Wordplay with Amartya Sen and Nandana.  The man who was a big influence on Stella McCartney

  • Published 11.09.17
Amartya Sen and Nandana at the launch of Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm at La Martiniere for Girls in July. 
Picture: Pabitra Das

Nandana, you have said in the dedication of your new book, Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm (Puffin India, Rs 199), that your father created “Toomble Tumble”. What or who is that?!

Nandana: When I was a little girl in Calcutta, I got wonderful letters from my father every week, all addressed to “Toomble Tumble” (my pet name is Toompa). Baba introduced me and my Didi Picco (aka “Piggle Paagal”) to all kinds of puzzles —  word puzzles, logic puzzles, math puzzles — which we loved solving with Baba. We were also addicted to playing word games together, like Scrabble and Master Mind, and I loved nonsense rhymes, especially Abol Tabol and Jabberwocky, which were Baba’s favourites too. That’s why Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm, which is all about a chatty little girl whose colourful world is populated by word puzzles full of anagrams and antonyms, is dedicated to my father.
So wordplay was a father-daughter thing when you were growing up?

Amartya: It was certainly a part of our relationship. Not just wordplay but as Nandana said, puzzles and 
brain-teasers of all kind. And yes, we also had extensive exchanges of nonsense rhymes, a subject in which I have myself been interested from my own childhood. We read a lot of Sukumar Ray, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll together.
Nandana, when did you realise that your father was famous?

Nandana: Well, we grew up with our parents’ celebrity as a part of our day-to-day reality. Although we’ve always been immensely proud, as kids we didn’t ponder upon it too much as it was just a part of our regular life. But I must admit that I thoroughly enjoy how infamous Baba has become now in the world of Indian politics and social media, for fearlessly speaking his mind. I’m more proud of him than ever before.
Professor Sen, you have often spoken about the fact that primary education in our country needs far more attention. In that light how important is it for parents and teachers to make learning fun for children?

Amartya: I think this is a really important subject. Primary education is, of course, the most influential thing that happens to us in the field of being educated. But we have to see not only that the coverage and quality of education are adequately broad and penetrating but they must also be combined with reaching the children’s mind and exciting their curiosity and involvement, without which even the best-designed education in terms of content cannot be effective. As Talky Tumble indicates, having fun is just as educational as learning multiplication tables.
Nandana, work and distance must mean you see much less of your father than what you would like. What do you miss the most about him when you are not together?

Nandana: As a family, I must say we are all very focused on seeing each other as much as we can. For example, in addition to spending any time we can find together in the cities that are home to us — whether Calcutta, Delhi, London, Brooklyn, Boston, New York, Cambridge UK, or Santiniketan — we always spend days together in the summer, and we ring in the new year together each year, in Calcutta. In fact, just last month we had a wonderfully joyous family reunion that John (Makinson, Nandana’s husband) organised at our place in Little Beeleigh Farm, in Essex in the UK.

But yes, I do miss Baba very much when I’m not with him. I miss talking to him... I miss his humour, his wisdom and fairness, his empathy for all. I miss the deep caring he has for all of us, and the light touch with which he expresses it most often. 

What does father-daughter time mean to both of you now?

Nandana: We like going for long, chatty walks, often in Santiniketan, but also in Cambridge (Massachusetts), and along the Sabaudian beach in Italy in the summers. We used to go for long bicycle rides earlier in Santiniketan. As a child I used to love being ‘double-carried’ by Baba on the rod of his cycle! We like experimenting with new eateries in the Cambridge area and going back to old favourites. And John and I love going to the theatre with Baba and Emma (Rothschild, Amartya Sen’s wife) whenever all our schedules align, in London or New York. And, most important, we talk and argue a LOT!

Amartya: Yes, it involves a lot of talking and discussing problems as well as concerns. I expect this is not very different from what happens to fathers and grown-up children in most families. This may be a bit of a boring answer, however it is a true enough description. 

Nandana with parents Amartya Sen and Nabaneeta Dev Sen at her Little Beeleigh Farm, in Essex in the UK. Picture: John Makinson

Professor Sen, your younger daughter has straddled many careers, from acting in films to working on child rights and now as a children’s writer. As a family, did you always know she would wear so many hats?

