Nandana Sen: An Elegy To An Acrobat

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Nandana Sen & Meghla (credits: Shravya Kag)

The daughter of two famous parents— Padma Shri award-winning literary legend Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen—Nandana Sen has charted her own path in life, juggling intersecting roles as author, activist, and actress. But her biggest legacy yet is her role as a devoted daughter and a doting mother. We talk to Sen about memories, multitasking and motherhood

Nandana Sen has answered many callings in life — to be an activist, author, actor — but none tested her mettle as much as her latest project: the reincarnation in English of Bengali poetry written by her late mother and literary legend, Nabaneeta Dev Sen.

Set to launch on May 11, “Acrobat” is a collection of poems that invoke womanhood, intimacy, first love, childbirth and death. The book pays homage in rhyme to the balancing act, the amazing feat that women must pull off in the tightrope of life. It has already received rave reviews from the likes of Gloria Steinem, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Anita Desai, and Wendy Doniger, professor and scholar of Sanskrit and Indian language.

“Nandana’s voice, overlapping her mother’s make a perfect fit, as one simultaneously hears the voices of mother and daughter in a duet of complete harmony,” Doniger wrote in a tribute.

“The translations don’t read as translations; they read as poems, a new voice perfect in its own right, transcending the barriers of death.”

For Sen, the book launch, on the heels of Mother’s Day, is at once heartbreaking and fulfilling. “It was a very difficult and painful project to do while grieving, because everything reminded me of her. I had never experienced grief and sadness of that kind, But now that it’s finished, I know that it also helped me [cope] with the loss. It was the hardest project, but one that I’m going to cherish the most.”

As the daughter of two famous and accomplished parents, her Padma Shri award-winning mother and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Nandana Sen says she never felt the pressure to live up to her parents nor was she overshadowed by their fame and celebrity as children of celebrity parents often are.

Sen was born in Kolkata but her early childhood was divided between Boston, Kolkata and England, where her parents were teaching. She was 6 years old when her parents divorced and her mother returned to their ancestral home in Kolkata with Sen and her sister Antarra.

“Growing up in an all-female family…, you never think for a moment that being a girl is going to inhibit you from doing [anything you want]”

Sen, who continued to maintain a close relationship with her dad, was not fazed by the divorce nor the move. Instead, she says, she developed an identity of her own, being raised by two generations of strong, feminist women — her mother and grandmother —who imbued the two girls with a sense of independence and social consciousness.

“Growing up in an all-female family…, you never think for a moment that being a girl is going to inhibit you from doing [anything you want],” says Sen. “My grandmother was a child widow. She remarried at a time when widow remarriage was legal but not acceptable, and reinvented herself as a bestselling poet. My mother, a professor who was a divorced single mom, would drive to college [when] not many women were driving cars in Kolkata. They were fearless in the choices they made and that made us feel invincible.”

Sen grew up in a literary environment, in a house overflowing with books and anthologies of women, She tagged along with adults to poetry meets and book fairs rather than going to animated films.

“While I complained about that as a child, I’m really grateful to my mother for raising me like that, because it really shaped what I grew up with, and what drew my interests from a very young age. It also created a very strong relationship between me and poetry — not a talent, but a love — that I inherited from my mother and my grandmother.”

Sen says she also learned to be self reliant at an early age, getting herself ready for school, ironing her clothes and polishing her shoes. Although she went to a school where all schooling was in English, she chose Bengali as her first language, devouring Bengali classic literature.

“My mother was in college teaching when I got back from school. My grandmother was the one who made sure I had my lunch and did my homework and would tell me stories,” says Sen, who learned valuable lessons on values.

Playtime With Purpose

Young Sen learned another important lesson on the streets of Kolkata, one that would leave a lasting mark on her psyche and her purpose. After homework, Sen ran out to play with kids on the streets and in a shanty town nearby, holding up traffic to play cricket with the boys, becoming best friends with the rickshaw driver, and squatting on the pavement to share sattu (a Bengali gram flour dish), an inexpensive but nutritious dish often called a poor man’s protein.

