In her last column published on November 3 in a Bengali magazine, writer and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen, 81, wrote “Thik achhe. Na hoy cancer-i hoyechhe. Cancer to ekhon alakhhi-r jhapir moto ghore ghore guchhiye boshechhe. Ami-i ba bad jai keno? Hothat ashitipor Nabaneeta-r jonye eto shok kisher? (So what if I have cancer. It has settled down like bad luck in so many households. Why should I be left out? Why should there be an outpouring of grief for octogenarian Nabaneeta?)”
On Friday, when the Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer passed away in her Hindustan Road residence in Kolkata, the outpouring of grief from generations of readers was a tribute to her original literary voice, her sparkling wit and her striking forthrightness.
Born to poets Narendranath and Radharani Dev in January 1938, Nabaneeta Dev Sen grew up in Kolkata and graduated from Presidency College. Her first collection of poetry, Pratham Pratyay, was published in 1959 and her first short story collection, Monsieur Hulor Holiday, in 1980. Her repertoire included poetry, short stories, novels, travelogues and essays that had, at their core, the feminine experience — in books like Nati Nabaneeta, Bhalobashar Baranda, Dev Sen wrote deeply personal accounts of the lives of Bengali middle-class women, their aspirations and assertions of independence.
She also examined contemporary social issues, the loneliness of nuclear families, gender identity, immigration and exile in her works. Ami Anupam, written in 1976, for instance, delved into the role of the Bengali intelligentsia during the Naxal movement. She had also extensively worked on the Ramayana, examining it from the perspective of Sita and other female characters. Her Sita Theke Shuru and the work she did on the Chandrabati Ramayana are seminal works in Bengali literature.
Dev Sen married Amartya Sen, economist and Nobel laureate, in 1959. The two separated in 1976. They have two daughters, Antara and Nandana.
She earned her PhD degree from Indiana University, US. She taught in the Comparative Literature department of Jadavpur University besides holding academic positions in various noted universities across the world. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2000.
“Nabaneeta di occupies a unique place in Bengal’s literary canon. Her deep erudition shows up in the wide arc of her scholarship. From travelogues to her work on Ramayana, she represented an unparalleled blend of humour and original vision. Despite the fact that she had been very unwell for some time now, she had a deep love for life and was completely committed to her writing,” said National Award-winning song writer and film director Anindya Chatterjee, who has known her for over a decade.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted, “Saddened at the passing away of noted litterateur and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen. A recipient of several awards, her absence will be felt by her myriad students and well-wishers. My condolences to her family and admirers.”
A statement released by the Presidency Alumni Association said, “We convey our deepest condolences at the sad demise of Nabaneeta Dev Sen, beloved president of Presidency Alumni Association. She was the first woman president of (the) alumni association.”