Amartya: I absolutely did not think that she would wear so many hats, but nor did I think she would be content with one hat only from the beginning to the end of the exciting challenge of defining oneself.

‘She looks very intelligent,’ my mother, Amita Sen, told me the day Nandana was born. Grandmother Amita liked taking pride in her diagnostic ability when she would assert, much later on, that Nandana was ‘the best company in the whole world’ with whom to go to see a film — a clear proof of the unfolding of Nandana’s exceptional intelligence my mother had seen at her age zero! That diagnosis got further vindication when as a child Nandana showed her splendid skill in solving puzzles (keeping up with her sister, Antara), laying the foundation for Talky Tumble, and the vindication continued when every one of the colleges and universities in America she applied to for undergraduate studies promptly accepted her with all the facilities they could offer. Harvard was a hard choice for her to make, but, once chosen, it was not hard for her to do brilliantly well there.

The fact that Nandana was first a successful book editor and then a talented and popular actor as well as an advocate for children’s rights might have been, in some ways, easier to predict than the fact that she would establish herself so quickly as a writer of children’s books.

On the other hand, if she were to take on writing children’s books, I could have predicted that they would be funny books, getting children engaged in games and plays rather than serious, unqualified instruction.
Nandana, let’s have some wordplay. Tell us three words that come to your mind when you think of your father, words that would come as a surprise to us...

Nandana: Jokes, theatre, patali-gur. Baba loves them all, but only when they are of superior quality!
Professor Sen, could you give us three words to describe Nandana when she was growing up?

Amartya: I’m not sure that three words would be adequate in describing someone so lively, curious and broadly interested in the world around her. I could give you, as it were, three paragraphs on her, but I don’t think that’s what you’re seeking.
And what words come to your mind when you think of her now, now that she is (slightly) more grown up? Feel free to use as many words or paragraphs as you like!

Amartya: Having got Nandana into her tumbledom, I am very happy — and very proud — about what she has achieved. Nandana certainly has done a larger variety of things than anyone else in her family on either side. Being a publisher and editor of books, an actor in films and theatre, a director (if only by default) of films, an official advocate and representative of greatly needed charity work, a lecturer on important subjects, and a writer of children’s books constitute quite a portfolio. These are departures enough individually, and together no family tradition can come close to matching the range of achievements that Nandana has been able to accomplish. And the fact that each of these activities has been done with remarkable skill is extraordinary. 
And finally, what do you think is special about Talky Tumble?

Amartya: I take it that you have in mind both the model of Talky Tumble as in Nandana’s book and my conception of Nandana of herself as a child when I had a hand in giving her a name that yielded ‘Talky Tumble’. 
Well, I think there are a lot of similarities which identify the literary image of Talky Tumble with her busybodiedness and desire to spring, and what Nandana was when she hovered around the age between eight and 10. I see that in Nandana’s book Talky Tumble manages to take over other people’s work, in this case her mother’s, quite happily and confidently, while neglecting her own work. That is indeed quite insightful of Nandana!

— Samhita Chakraborty

Stella McCartney is biting into the male fashion pie 

As she answers my last question Stella McCartney breathes a sigh of relief. “Thank you God, I have got to go and work on my summer collection. I was halfway through draping a skirt and like, ugh, really?!” she quips, ever so grandly. McCartney is sarcastic like that, but she’s also just finished an entire interview about menswear — a territory still foreign to the decidedly girly designer, who may drape a mean skirt but only launched her men’s collection last season.

Earlier, she passed on a question about her favourite menswear designers, admitting she’s “not as up to speed as I could be”. Instead, she says she’ll “focus in on what feels right, and it’s very instinctive’.” Case in point, the portrait of her father, Sir Paul McCartney, hanging in her spacious headquarters in one of the dodgier corners of Notting Hill. “That man has been a big influence; and The Beatles and music in general. Just because of my heritage and being British.”

