A Mother's Day offering

A letter from actor and writer Nandana Dev Sen to her mother, the writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and a poem by the mother, translated from the Bengali by her daughter

Happy Mother’s Day!

Today I bring you a special feature: a letter that Nandana Dev Sen — writer, actor, and child-rights activist — wrote to her mother. And a poem by her mother, the late writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, that Nandana translated from the Bengali as part of a newly published collection called “Acrobat.”

I love that idea of child as translator, and I hope you enjoy the letter and poem below, reprinted courtesy of Archipelago Books.

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A Letter to Ma

By Nandana Dev Sen

My first semester in college. You arrived in between your conferences, suitcases and admirers in tow. Refusing abundant offers of hospitality in Cambridge, you shared (and immediately redecorated) the one-and-a-half rooms assigned to my two roommates and me. Every morning, you stood in line in our noisy dormitory to claim your three minutes in the shower. You preferred the modern steel-and-glass shower stalls opposite our room to the quieter, more old-fashioned bathroom down the hall.

You left after a week, just as I was getting used to finding your hip length hair in my comb, and turning every head in the one-thousand strong Harvard Union when you swept into dinner with me, gliding in like a queen, like you always did.

A few weeks later, we hit midterm exams. I overslept the first day, found the showers occupied and sprinted to the other bathroom in panic. As I stumbled onto freezing tiles and fiddled with the cranky knob that spurted cold water for red and boiling for blue, something miraculously familiar caught my eye. A crimson dot of velvet on the narrow grey wall. Your well-traveled bindi, carefully transported from your forehead and placed beyond reach of the spray. In flash I could hear your laugh and smell your scent. I could feel the tension in my neck melt into the mist surrounding me. That perfect circle of red gave evidence, on the mildewed wall, that you would always be there. Far away, so close.

Eternity. Poême. J’Adore. Trésor. Happy. Forever and Ever. Why did your favorite perfumes always seem to talk about you? And yet, no matter which one you wore, you always smelled, wondrously, the same. It’s that essence of Ma, that adjective-defying, all too familiar fragrance that lingered in your sari before it was washed, that seeped out of your suitcase as soon as you opened it.

The same essence greeted us every evening years ago, along with your whistled code, as Didi and I raced each other down the stairs to let you in after work. You would be awake for hours each night after we went to sleep, correcting tutorials, completing conference papers, finishing a painting, writing a poem. I never knew when you came to bed, but even in my dreams I’d get a whiff of that Ma smell when you vigorously rubbed Nivea on our sleep-heavy faces. I could feel its embrace so strongly the night you slipped away, as I held you close. While Didi and I sang you your favorite Tagore songs, your fragrance wrapped us up in all its tenderness.

You’re the one who taught us to love songs, and to love books. Our growing-up years were filled with poetry festivals and book fairs, rather than animation films and amusement parks. And while I complained about that as a child, because of you, poetry became a life-long ally. Watching you write and re-write every line of your work, I was captivated by the process of editing books, which turned into my first career.

You and I loved every one of our literary projects together. When we were translating your poems in my college dormitory, you relished my stash of instant hot chocolate almost as much as our heated arguments over each word, late into the night. Years later, on your 75th birthday, I was thrilled to see your face light up when you unwrapped your surprise gift, a published copy of my translation of your latest book of poetry, “Make Up Your Mind.” Just ten days before you died, we received the cover design of our dream project, “Acrobat.” You had chosen the image, a Tagore painting, with meticulous care, though the manuscript was yet to be written. With your famously dazzling smile, undiminished by illness, you exclaimed, “This is my first book to be published by a truly international press—I’m definitely going to stick around for this one!”

Although there were unending demands on your time, a few years ago you had somehow managed to find several days for us to translate together my bedtime book for children, “Not Yet!” The book is a playful dialogue in rhyme between a mother and a child: a naughty little girl finds countless excuses not to go to bed, while her ever-patient mother is determined to put her to sleep. The literal Bengali translation of “Not Yet” is “Ekhoni na,” but you had laughed your own little-girl laugh and declared, “No, the girl must be much more emphatic! She will say, ‘Ekkhuni na! Ekkhuni na!’” Well, this obstinate daughter of yours kept saying to her mother in the last few weeks, “Ekkhuni na, ekkhuni na…” Could you hear me, Ma?

