When I packed for my first trip to India, I saved room in my suitcase for a manila envelope filled with manuscript pages with a Calcutta, as it was spelled then (and I will keep the spelling of the time) address printed on the outside. I’d been given the packet by an American Ramayana scholar with the charge of returning it to Nabaneeta Dev Sen when I reached Calcutta. I arrived first in Delhi in the middle of the night and took a cab to Defence Colony, where I would report to the American Institute of Indian Studies the next morning. As we entered through the gates, there was a white cow standing indolently in the middle of the road. While we waited for the cow to amble onward, I said to myself, Carolyn, you are really, truly in India! The next morning, I found Flyover Market and bought my first salwar kameez, red with mirrorwork and embroidery on the wrists and bodice. I was drawn back the next day for a second and third so that I could shed my drab winter attire and emerge like a butterfly, ready to fly to Calcutta. I suppose that sense of transformation is emblematic of my experience each time I returned to India, but this first stay might not have been as magical as it turned out to be if I hadn’t been chosen as a messenger.
When I arrived in Calcutta, the flood of sights and sounds was overwhelming. Slowly, day by day, details began to emerge. I worked on reading the Bengali signs, often feeling disappointed: ব্যাংক . . . oh, “bank” . . . ,” ডাক্তার . . . sigh, “doctor.” Just English words, transliterated, after I’d labored so hard. When I walked from the Ramakrishna Mission to the find the address on the envelope in Hindustan Park, I was still marveling at everything I saw. Thus, I’m not sure whether one aspect of the walk is an actual memory or the vestige of some strange anxiety dream. I was baffled by the sequence of numbers as I was searching for the house number. I was accustomed to the orderly consecutive numbering, block after block, at home, where streets mostly run parallel and perpendicular. But it seemed to me that the sequence, if there was any order to it at all, was like a spiral. Mine was beyond the usual newcomer’s confusion following verbal directions with obsolete street names or the changing names along the same roadway. But I did find the address and was charmed by the name on the house: Bhalobasha. The magical association between বাসা and ভাষা, the chiming of basha and bhasha, prompted me to think that I might have found a “house of good words.” I felt as if I were turning into a character in a fairy tale.
I rang the bell, introduced myself, and was led upstairs to meet Nabaneeta. As intrepid as setting out for India on my own might seem, I was shy, uncertain. I knew enough already about the person I was meeting to feel more than a bit intimidated, but she welcomed me with genuine warmth, invited me to make myself comfortable, and as we talked, I heard her laugh for the first time. Sajni Mukherji, in a tribute written shortly after Nabaneeta’s death in November 2019, describes that laugh affectionately as her “characteristic asthmatic hoarse chuckle.” To my ear, it was infectious, completely unself-conscious, welling up from deep, deep down, unlike any other laugh I’ve ever heard. It does not surprise me to read in another tribute that her laugh “was so lively that even at 80 she sounded like a teenager.”
Nabaneeta had the gift of making a newcomer feel instantly at ease, and we had one of those rare, frank conversations that perhaps only complete strangers with shared interests are fortunate enough to have. She invited me to come back, and I did, not just that winter, but when I returned to Calcutta the next year too. At the time, I was unaware that Rabindranath Tagore, some of whose poetry and short stories I would later translate, had given her the name Nabaneeta. In a 2010 interview, she mentions Tagore’s having written a letter explaining that the name he was giving her was not only a gift but an heirloom. He had first offered the name Nabaneeta to her mother, Radharani Devi, on her marriage to fellow poet Narendra Dev, because Radharani was being brought into a new life. But she refused it, saying that she’d been living for twenty-eight years with another name and couldn’t adjust to a new one. To me, this marvelous new friend quickly became Nabaneeta-di. For all her incredible pedigree and learning, Nabaneeta’s openness and egalitarianism struck me as absolutely unhesitating and natural.
As we became better acquainted, we also talked about her writing, my translation work, and Bengali literature more generally. Once, I brought the poet Mohammad Rafiq with me to Bhalobasha. He had come down from Dhaka for the Calcutta Book Fair, after which I would travel with him to Bangladesh for my first visit. Nabaneeta knew that Rafiq was the person who had sparked my interest in translating Bengali poetry, and she was curious to meet him. I had only known Rafiq on American soil, when he was a participant in the International Writing Program. To my eyes, he was more fully himself at Bhalobasha, in Nabaneeta’s company, than in any other situation I’d seen him in. Their banter was grounded in respect, making it a privilege to simply be there, listening. Although Rafiq had taken me to visit Jorasanko Thakur Bari, Tagore’s birthplace in North Calcutta (after which I was treated to a tasty paan laced with enough tobacco to make me dizzy), it never occurred to me to talk about Tagore with Nabaneeta. She would have been amused to hear about the portrait of an elderly man with a white beard in the faculty lounge of the English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa. It was assumed to be the American poet Walt Whitman, but it wasn’t. It was Rabindranath Tagore.
