In memoriam: Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s everyday idioms

I did not know Nabaneeta Dev Sen. But I knew her poetry, the few that have been translated by her brilliant daughter Nandana Dev Sen. I was deeply disappointed to read what her former husband Amartya Sen wrote. There seemed to be no soul in his words. Why do I say so? Because Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Jadavpur University’s stellar educator, authoress and essayist carved her own odyssey with the compassionate mapping of her evocative emotions.

Her poem Memories of a Floral Clock is riveting resonance at its best.In the second set of lines she quips:

Switching off the engine is no
Switching off memory
Your eye
The floral clock
Survive the rai
And your tongue
The unseen pendulum
Keeps ticking away
Deep inside me 
Telling time
Under the soil 

Her ability to juxtapose disparate images to create destabilizing effects, mood swings, emotional shifts all tell us that she had her own prism of hourglass honesty. Sometimes the juxtaposition feels tender and abstract, and this steers the connections that she made. There are some  “set piece” scenes that she fits together like the ‘ tongue being an unseen pendulum.’

But where Nabaneeta’s style and heart and palpable sense of purpose really works is in the quiet confessional moments, the still moments, the moments where she allows us to get a peek into her innermost crevices that tick away and ‘ tells time under her soil.’

Poetry happens when poets allow themselves to breathe through the thin veil of longing. Her poem Jungle Story is a conversation that every woman must read and savour.

My exile is over, mother,
No more living in the jungle for me
Come, mother, underneath this matted beard
Feed the familiar cheeks of your child
Open up your breasts, mother, and watch how
The seven streams of milk
Gush towards my parched tongue

Look at these feet, mother, the tiny feet
Where your golden bells had jingled
Look at this arm
Upon which you had tied your talisman
When I was born
Now look at this chest where you had planted
The sapling of a heart
In a soft green stretch of sun
In the hidden mesh of this dark jungle,
Impenetrable,
Has grown a hungry tree

With toothy leaves and sharp claws
And fierce flowers
It chews on other hearts
A fine flesh-eater

My time in the jungle is over, mother,
Now the jungle lives in me.

The jungle is a mapping and metaphor. As she paints the picture of the oscillation of the pages of memory she gives the reader a lot of room to breathe and allows us to float in the frames of our own spaces. As a poet never is she rushed, she does not feel like she needs to hurry from place to place. Her words linger and float on life’s many shores. When she talks of the ‘ chest where you had planted the sapling of a heart,’ she is letting us be a part of the willingness to linger in the quiet in-between moments of the passage of time and tide.

There are very stressful sequences too, as when she speaks of ‘ fierce flowers that chew on other’s hearts,’ and you think of a character who is really “on the page,” and her sense of emotional truth and honesty that carries her through. She doesn’t ever push, as a poet, she is alive at the moment. Somewhere, sometime this fiesty woman had an epic love affair, but now she conducts her affair between the visual drama of her poems that flit and float and fly before they shift into deeper waters almost by stealth.

Nabaneeta was more than a woman, more than a poet, more than a thinker, she was like a free spirit framed in the rhythms of the blues finding facets of modernist moorings within archetypal territories that had no boundaries but bled into beautiful brains like hers.

When she says: ‘ my time in the jungle is over mother, now the jungle lives in me.’ Her poem becomes a relic for the ages. She tells us that as poets we can return to rhetoric or be understated or weave quietude into personal tints in poetry. She absorbed the beauty and wisdom encoded in the threads of literature, she harnessed the power of relationships and created immensely rewarding and redemptive analogies of the pages of life, in between it all we glimpse also a gorgeous woman who loved and lost and found life between the sands of time.

Poets all over the world can learn from her structure-the loose lithe lines of eddying bays in which words are not symbols, not individualised characters, but sentinels that represent hopes, dreams, fears, and inner instincts that contain the corollary of an individual’s emotional power. And to all those who were fortunate to sit in her classes and listen to her rich repertoire of wisdom and knowledge I’d say: Cherish those moments -whence cometh another!

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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