Playtime would end with her inviting her friends back home for a meal. “My grandmother would feed them lovingly and generously. But afterwards, they would have go back on the streets again, which was one of the most traumatic experiences [for me] as a child,” says Sen, who struggled to come to terms with the “heart-breaking” reality of inequity and social injustice.

Barely a teenager, she began collecting food and clothes to help disadvantaged children and, later, began teaching children in need. She also made pact, as a child herself, to adopt, “to give a child that did not have a home a home.” This was the foundation of what would later become more than an abiding passion – a purpose and profession.

Coming of Age

After graduating from high school, Sen decided that she wanted to study abroad, drawn in particular to the liberal arts education system in America. She made what she calls her first grown-up decision in choosing America and Harvard over England (and Oxford or Cambridge).

“I did not want to choose a country that we had been colonized by. I wanted to choose a country toward which I felt no resentment,” Sen says.” That’s how I ended up in America. I absolutely loved being at Harvard, I loved studying literature and learning with wonderful writers like Seamus Heaney and Toni Morrison, and [taking] film classes with Spike Lee, it was just great. It couldn’t have been more fun.”

By coincidence, her father, Amartya Sen, who had remarried by then and had two children from that marriage, left his position as the Drummond Professor of Political Economy at All Souls College in Oxford, and moved to Harvard University to become the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor of Economics, and to a home in the middle of Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he still lives. Although Sen stayed in the dorms on campus, having her father close was a bonus, in part because she could spend time with him, but also because she could play “big sister” or didi to her stepbrother and stepsister.

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Nandana Sen & Meghla (credits: Shravya Kag)

From Literature to Film to Children’s Books

Sen studied literature, but she also liked film, and continued her advocacy for children, organizing to start a helpline for Asian women who were survivors of domestic abuse, marching for abortion rights, and working with inner-city kids. Some of her most cherished moments were when her mother came into town for lecture tours, opting to stay with her daughter in her dorm and turning down to room and board at conference hotels.

The process of creative collaboration to translate her mother’ poems began during those years at Harvard, out of sheer necessity, says Sen.

“As an acclaimed writer and professor, she would be invited to give readings on her work, and although she was perfectly bilingual herself and wrote beautifully in English, she didn’t have a lot of translations [ready]. We needed to translate them so she had something to read. I didn’t think then that I would become her primary translator, that was not a goal. But then, that kind of happened.”

Sen graduated from Harvard, writing a thesis on black women writers, and landed a dream job in New York with Ms Magazine, founded by Gloria Steinem and a few other feminists, but she turned it down, electing instead to stay in Cambridge in a job at Houghton Mifflin, editing books like “The Riverside Shakespeare,” ”The Best American Essays” and other literary staples.

Sen had always liked film, choosing to stay behind the camera until, out of the blue, she received a call from Bengali film director Goutam Ghose asking if she would like to be cast in a film called “Gudiya.”

“At first I said no because acting was actually one thing that I had never thought I wanted to do, although I loved cinema.” Sen asked if he would instead consider her to be his assistant director. A few months later when she was in Kolkata, he offered her the job of assistant director if she would also agree to act in his film.

“Then I just completely fell in love with acting, and what you need to do as an actor,” Sen says. “I loved it because it was very different from all the work I’d done before.” According to Sen, “In a way, our family is extremely cerebral. This work was instinctive and emotional, and very exciting. Scary, but then, it was new and fun.” She continued acting, always choosing to play unconventional roles focused on social justice and political consciousness. Her first mainstream Indian film was “Black,” about the rights of children with disabilities. Others were an American film about a suicide bomber in New York City, a British-South African film about apartheid, and a film about freedom of expression and censorship. Her work in cinema helped her as a writer of children’s books, she says, where visualizing characters on a page was an important aspect of storytelling. What began as a journey in theater to help children speak up about child abuse ended up in vivid storytelling with imaginary characters, resulting in books like “Mambi and the Forest Fire,” and others focused again on children’s rights.

“I really was keen to become a mother and to adopt, and I knew that it was very difficult to do that. I wasn’t married at that time.”