Long before I met her, in 1966, Nabaneeta had written an essay on the decline of Tagore’s reputation in the West, focusing on the difficulties of translating Bengali poetry into English and the failure of Tagore’s own versions to capture the essential qualities of the originals. I know that Nabaneeta would have been the perfect interlocuter as my sense of Bengali culture developed. She was certainly the perfect guide in other instances. She invited me to join her at Bhalobasha for Saraswati puja. I arrived at 9:30 and helped with the preparations: peeling oranges, slicing apples. Kul (jujubes) and shosha (cucumbers) and phul (flowers) were also among the offerings. There were just four of us: Nabaneeta, two men who’d been members of the household for years, and me. I had brought an offering, a small green turtle candle with intricate multicolored millefleur designs on its back and a wick embedded in the center. “Too beautiful to burn,” she said. “That’s why you must light it,” I responded. She painted a lovely alpana on the floor. Sweets, fruits, and flowers, along with her current book manuscript and some of her recently published books were arranged and rearranged until everything was just so. (Nabaneeta told me that although she had grown up with a puja of only books and musical instruments, her own children rebelled and wanted an image.) Then we began, first, a reading from Tagore, then some mantras. We all showered the goddess with white and yellow flowers and were then sprinkled with water (though I don’t think it was Gangajal). During all this, incredibly loud Hindi film music was blasting from a neighboring house. And part way through, the phone rang and Nabaneeta answered it. No matter. The two men sang Rabindra sangeet. Then we shared prasad, of course, followed by khichuri (delectable!), labra, some plum-tomato chutney.
Our day didn’t end there though. We set off for a school celebration, Nabaneeta nonchalantly driving her car through the terrifying Calcutta traffic, amused by my inadequately suppressed fear and awe. The children were clearly delighted when she arrived and gave her their full attention—no wriggling—as she read them a story. After they finished singing, I was given a small clay inkpot and bamboo pen, traditionally used to write a mantra 108 times in milk on a banana leaf. I confess that I have failed to honor the tradition—where would I find a proper banana leaf to write on? The clay pot and pen now keep company with a pensive reader and a book on one of my bookshelves.
The day ended with a visit to a ninety-three-year-old man who was still teaching Rabindra sangeet. He looked no more than sixty, sat endlessly in a lotus position, straight spine, alert to everything. “Sing a song,” came the command. Woe, I have no singing voice, except inside me. When I was leaving, he told me to come back next year and bring a song. “I’ll come back,” I said, “but if you wait for me to sing, you’ll live for many more years!” He laughed.
During one visit, Nabaneeta gave me several photocopied typescripts of prose pieces that she had composed in English. She singled out one in particular, saying that it might benefit from a practiced editorial eye. I suppose it’s true that I’ve never quailed at such requests, no matter how prominent the writer. I would somehow rise to the occasion, accepting the risks that come with red ink. So as I entered the text into my computer, I made changes where they seemed needed and also noted down some suggestions. When we next met, she in turn made changes of her own on the printout I gave her, laughing her wonderful laugh when she saw that I’d used a heart symbol in the phrase “I love NY.” There’s a fortuitous symmetry to my coming to Nabaneeta the first time with a sheaf of writing in hand and later leaving with another. And yet there’s the disappointment of not having found a US publisher for the piece at the time. Now, after so many years have passed, I’ve been unable to find the Word file on any of my not-quite-dead computers.
As I’ve keyed in the piece again, I’ve made some additional tweaks, minor things like zapping or adding commas and adjusting hyphens. Fact-checking has become so much easier now, with so many online resources. When I changed the name of the river “Skrank” to “Skrang” or adjusted the lyrics in the Beatles song, I’ve imagined, with some confidence, that Nabaneeta would not disapprove. “Hopscotch,” the title of the piece, signals its structure, with the section-by-section leaps, the contrasts and juxtapositions not only from section to section (the longhouses in Borneo and then Calcutta) but within each sketch—for instance, with multiple perspectives on a single event in the second section. The traditional and the contemporary take turns: as the notes of Bismillah Khan’s shenai close one section, lyrics from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band begin the next. At the beginning of the fourth section, the reader lands on the black-and-white marble squares on the verandahs of the house next door to Bhalobasha where Nabaneeta once played hopscotch with other children. The house was sold to a developer and then demolished.
When I look at the white space at the end of “Hopscotch,” I can’t help but imagine drawing in just one more square. It would be a sketch about the coffeehouse that now occupies the lower level of Bhalobasha. In the 2010 interview, Nabaneeta explained that because of its long history as a gathering place for writers and artists, her home was a “heritage house.” At one point, she talks about her mother’s making her promise not to go to the Coffee House on College Street, across from Presidency College, where students would gather for coffee and adda, men and women alike (the source of her mother’s concern). Wouldn’t Nabaneeta have loved to have had the last laugh, saying “Ma, the coffeehouse has come to our house instead!”
Photograph by Carolyn B. Brown