Not too long ago, I pulled a big blue book from our Kolkata shelf, “365 Bedtime Stories.” When I opened it, out fell a red-gold rush of leaves—oaks, maples and ferns collected in London when I was a toddler. We had gathered them together in the woods at the bottom of the hill where we lived. One night, as you were reading to me about Tinker Bell, I interrupted you with a technical question. “What are fairy wings made of? Butterfly wings? Bird feathers? Or huge petals?” “There are all kinds of fairies, you see,” you replied, “just as there are all kinds of people!” “Do all fairies look like you?” I persisted. “I don’t think so,” you smiled. “Fairies are very, very beautiful.” “But Ma,” I protested, “You’re the most beautiful person in the world!” You laughed—much more raucously than Tinker Bell would—as you drew heavy curtains over tall windows. “Every little girl believes that about their mother, Toompush.”

Well, Ma, I’ve grown up a bit. My world has grown up a lot. I left home as a child, and made beautiful friends who became my family.

In my work, I’ve met many beautiful faces, walked with beautiful figures. I’ve fallen in love with beautiful minds.

You grew up too. More books published, many awards won. A few more clashes with your stubbornly loving daughters. Around your eyes, a few more lines, celebrating years of full-throated life. A few more world tours—many with me, when you swept me away with your limitless appetite for discovery, your infectious sense of wonder. Remember that list we made some years ago of unvisited countries that you absolutely had to explore? Wheelchair in tow, we made it to most entries on that list—China, Egypt, South Africa (but not Myanmar). Each time we traveled, you transformed our adventures into provocative essays or bestselling books. And on every trip, we shared even more pleasures together than our plentiful arguments.

Yes, we did have fights. I cried when you didn’t understand. I begged you not to nag. I yelled at you when I was upset with someone else. I watched, in panic, as tears welled up in your ever-adolescent eyes.

But I am as sure today as I was that night in London that, even if you had not been my mother, even if that most precious accident of birth had by rights been the beginning of someone else’s story, even if I’d met you in any of your other roles—as a poet, professor, painter, friend, or a stranger on a plane—you would still be the most beautiful person I could ever have met.

At the end of “Not Yet!” the daughter asks, “Ma, did you turn out the light?”And the mother replies, “Yes, my dear. Now, good night.”

The Lamp  

(Memories on my mother’s birthday) 

By Nabaneeta Dev Sen

“Go to sleep now, Ma,
It’s way past eleven.”
“Eleven? It’s still early, then!
But you must go to bed,
you’re teaching tomorrow.” 

Ma sits in her easy chair,
thick glasses perched on her thin nose,
pale fingers clutching her magnifying glass,
The Statesman spread out across her lap.
Next to her, on the table, her flask of tea, her medicines,
her fragrant betel-leaf in its silver case,
her brass spittoon, her cash-box.
Behind her, on the teapoy, an earthen vase
filled with her favorite white tuberoses,
and a wicker table lamp, woven in Agartala.
Before her, the alarm clock ticking away,
her traveling timepiece.

As Ma turns the pages of the newspaper,
its noisy crackle splinters the quiet night.
Closing my book, I come to her.
As soon as I step inside, I drown
in the deep perfume of those tuberoses.
The nurse is dozing in her chair.
“Ma, please go to sleep now.
It’s one-thirty.”
“One-thirty?” She scolds. “And you’re still awake?
Don’t you have college tomorrow?”
Swallowing the rebuke, I keep on wheedling.
“You’ll get sick, Ma, if you stay up like this.
You must take care of your body . . .”
“My body?” Ma breaks into laughter that sparkles,
like jewelry shimmering from head to toe.
“How much more sick can it get?
And what use is my body, anyway?”

I go to her one more time, before I sleep.
“It’s two-thirty, Ma, do call it a night.
Come, let me take you to your bed.”
“Yes I’m coming, just coming,
there’s only this one tiny bit left.

Reading isn’t so easy now, you see—
it’s the gift of these cataracts!”
With a slight smile, embarrassed, apologetic,
she buries herself again in printed words.
Under the glowing light of the table lamp,
with her focus on the magnifying glass,
the ticking of the alarm clock
fades away.
As I walk back to my room,
I hear her speaking softly to the nurse.
“No, no, my dear,
don’t turn off the light.
Keep that lamp switched on, please.
I have just one more page left . . .” 

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.

Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, actor, and child-rights activist. Nabaneeta Dev Sen was an acclaimed Bengali writer, the author of dozens of books, and a recipient of the Padma Shri honor bestowed by the government of India. You can preorder “Acrobat” here. The letter and poem above were reprinted with permission of Archipelago Books.

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Photos courtesy of Nandana Dev Sen