people said, it sounds just like your mother, mother must have written it for you-the rhythm is your mother's, the language, the crafting is your mother's
I did not know whether to be happy about it or sad because mother did not know-I was-luckily it was written in class and I had friends and witnesses. So they said no no no no no, Debi, she wrote in front of us because the last date was over, so we said write something and she wrote. But then I realized that it is like my mother-I did not know that before, that I am writing like...following my mother's style-I really didn't know.
My mother and my father's style were very different and my mother wrote in 2 styles under 2 names. Radha Rani Debi is her name, and she was known as Radha Rani Debi, and the style I was copying was that. But then she had.... a debate with a very famous writer, thinker of that time-Promod Nath Chowdhury was also a relative of Rabindranath Tagore-very famous thinker of his time-
who got the sonnet and etc- he really was very, very, very famous for whatever he did for Bangla literature at his time-because, he tried...he was a Francophile-there weren't Francophiles in those times, and because he was a Francophile he was different. And he had...he was very particular about you know what they are supposed to be like and he was very careful about his diary.
He told my mother, that why is it that all the Bengal women writers write like men. Why are they so...male centric? Why don't they have their own language? Why don't they talk about themselves in their own language? They talk about themselves in the way a man would talk about them, why do they do that?
It's interesting that he thought of that-this was in the late 20's (1920's), no early 30's (1930's) early 30's (1930's)-because my mother was married in '31 (1931), and it was after my mother was married. So she decided to take a challenge, and started writing using a different name, Aparajita Debi-you know what "Aparajita" means, you know what "Aparajita" means, I am language-so she wrote under that name.
She started writing in a language and a subject, only a woman can write. The first poem was called "Nishit Kalloh"...fought quarrel-it's a bedroom scene between a husband and wife, and they are fighting. The wife is complaining because he is late and all that and they make up with a kiss-everything is....no women has ever written like that before, no men even men don't write like that.
So it was a big thing in Bengali literature and that was the appearance of Aparajita Debi. And she continued to write-very smart and....funny, and sometimes serious -experimental poems in Bengali-for 7 years she wrote and was a best seller. And everybody was talking about this women whom nobody could meet because she apparently was married to a very old fashioned family and lived in Assam,
so was not....she could be only contacted through a the post-and she had a good friend in Kolkata, Radha Rani Debi who knew all the literary people and she was presenting-my mother was writing in left hand, the handwriting was different
Hmm, fascinating
And then she did all that and Rabindranath Thakur (Rabindranath Tagore) was really, completely moved by this women and he wrote to my mother that who is this friend of yours, she is fabulous, he wrote to her and she wrote back and they....all those have been published. And the letters came Aparajita Debi care of Radha Rani Debi. All that when I grew up, I already knew all these things,
so naturally you know, I knew that there is this women who knows about....but you know then she stopped writing as Aparajita Debi after 7 years and continued to write as Radha Rani Debi from the old style-she did not take up the style. Later on when I asked her why did you do that? She said when this the....the story that we all know, this is the uniform language, this is the way everyone writes
why should I make myself a marginal person by writing in a style that nobody writes in-ok they wanted to see whether women can write it I have shown it I have proved it- so if you want to write well, you have to compete with the rest, and if you want to compete with the rest you should be working in the same style, and when your trying something else, then your not really competing, so I want to write in this and I want to write well.
That was her point at that time, anyway she stopped writing very much after my birth because she said... and her point was that she must pay attention, full attention to the human being for whom she is responsible, and all that-and I felt very bad because later on she quite often said this, that she stopped writing because of you- that she should not have said that she did but anyway
Where there...when you were developing as a young person, when you started going to college, you were writing, who were the influences most important to you, besides your own mother-either literary or in any other part of your life, who were the people who were the most sort of impressive- did you at that time did you feel, or even in the retrospect that you know you look back as you seeing, being quite important.
