"Yeh to duniya ka dastoor hai," ("This is the way of the world") is what my friend Professor Kavita Panjabi said, when I whinged about my world shrinking at the news of the death of our friend and former colleague, Professor Nabaneeta Dev Sen. I wish duniya ka dastoor were different.
What I admired most about Nabaneeta di was her joie de vivre. She brought it to every situation, and could transform a moment of darkness into one of hearty laughter.
In 1974, when I returned to Kolkata after a two-year stint at JNU, Jadavpur University's English department had just asked me to come and teach there, in addition to my teaching at Lady Brabourne College. My classes were mostly at the end of the day, and I quickly became part of the late afternoon adda in the Comparative Literature department office room of Subir Raychaudhuri. Manab Bandopadhyay, Pranabendu Dasgupta, Anuradha Chanda (from the History department), Shankho da (from the Bangla department), Swapan Majumdar, Shibaji Bandopadhyay, Father Antoine, all made a beeline for that room on most days, and as is usual with the typical Bangali adda, conversation ranged from pure gossip to poetry and politics.
Nabaneeta di, raw and hurting from her separation, was a part of this group. Now and then she would read us a poem or portions of the novel she was writing at that time, and only then did one understand what she was going through. Even from those days, it is the joyous, lively person I recall most. One day, for instance, as I was coming to the end of my lecture, Bhabani, the old faithful of the Comparative Literature department, limped in to my class with a note from her saying, “Taratari class shesh koro: Narayaner daak porechhe” ("Wrap up your class quickly. Narayan is looking for us"). I had no idea what this cryptic message meant. It was apparently an annual event at the onset of winter, when Subir da would treat us all to “phulkopir shingara aar notun gurer sondesh”, on the day that a Jodhpur Park sweet shop put up its red banner announcing the event.
In January 1977, we were all immensely saddened at the death of Mashima, mother of Professor Jashodhara Bagchi, Nabaneeta di’s oldest and dearest friend. Nabaneeta di had been away at the time. Jashodhara di, who had been holding up with exemplary courage upto this time, cried uncontrollably in the arms of her oldest friend, who had arrived back in Kolkata to the news that day. I was in the room, and I guess everyone there was a little weepy. I asked Nabaneeta di where she had been: she had apparently gone to Allahabad to experience the Kumbh Mela first hand. She wanted to know what it was that drove so many people to it each time it happened, every 12 years or so. She had expected to sit in a corner and observe the event rather than participate in it. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, she told us the full wacky story of being fully dressed in two cardigans and a shawl, on the cold Allahabad winter evening, and being dragged into the river by the sheer force and belief of the thousands present there and emerging wet and disgruntled. By the end of her narration, Jashodhara di and all of us were laughing so much, our sides were aching. She wrote of the experience later in Desh, if I remember correctly. I do remember that while it was written in her usual ebullient and elegant style, it wasn’t a patch on the telling that evening. She was an inimitable raconteur.
In more recent times, I remember the celebration of Ashok Mitra’s (economist and former finance minister of West Bengal) 90th birthday a month ahead, on 10 March, 2018. Her old college friend, my husband Saugata, had died a few months earlier. She had been in Delhi at the time, visiting her children. It was the first time I had seen her since then. She enveloped me in the warmest of hugs and said, “Saugata'r koto smriti achhe: Paris-e onek mawja korechhilam” ("I have so many memories of Saugata. We had so much fun in Paris"). She sat next to Ashok da, and was clearly his most favourite guest. She persuaded him to recite a funny little poem there. Ashok da looked cheerful and alert; about a month later, when his actual birthday came around, he died. Nabaneeta di and I spoke on the phone a few days later and recalled the joy of the evening with him.
My most memorable takeaway from that evening, however, was a little exchange. I told her she was looking gorgeous, and she responded with the characteristic asthmatic hoarse chuckle, that was her sine qua non: "Hyan, ekhon aashi botshor boyesh hoye gechhe, aar lal chhara manay na" ("Yes, I guess at the age of 80, only red looks good on me").
Dear Nabaneeta di, I shall always think of you in a red sari, with a huge bindi on your forehead, and the joy that came to you so naturally in sunshine or in rain, and which you shared with us so generously. I like to think of you on a cloud somewhere with all our old friends, continuing to do this.
Sajni Mukherji taught at Jadavpur University's Department of English, and was a long term colleague and friend of Nabaneeta Dev Sen.
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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2019 10:04:27 IST