“The three areas that I’ve worked extensively in are as an actor, as an activist, and as a writer,” Sen says. “They really have complemented each other.” But her childhood dream of adopting a child was still unfulfilled.

“I really was keen to become a mother and to adopt, and I knew that it was very difficult to do that. I wasn’t married at that time. And as a single mom…, how do you do that if you were an actor of the kind that I was… I was doing independent, eccentric, independent films all over the world.”

In 2013, Sen got married and finally adopted. Her mother saw her fulfil her dream and met Meghla.

“They were very close. My mom had long stunning hair until the very end and my daughter loved jumping into her bed and combing her hair,” she says.

Sen is an acrobat in her own way, winding her way down the rope of her life’s journey, balancing lives as an actor, activist, and author, to a moment in which she honors her mother, and living up to the legacy she wants to leave.

“People often say that I look just like my mother or that, when I read her poetry, I sound like her,” Sen says. “It used to annoy me earlier because you want to be as different from your parents as you can be. But [now] I just love it when people say I look like my mother. Or that when I read her poetry, I sound a lot like her. I love to hear that. I feel a very strong connection to her. It’s impossible to not think about her and not remember—I cannot even [find] the right word—to not feel all the ways in which I’m still full of her.”

We sat down with Nandana Sen to talk about multi tasking, motherhood, and memories.

Nandana Sen & Meghla photographed by Shravya Kag for SEEMA MAgazine, 2021

You grew up in a literary background, then went into acting. What’s it like to perform? And how do these rely on a different part of you?

It’s not entirely coincidental that actor and activist have the same outcome, which is to act. As you’ve asked me, what is it to act? It is to do, and you have to do as an activist, and you have to do as an actor, you have to be, and you have to do. I don’t – in my life – really compartmentalize. They really flowed into each other. And there have been lots of intersections.

You talked about your grandmother being a storyteller. Your mother clearly was a storyteller. And you, through your children’s books. That, to me, is really, full circle back to your days being on the streets, and playing with children and bringing them back home. I see a connection.

It is beautiful that you see that connection, because there is a very strong connection, and not everybody picks up on that.

When you talk about your Harvard undergraduate days it wasn’t about children on the streets but rescuing those who are underprivileged. That seems to be an aspect of you, inspiring your storytelling.

That’s a really astute observation.

What about film? Is that a way you showcase your activism?

I don’t think I’ve been strategic about any of the decisions I’ve made in my life, but the choices that I have made I’ve made with [strong values in mind]. As an actress it was always very befuddling to everybody. Nobody really understood why I said yes to certain films and why I said no to certain films, Every film that I’ve done has had a very strong social or political consciousness.

There was a lot of intersection – intersectionality – between my acting and my activism. In fact, [I did] a play, which subsequently became extremely popular, about child sexual abuse. It was based on the first report [on incest] that had come out in India, based on extensive research by an organization called RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) with which I had worked with for many years when I was an ambassador. On opening night, a lovely young woman who stood up and said the play felt like she was looking at herself in the mirror, and how her story was almost exactly the same as the story of a young woman I was playing, who had been abused by her uncle. She had never broken the silence – and [doing it then] was incredibly brave. This was at the Prithvi Theater, a famous one in India. She spoke her truth in that way that was both deeply moving, but also inspiring and stunning to me. Just her bravery! In those sorts of ways, like all my work, my film work, my theater work, they’ve all been very close to the values that I’ve had as a human being and the priorities that I’ve had as an activist.

They were very, very close. My mom had really long like, stunning [hair] to the end. [Meghla] used to love jumping in her bed and combing my mother’s hair. I have lovely videos of her doing that. And she loved being in my mother’s house.

How did you begin writing children’s books?

My first book actually came out of a workshop I had done with children, who had been rescued from trafficking and from the streets. This was in a children’s home outside of Kolkata called Sneha. I would do workshops, which [involved] performance, music, singing, dancing theater. That would be a way of encouraging kids [too] traumatized to express themselves. And it was part of the rehabilitation and reintegration process.

