#DesiReads: Nandana Sen reads from her English translation of Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Bengali poetry collection, Acrobat

desi books nandana sen

Desi Books Ep 62 w/ Nandana Sen (guest hosts: Brown Girl Bookshelf) Desi Books


(available at Anchor.fm, Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 62 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

This entire week, we have the brilliant ladies from Brown Girl Bookshelf as guest hosts. In #DesiReads today, they’re introducing a reading by the writer and translator, Nandana Sen, from her new poetry translation, Acrobat. This is a collection of poems originally written in Bengali by the acclaimed Nabaneeta Dev Sen.

Before I hand over to them, here’s a quick introduction to our wonderful guest hosts.

Mishika Narula is the lady behind the lens and leads partnership marketing at BGB. She is a champion of physical books over e-readers and finds it unnatural to text without perfect grammar. Outside of BGB content, she expresses her creativity best in the kitchen.

Srisruthi Ramesh is the head of strategy & design for BGB. She is also known to be an amateur philosopher, eye-balling cook and baker, elaborate storyteller, and to move to small remote towns on a whim.

Thank you so much, Mishika and Sri. It’s been such a pleasure working with you. Take it away, please.

#DESIREADS WITH NANDANA SEN — INTRODUCTION

Bengali poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen (right) and her English translator and daughter, Nandana Sen (left) [Photo provided by Nandana Sen]

Nandana Sen is an award-winning actor, writer, and child rights activist. After studying English Literature at Harvard and filmmaking at USC, she worked as a book editor, a screenwriter, a script doctor, a poetry translator, a short film maker, and as Princess Jasmine in Disneyland.  She is the author of six children’s books and a fiction series for young adults (published in The Wire, The Telegraph, and Youth Ki Awaaz.) Her interactive workshops have been loved by more than 30,000 young people from across the world. She frequently writes for newspapers and journals, and has edited and co-authored a bilingual book of her translations of her mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Bengali poetry, Make Up Your Mind. Her latest book, Acrobat, a collection of poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen and translated from the Bengali by Nandana, was published by Archipelago Books on May 11, 2021. Nandana lives in New York, London, and Kolkata, and loves to eat, bike, rhyme, dance, and argue.

Acrobat is a deeply humane, radiant collection by a luminary of Bengali literature with poems about womanhood, intimacy, and the body politic that together evokes the arc of an ordinary life. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s rhythmic lines explore the joys and agonies of first love, childbirth, and decay with a restless, tactile imagination, both picking apart and celebrating the rituals that make us human. When she warns, know that blood can be easily drawn by lips, her words tune to the fierce and biting depths of language, to the treachery that lingers on tongue tips. At once compassionate and unsparing, conversational and symphonic, these poems tell of a rope shivering beneath an acrobat’s nimble feet or of a twisted, blood-soaked umbilical cord—they pluck the invisible threads that bind us together.

#DESIREADS WITH NANDANA SEN

[Excerpted with permission from Acrobat by Nandana Sen. Copyright © 2021 Nandana Sen.]

Acrobat

She thought she knew acrobatics rather well.
That she could juggle time with both hands,
Play with the now, right next to the then,
She would make both dance, she thought, fist to fist—
And she would glide, so smooth, along the tightrope,
She thought she could do absolutely anything at all.
Only once in your life will the rope shiver.

The Lamp

(Memories on my mother’s birthday)

“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.

In Poetry

Stay alive
Show yourself clearly
Like the unfailing passport photo
Stay awake in every line, you,
Like an unquenchable thirst
Yes, you,
The pain that tears my heart apart,
Show yourself clearly
Like a flower in full bloom
Don’t hide from me

As long as I live in poetry

Alphabet Bird

When night falls
I search for him
I bring him home
I look him in the eye
And I cage
Language

When day breaks
Once again the world
Wraps around my eyes
And off he flies
Taking each word
That alphabet bird

Broken Home

Once again you glow, on the brink of love
Once again you’re dazzling in heartbreak
Is it for the sake of poetry, then, that
Once again you’re hunting for pain?

Do you break your home just for poetry,
Time and again?

Take Back the Night

Man: In the twilight, I could still hear the lark
Woman: The night was moonless, oppressively dark

Man: In the flowering woods, a night fairy walked
Woman: In the Sundarbans the man-eater stalked

Man: In that fragrant springtime air
Woman: Blood-drenched remains lay there

Growing-up Lesson

Boy, are you scared of bloodshed?
Are you terrified of plucking virginity?
If the taste of blood goes to your head,
Do you fear that it will be a calamity?
The truth is, whether wrong or right,
Your blood calls out to you each night.

Listen, boy, it’s time for you to grow.
Words can be as fierce, don’t you know?
The treachery that lingers on tongue tips—
Beyond the world that all your dreams show,
Know that blood can be easily shed by lips.

Unspoken

Each time you say,
“Forever, forever,”
I only hear,
“Today, today!”

Sometimes, Love

It comes when called. Like a pet cockatoo,
it sits on my finger, fluttering.
It sways its neck, fluffs its feathers, swings its crest,
and recites its practiced lines, uttering
every pleasing word.
My lily-white bird
repeats to me all that it’s been taught and sings best.
Saying just what I want to hear,
it pours honey into my ear.

But behind my back, soon after,
alone, perched on its base,
my lily-white bird
clatters its shiny shackles
as it cackles with laughter,
shedding feathers
in empty space.

Make Up Your Mind

Make up your mind
Who do you want
That woman, or me?
Within me breathe
Two people—

Make up your mind
Who do you want
That woman,
Or me?

Catch of the Day

I want to chop it up
slice it into pieces
grind it into a paste
season it
then shut it in the oven.

They didn’t win—
the sun, the rain, the earth.
It’s still all raw inside
floundering like a catfish
still alive, freshly caught:
my youth


You’ve been listening to episode 62 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today’s #DesiReads was with Nandana Sen, reading from her latest translated poetry collection, Acrobat. It’s a selection of poems by the acclaimed Bengali poet, Nabaneeta Dev Sen. She was introduced by this week’s guest hosts: Mishika Narula and Srisruthi Ramesh of Brown Girl Bookshelf. Thanks again, ladies, for doing this and for being such great guest hosts.

Episode 63 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co. And please share this reading via social media so we can keep raising the tide of desi literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
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