Nabaneeta and Antara Dev Sen in conversation on Sunday at the Kolkata Literary Meet
Well, who welcomed whom into the world first?!
Thus began All in the Family, the session on the last day of the Kolkata Literary Meet that raised a toast to the family of writers as Nabaneeta Dev Sen and her daughter Antara Dev Sen discussed the writing gene.
Antara said at the outset that she did not believe in the writing gene and spoke about the influence of the people she was surrounded by when she was growing up.
“Ashapurnapishima, Premenkaka, Tarashankarkaka… the family of writers was the real family for us,” chipped in Nabaneeta, whose novels include Sita Theke Suru and Nati Nabanita.
Antara shared an anecdote from her “fun” childhood. “When I told a mashima that my mother taught me and I didn’t take tuitions, she asked: ‘Tomar ma ki pass korechhen? (What is your mother’s educational qualification?)’ When I asked my mother the same question, my dimma, who was highly protective of her only daughter and spoilt her to no limits as you can see, said: ‘Tumi kalkei giye oi mohila ke bolbe je amar ma double MA, Harvard theke pass. Tarpor PhD ar PhD r poreo pass... (Tell her my mother is a double MA, a Harvard graudate, a PhD and has also completed post-doctoral studies...’”
Antara also spoke about her “all-women” family of divorced mother and widowed grandmother. “Even the cats were females. We thought we were a really normal family until my mother started writing about it,” she laughed.
The high point of the interaction was Nabaneeta’s stories from her travels — from sleeping under the open sky after suddenly deciding to leave Maha Kumbh Mela 36 years ago to sharing a bed with five unknown men, writing about it and getting hate mails. Then there was Dr Lalwani, who couldn’t sleep with a woman in his room and preferred to spend the whole night awake than risk his honour. “Amar moner modhye ekta jor achhe je ami jai kori, amar kichhu hobena (I have this belief that no matter what I do nothing will happen to me),” said the septuagenarian, to a round of applause.
When asked whether she would be able to do the same things today, both mother and daughter agreed that the threat perception has changed radically. “Earlier, I would ride my bike in Calcutta in the middle of the night and many times it would break down and some rickshawwallah would help me out. But when I moved to Delhi, it all changed,” said Antara, the writer of India: The Eternal Magic.
Ancient epics and modern takes on them were in focus when India’s first female graphic novelist Amruta Patil and Madeline Miller, the writer of The Song of Achilles, chatted with academician Supriya Chaudhuri at the KLM session on Epic Fascination.
Writing a book on contemporary urban life made Amruta to set her next one in a very different milieu, that of the Mahabharata, said the writer of Kari and Adi Parva.
| (From left) Amruta, Supriya Chaudhuri and Madeline Miller during their session on Sunday
Miller had a very different story to share. “With Patroclus (an exiled prince who was Achilles’s companion) as the narrator, I had initially written the story in a very epic style and then realised it just would not work with the young Patroclus as the narrator. So five years into the book, I dumped it and started afresh.”
If Miller went against the belief that Graeco-Roman classics are boring and tried to present a different perspective on the Trojan war, Amruta’s disregard for traditions helped her forge ahead with her own take on the Mahabharata. “Very early on I did away with the historical aspect. I don’t give a deuce whether the whole story happened 3000 years ago or not,” she said.
Writers Anisul Hoque, Belal Chowdhury, Ranjan Bandyopadhyay and Nimai Bhattacharya had a heart-to-heart on the fight for Bangladesh’s linguistic identity at a session titled Praaner Bhasha, on the last day of the KLM.
| Tavleen Singh makes a point during her session
Bandyopadhyay fondly remembered his trip to Bangladesh, the theme country at this year’s Book Fair.
“In Bangladesh, we have celebrations almost every month. On Poila Baisakh, lakhs of people come out on the streets to celebrate, decked out in red and white,” said Hoque. The session ended with the hope of more cultural exchange between the countries.
She had taken on the Gandhis in her book Durbar and on Sunday afternoon, political columnist, journalist and writer Tavleen Singh spoke out against “intellectual terrorism”, criticising Mamata Banerjee for keeping Salman Rushdie out of Calcutta.
“I am really, really disappointed that Salman Rushdie is not here.… Shame on your chief minister for doing this. I nearly decided not to come. It is more poignant because it is happening in Bengal. If this can happen in a city like Calcutta, it can happen anywhere,” said Singh, opening the session titled A Tryst With Dynasty on Day Five of the Kolkata Literary Meet.
She spoke to Sayan Bhattacharya about the failures of the Gandhi family, the media’s fear of criticising them and their appeal to the people. According to Singh, maybe Mamata “will not be good for Bengal but she is an outcome of a political process…. She is not there because of her mummy and daddy.”
Singh’s assessment of “the future Prime Minister of the country”, Rahul Gandhi: “He is a very slow learner…. He seems not to have understood why he wants to be in politics. After the Delhi rape, I scanned the papers for one comment from this young leader but there was nothing. He really hasn’t got it yet.”
EAST FOR THE WEST
What biases do western readers have to writings about the East? This and many more questions on writing about India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for the West came up for discussion at the session, Writing East, Looking West, moderated by Sujoy Bhattacharya.
Bharati Mukherjee, who writes about the immigrant experience, spoke about how, initially, she was asked to italicise non-American words and provide a glossary of them. She spoke about how she had to fight to get the audience and publishers to read her not as an ethnographer but as a fiction writer.
Corban Addison, human rights lawyer and writer of A Walk Across the Sun, which deals with trafficking, said he had to work hard to maintain a balance while portraying India’s vibrancy and dark underbelly. John R. Schmidt, who writes non-fiction about the East, said he felt the need to provide the background to the “crazy radical” groups in Pakistan to the Western readers.