Usually kids have much to say, but one particular group was very shy. Everybody in the group felt that others were much better. To break the ice, I created this character of a monkey who was really shy and and wanted to fly like her friend Coco, the crow; to swim like her friend Tonga, the turtle. She didn’t value the fact that she could jump higher than everybody else. Then… we [described] a forest fire in which she was the hero and saved all her friends.

That became our play. And then that turned into my first book. While I was working with kids, there were all these stories that kept coming out of the [workshops]. Eventually, I moved to my home in Brooklyn, New York.

Why did you move to New York?

Because I was very busy in India, both as an actor, and as an activist. I decided that I had to make a choice and start writing and take a break from acting… Because if I didn’t focus on my writing, it just wouldn’t happen.

I love acting, I miss it. But it doesn’t really allow you space to be a writer and to be a mother. If I was living at home, like my mother did with her mother, things would have been easier. But I wasn’t. I was in Bombay. I decided to focus on writing.…..And, then I met my husband.

You met your husband in New York?

I actually met him in Jaipur. But we became friends. And we met in a literary context, the Jaipur Lit Fest, but we met again in New York. I already had my place in Williamsburg and I was going back-and-forth between Bombay and Brooklyn. And my husband, John [Makinson], was going back and forth between London and the West Village.

We intersected in New York when we were here, and eventually got married. And we had our daughter. We adopted together.

So you came full circle. That’s great. I want to ask about your mother and the book that’s launching. You started on this journey when you were a student at Harvard. How long has it been that you’ve been working on this?

We did start working together decades ago, but I wasn’t doing it as a project for myself at that time. It was born out of need to [translate her poems for her readings in America].

My mother, interestingly, was a brilliant translator herself. That was one of her biggest passions. She was unbelievably prolific, she had more than 100 books in print when she died, and she wrote all the time. One of the things that she loved to do was to translate the poetry of women across the world, because to her poetry was something that was very strongly connected to women’s freedom. She did a lot of work on women’s work songs, Ram kathas and the Sita kathas that are actually sung by women in villages in India.

She’d always spoken and written about how poetry was a vital necessity for women. She also included the oral songs, not just written poetry happening in the cities. She translated [work] from around the world, but she did not like translating her own work. Not because she couldn’t do it, but to her, she had written the poem. And her work on that was done.

“My grandmother was a child widow. She remarried at a time when widow remarriage was legal but not acceptable, and reinvented herself as a bestselling poet. My mother, a professor who was a divorced single mom, would drive to college [when] not many women were driving cars in Kolkata. They were fearless in the choices they made and that made us feel invincible.”

So how did that work continue?

We loved traveling together. We made a list of places she that she wanted to go to, and I decided about 10 years ago that I would bully her into making those trips with me. We went to practically every place on that list — China, Egypt, Africa. One on the list that we didn’t manage to go to, because trouble started there, was Myanmar.

We were in Beijing. And there’s a lovely bookstore there called Bookworm. She had a beautiful new book of poetry that had just come out…, [the title of which meant] “make up your mind”. And I decided that we should use some of those poems in this reading. I translated a few of them very quickly…This was nine years ago when we were in Beijing, that I did that those translations, which she loved. On her 75th birthday, which was the next year, I did a whole book. I translated that book of poems, most of the poems and we published it, a bilingual book called “Make up your Mind,” that’s how this all started.

What does it feel like to be on the verge of launching this book, and paying homage to all her work? How did you choose?

This book, “Acrobat,” we signed it less than two weeks before she died. She was really excited about it. She was writing almost till the end. She had a weekly column that was wildly popular, and wrote about this book in her last column, and how much she was looking forward to it. This has a very special meaning. I feel more strongly about this than any of my other books…because she published her first book when she was not even 21.

So it’s a 60-year career of poetry to choose from. That is not the easiest thing. But it was basically what I did at last. She died about 18 months ago. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer exactly a year before died. I should have been prepared. And I spent most of the year with her. But I wasn’t prepared for it.

It was very hard for me …We both knew that we didn’t have an indefinite amount of time together… which is the reason why we rushed …There were several book projects that I knew were important to her, and I was finding ways of making them happen. I was hoping that she would be able to see them.