College, when I was growing up as a young person, I had many friends-in Presidency College....lots of teachers were very good. One teacher was Tarak Nath Sen, TN Sen (Tarak Nath Sen), he had a very big impact on my, me, and...in Sanskrit we had a teacher called Gouri Nath Shashtri, he also...I found that he was very important to me-I got interested in Sanskrit literature because of him and....
in fact in the English Department we had many good teachers, but he was the best. Later on when I went into Jadavpur University to compare literature, there I was....I think I got into...I received a new, I don't know, a new life because Presidency College is an old fashioned place and it's very traditional. The teachers also think traditionally, and they offer what they have been offered.
In terms of the syllabi, in terms of the culture or...
Exactly and sort of, it's not liberating, i felt, it was the opposite, it was not liberating
Do you mean as a young women or just as in a person?
As a person, as an individual also. All the young men-and maybe there are very few women in those days-I found one thing very exciting in Presidency College, everybody read new books and they were talking about books, and they were...discovering themselves through books. I was 16, you know this is very young, very young, but I found it very exciting, unfortunately you know, I both suffered from my mother and...I have gained I have lost because of her.
She told me, you should never go to the, coffee house because when she was- I wanted to go to Presidency College- she was supporting me-but all our relatives said no that is co-education College, we come from a old fashioned house family she should not go, let her continue in Lady Brebourne (Lady Brebourne College) it's a good class one college, why do you want to shift her from one class one college and transfer her to another class one, what's the point?
And then there is this Coffee House which actually is a place for men and women to meet and to have fun and so we...lets..so that was what so she said always don't go don't let her then .....My mother said okay she will promise me that she will never go to Coffee House, which is the place where you loose your character, so don't go there, go to the College. I went to College and I walked across the Coffee House to Sanskrit College everyday- we had Sanskrit classes-
and I felt like crying because my friends went and I had promised Ma, Ma would have never known if I had gone, but I can't think of breaking a promise to Ma or to anybody you know-there are some problems that Ma created in me like you cannot tell a lie even when you need to badly, you know-for example, I will tell you a story, a story that my daughter says--one day somebody had called me and I didn't want to...this person was calling me continuously, and I didn't want to take the call,
so my daughter said Ma has gone to the bathroom, I had not gone to the bathroom, I was nearby and I ran to the bathroom
hee he hee
And they laugh about it Ma, why did you run to the bathroom? I said but you said
hee he hee
So that is not me, that was my mother, it's really bad because it's does not allow to protect yourself sometimes when you need protection anyway so....
Did your friends who were going to the college did they try to say common just come once?
Of course just common don't you see what's going on?
and you were
And so I said no not now, after I finish and get out of Presidency College I'll come-I didn't promise her that I will never go there so in two years I went and I went afterwards
but I missed out a lot-in those two years, formative years I missed a lot, I mean lots of things were going on in Presidency College which I could have- because later on when I went, I went from Jadavpur University, this is long distance- and I just went at the visitor from time to time- and this would have been a regular visit, I would become a member of the coffee house society-its not the same thing, which the boys were member of and few girls were but I couldn't be-so I feel deprived of a very important cultural experience which would have helped me, would have developed my senses better
so I feel deprived of a very important cultural experience which would have helped me, would have developed my senses better
Who were some of the names of colleagues, fellows students that were most important for you in terms and... what if you didn't have conversations with them and in the coffee house, where did you then have your intellectual discussions not with the professor's, students?
We walked... we walked.. we walked.. we went to the place to sit down, where be read some thing, we came over-my mothers house was open to men-she never said don't bring men friends home, every body was....it was open, every body would come, we could have tea and talk-no body is allowed in to the bed room, but it was open-so we always sat and chatted and this was the place, and we walked and we went to you know this.
Sometimes we just sat in the other lawn in front of...in the college nobody stopped us from doing that you know, so we always discussed....I learned a great deal about modern literature, modern poetry from them-and I had my first love affair happened there and that young man, my class mate he had...he used to give me new books of volumes of poetry
if you are comfortable saying his name?
I don't mind I am only 72...what do I...
Great, yes
What was his name?
His name is Abhas Sen and he...the relationship was very what shall I say-not what you understand by boy friends today. It was just ....a friendship which we thought was a great love relationship- but it was...in those days even you if you...