By Nancy Naomi Carlson
Translator Nandana Dev Sen opened a window for us to savor the poetry of Bengali women through these poems translated with love from her mother.
Acrobat: Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Translated from Bengali by Nandana Dev Sen. Archipelago Books, 153 pages, $ 18.
My interest in the rich tradition of Bengali poetry began on my very first visit to Calcutta three years ago, where I was a guest of Seagull Publishing School, brought there to teach a master class in translation. I found myself in a one-of-a-kind city: a cacophony of bicycle bells, car horns, English and regional Indian dialects, as well as a mix of brightly colored saris, exotic spices, car exhausts held together by duct tape, and a crush of people going about their daily business, some preparing their meals in the streets, corners of which they had staked, guarded by snarling chained dogs. And yet, after leaving the din of the street and climbing a dark staircase, I opened the door to Seagull’s offices and found myself transported into rooms overflowing with books, mobiles and works of art. amazing beauty – a world like that of Nabaneeta Dev Senator
Critically acclaimed Bengali writer and expert on comparative literature, Dev Sen (1938-2019) is considered one of Kolkata’s “greats”. Indeed, she received the Padma Shri Prize, India’s fourth most prestigious civilian honor. She was the only daughter of two poets and began writing at the age of seven. Family friends included Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore has greatly influenced his life and it is she who gave him his name.
Dev Sen graduated from college in Calcutta and received her MA in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, followed by a second MA in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. She completed her doctoral studies at Indiana University. At Jadavpur University, she met her future husband, Amartya Sen, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Divorced in 1976, Dev Sen returned to Calcutta to raise her two daughters as a single mother, something Indian women generally did not do at the time. Equally unusual, she spent the next four decades continuing to build her literary and academic reputation by writing over 80 books in Bengali, including poetry, plays, travelogues, novels, short stories, children’s stories with girls as protagonists and translations. However, Dev Sen wanted to be respected above all for his verses; she was often quoted as saying “I am a poet more than anything else.” Indeed, the artistic and the domestic were in contradiction in her, as these lines of her poem “Broken Home” show: “Do you break your home just for poetry, / Time and again? Likewise, in “Make Up Your Mind”, she writes: “In me / Breathe two people— / Make up your own mind / Who do you want / This woman, / Or me?
Dev Sen drew an ever-growing circle of admirers around her. Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books, recalls meeting Dev Sen for the first time in 1984, and shared the following with me in a recent personal communication:
Big deal to be taken home one evening by Samik, my founding editor and her contemporary. She opened the door. She was attraction personified. And laughter. Strong and all-encompassing. Open the door. Samik says “meet Naveen Kishore, etc., etc.” She interrupts me with her arms wide open, pulling me into a wide and welcoming embrace and as I literally disappear into her chest, she says “Welcome Naveen Kishore”. I’ve been waiting for you all my life ‘! Face red and excited and confused and totally flushed, it took a while for the penny to fall: Naveen and Kishore are two words that mean the same thing. Naveen = evergreen, Kishore = youth. Bengali poets have spent their lives writing about Naveens and Kishores. So.
Kishore described her as an activist who has never hesitated to give her honest and direct opinion on the subject at hand, and whose poetry, in Bengali, is “fantastic”.
Dev Sen chose to write in Bengali rather than a language steeped in colonialism. It was a conscious political choice, an expression of his solidarity with those who spoke his native regional language. Bengali lends itself better to rhyme than English, and it is famous for the musicality of its lyrics. Dev Sen also used neologisms, as well as striking imagery. His poems are deeply influenced by the classical Bengali literary tradition which incorporates Arabic and Persian literary forms. My Bengali speaking stepdaughter tells me that written Bengali is very different from spoken language and quite difficult to master.
Despite her larger-than-life personality and extraordinary literary career, Dev Sen has remained relatively unknown outside of India. With the release of Acrobat, Nandana Dev Sen, her daughter and translator, admirably took up the cause of the widening of the scope of her mother’s poetry. Dev Sen had planned to collaborate with his daughter on this project, but sadly died of cancer shortly after selecting the book cover – “Mother and Child” by Rabindranath Tagore. The beautiful illustration reflects the poignant tone of the book: the curved figure of a mother wrapped in a sari envelops the child held in her lap. The two figures are surrounded by black. A green / black pattern is visible at the top of the square in which the figures sit, enhanced by the rust / orange background of the blanket, which takes up the color of the mother’s sari.
Acrobat contains five sections, their poems representing six decades of work organized by theme rather than chronological order: “The Unseen Pendulum”, “I Cage Language”, “Sapling of a Heart”, “Do I know This Face” and “Sacred Thread” “. “A list of poems by publication date can be found at the end of the volume for those wondering when a particular poem was written. For example, the first poem in the collection, ‘Acrobat’, was written between 2000-2009, and the last, “The Return of the Dead,” was completed much earlier, between 1970-1979. This non-chronological order of the poems, in my view, engages the reader on a deeper level and is aesthetically pleasing.
Many of these poems have never been published in English before. While the majority of the poems were translated by Dev Sen’s daughter, we know which poems were translated by the author herself, which were originally written in English, and which were translation collaborations with her. girl. Themes include those that affect all of us, no matter where we live or who we are, including motherhood, the passage of time, mortality, and the one that attracts me most – language. One of my favorites in this section is “Alphabets”, shown below in its entirety.
I enjoyed the unexpected oblique “cage / tongue” rhyme in the first stanza, as well as this unusual muse-like creature. The assonance of “world / word” is also cool, and the pure rhyme of “word / bird” seems a fitting ending for this language-based poem.
Another favorite in this language-focused section is “Combustion,” below, which highlights the power of words.
As I read through Acrobat, I found myself drawn to the distinctive way Nabaneeta viewed life – how her worldview was shaped by living in Calcutta, studying in the United States, and traveling the world. I was delighted with every new detail I learned about life in India, including evocative references to the sweltering heat of Calcutta, teapots, Oxfam blankets, monsoons, Ganges, cricket and Lal Ded , a Kashmiri poet and mystic from the 14e century.
Perhaps the most moving poem in this collection is “This Child”. Its first line slaps the reader with heart-wrenching and rarely articulate truth, but then softens with a comparison of the milk-baby’s purity and the promise of life in “this strange and dazzling world.” Below is the entire poem.
Keep in mind that Acrobat is a rarity: it is a translation of a work by a woman author by a translator who is also a woman. According to the translation database kept at the University of Rochester, translations make up about three percent of all books published in America, and the majority of authors are men. The numbers become downright dismal when the data is disaggregated to determine the number of BIPOC authors living in non-European cities whose poetry is translated. So, Nandana Dev Sen’s invitation to savor Bengali female verses through these lovingly translated poems is truly a cause for a “big party”.
Nancy Naomi Carlson, a two-time NEA literary translation grant recipient, has published twelve titles (eight translated). An infusion of violets (Seagull, 2019) has been called “new and remarkable” by The New York Times, and she was decorated with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of French Academic Palms. www.nancynaomicarlson.com