But the publisher of this book, Jill Schoolman, who’s wonderful, sent the contracts very quickly even put the cover together. We [my mother and I] chose the cover image together, which is a beautiful painting by Rabindranath Tagore. She even made a first list of the poems she wanted me to translate for sure. I used that as a guide for the translation process. I found myself going back to everything that she’d written about her own work and about translation about poetry. But, it was a both a very difficult and painful project to do while you’re grieving, because everything reminded me of her. But now that it’s finished, I know that it also helped me a lot in terms of coping with the loss because I had never experienced grief, sadness of that kind… It was not easy. It was the hardest of projects, but the most fulfilling one, the most important one. In a way, one that I’m going to always cherish the most.

I lost my own mother. It was all of a sudden. But I find myself becoming more like her… That’s the legacy.

You’re right. People often say that, and it used to annoy me earlier. But I just love it whenever people always say that you look just like a mother. People often say that I sound a lot like her, and I just I love to hear that. I feel, as I’m sure you do, too, a very strong connection to her. It’s impossible to not think about her and not remember.

Nandana with her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen (credits: Mala Mukherjee)

Why the title “Acrobat?”

It’s about the multitasking that every woman has to be has to do… how every woman is an acrobat, because to be a woman is a balancing act. That’s what it’s about. That’s why I chose that title. And she loved it. I asked her, “Do you think that’s a good [title]”?, ”That’s perfect,” [she replied].

Did your mom meet your daughter?

They were very, very close. My mom had really long like, stunning [hair] to the end. [Meghla] used to love jumping in her bed and combing my mother’s hair. I have lovely videos of her doing that. And she loved being in my mother’s house.

What do you think your mom is thinking like now? She must be very proud of you?

I hope she is. I don’t know. I mean, she would be very happy with the way the book has turned out. We’re also very lucky to have a great team in the publishing company. It’s a very small press, but they make beautiful books, and really the best of world literature in translation. It’s my mother’s first book to be published specifically for an international audience. I’ve been recording the audio book. I made the choice of recording every poem both in English and in Bengali. But I always enjoy hearing poetry in the original [language]. Even if I don’t know the language. I don’t think everybody’s going to necessarily listen to both versions. But it may be interesting to a lot of people.

So she would really feel really pleased. She achieved much. And she got many awards. And she had a huge audience… and loved the relationship she had with her readers, which was a personal relationship. She was also close to her students – as a teacher and a mentor. She made herself really available. For someone of her fame and stature, she was able to make herself available, was incredibly open-hearted and really generous. But she always felt a little sad …that she didn’t have an international audience. She hadn’t prioritized it. She had in fact very consciously made the choice of writing in Bengali. When we lived in London, all the poetry she wrote was in English fantastic, wonderful poems [that have been] published in “Acrobat”.

“People often say that I look just like my mother or that, when I read her poetry, I sound like her”

When she went back, she felt it was a political choice for her to write in her mother tongue. And she made that choice. She felt more and more strongly about the choice even while she was very supportive of Indian writing in English. But she also saw that, because that was such a powerful kind of force, in terms of representing Indian literature internationally, that it [was] important for Indian writers to keep writing in their languages, and for good translators to translate their work. Because she was always very disappointed by the quality of translation in India, which is getting a lot better now, actually. That’s a recent thing, because for the longest time, great writing in India never made it to an international audience because… either they’re not translated at all, or the translations are not good enough, or they’re not readily available. The books just arrived and it’s a beautiful production. I just wish I could give it to her.

How does it feel to be a mother? What is that like?

It feels like the most important part of my identity. I’m sure all mothers feel that way. Don’t you? Like, what could be more important than me being a mother? What could be a bigger blessing than having a child? Yes. Well, I feel very thankful. And I feel grateful that my mother, saw that part of my life fulfilled. She was very close to my husband as well – extremely close. There are lots of things that I feel that I’m thankful for, given that I don’t have her in my life any more. I’m very grateful that she was close to the two people that I’m the closest to in the world other than her.

Nandana Sen would be happy to answer questions on social media. Find her @nandanadevsen on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Check out this cover story in the May issue of our magazine right here