Review: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Poems translated by Nandana Dev Sen

The late Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a vital figure in modern Bengali literature with more than a hundred books either written or edited by her to her credit and though she wrote a lot more prose, it was poetry that was the heartbeat of her writing. As she puts it, “…it was in the looking glass of poetry that I saw my face for the first time. Poetry was my first confidence.”

In an admirable introduction, her daughter and translator, the actor and activist Nandana Dev Sen says that this is a selection from six decades of poetry, which includes a few of her mother’s own translations. The poet herself reveals, “Poetry would offer, as ever, the final refuge. It never lets me down. Every time I was flooded over, and drowning, poetry pulled me up onto dry land. I survived.” Indeed, as her daughter de ella points out, “Poetry played a leading role in many of Nabaneeta’s novels as well, in form and in content.”

184pp, ₹499; Juggernaut

Now to get to the poems: they are both lyrical and formal, encompassing several subjects and situations. The most moving one, The Lamp, is about her ailing mother. Her mother de ella pleads as she reads: “I have just one more page left/one more paragraph, one more sentence—/give me one more word, dear nurse,/just one more day.”

Several of the poems are short, crisp and evocative as this one called Time:

She is only asking for time/Five minutes, nothing more./Because she knows/She can stretch/Those five minutes/Into a lifetime.’

And this one: ‘Like an old alarm clock/You start ringing in my heart/I shut my ears tight.’

Nabaneeta Dev Sen at a prize distribution event at Science City auditorium in Kolkata, West Bengal on June 19, 2011. (Samir Jana/HT Archive)
Nabaneeta Dev Sen at a prize distribution event at Science City auditorium in Kolkata, West Bengal on June 19, 2011. (Samir Jana/HT Archive)

The book is marred a bit by a few clichés like ‘Loneliness an unbearable weight’, and I’m not quite sure if all the praise heaped on her by famous writers on the back cover is well deserved. I’m also not sure of the relevance of the title stuntman. But this collection should be best remembered by a poem like reflection: ‘In an empty room/at a lonely table/my reflection in the glass whispers,/ ‘How are you, Nabaneeta?’…’In an even softer whisper/the steam from my cup of tea/sends the secret reply’.

I am no expert on Bengali literature, which has a high reputation. Deserved or not, I don’t know. But this book will certainly enhance that high reputation.

Translator Nandana Dev Sen (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)
Translator Nandana Dev Sen (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to meet Ms Dev Sen a few years ago. We had lunch at Baga Beach. She was a gracious lady. As gracious as her poems by her.

Manohar Shetty’s new book of poems ‘Borderlines’ will be out in a few weeks.

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