Growing up as pop royalty, the male dressers who shaped McCartney’s childhood were a little more colourful than those of your average girl raised in east Sussex state schools during the 1970s and ’80s. Not many people can say their dad’s wardrobe inspired a generation of rebellious male mod dressers in the 1960s, or reminisce about house visits from Michael Jackson. “Yeah, but when Michael came round he didn’t have one glove on and a rhinestone T-shirt. He was just Michael,” she points out, an admirable attempt at trivialising the incredible. “I was always fascinated with his hair because he had this oil in it,” she digresses. “But yeah, I definitely had a madly varied roomful of people surrounding me growing up, and, juxtaposing that, I had fairly normal people in there. I think that has influenced how I approach my work.”


One of those who started out normal was Orlando Bloom, a teenage friend who happened to become one of the world’s biggest actors. “I’ve known him forever and we always stayed friends. As both of our careers skyrocketed, we became totally fabulous and now we’re fabulous friends,” McCartney says, deadpan wit intact. While Bloom, now 40, found fame playing elves and pirates, McCartney, now 45, was conquering fashion, taking the helm at Chloe in 1997 just two years after graduating from Central Saint Martins and then establishing her own brand with Kering in 2001.

Her empire, which includes 51 stores worldwide, has flown the flag for sustainable fashion since day one, an ethos her men’s line now follows: No fur, no leather, and heavy use of organic and regenerated materials. When she debuted the collection for spring/summer 2017 in November last year, dedicating it to ‘the men in my life’ and hiring Abbey Road Studios for the launch, Bloom was quick to adopt her quirky, bohemian men’s offering.

“He was naturally drawn to it and it suits him,” she says, “as he’s quite hippy at times and not so tailored. It makes sense with his mix of Britishness and West Coast surfer dude.” Distilled into key wardrobe pieces, the Stella McCartney menswear line epitomises the new wave of amalgamated formal and streetwear, with nods to her British-American upbringing courtesy of her late mother Linda McCartney’s New York roots. (Aside from Bloom, early fans include Harry Styles and Pharrell Williams.) There are distorted classics like a jacket in Prince of Wales check that’s been cropped and hooded, or the upbeat, rather political slogan M+NMO, meaning ‘Members and Non-Members Only’, knitted into homespun-style tops.

“Stella’s one of the most authentic people I’ve ever known,” says Bloom. “What I love about her new menswear is the street-style elements of the daywear, which pull in the best of Brit and global youth culture but then add her touch of sophistication. Her suits have both that Savile Row quality and unique detailing that set them apart.”

It would have been easy, McCartney says, simply to draw on the formal tailoring education she experienced with Savile Row’s Edward Sexton while doing an apprenticeship there during her time at Saint Martins, but she chose instead to shift things up. “I don’t know if the man I want to dress is having to wear a suit every day. I’m not sure that’s modern,” she argues. “When was the last time you wore a suit? I want to encourage men to wear one because they want to, not because they’re going to get a picture of themselves taken in the street at a fashion show, or for work, or at a wedding or a funeral.”

Bloom concurs: “I’ve always appreciated good tailoring and have always liked to combine it with something that feels authentic to who I am, whether that be work boots, dress shoes or trainers — some detail that makes me feel like I’m wearing the suit and the suit isn’t wearing me.”

Men have lost a little bit of that eccentricity

Of course, next to superstar friends and fathers, it doesn’t hurt having a dapper husband if you’re entering the menswear game. McCartney is married to Alasdhair Willis, the father of her four children and creative director of wellington boot brand Hunter, who was snapped at Wimbledon this summer in a double-breasted ivory suit — part Casablanca, part Miami Vice. His wife had made it, but she’s not calling him a muse. “He’s very specific and I’m not that specific in my menswear. He represents my ideal man in one sense: probably my time at Savile Row, although he has a sportier street style. The attitude is there, but we express another layer also.”

That layer is best defined in the vivacious and graphic elements so familiar to McCartney’s womenswear. It’s that loosened-up tailored look, like the girly denim jumpsuit she’s wearing today as she acclimatises to her burgeoning menswear authority. “I wonder, is there a place for me to open up another conversation in menswear, while still respecting the codes and rules and the necessity? I think that’s where I’d like to sit.”

Conquering the British menswear market — which is predicted to grow by 22.5 per cent in the next four years to reach sales of £17.3bn thanks to a new generation of natural-born male shoppers — isn’t a bad base to build from.

“It’s a very British thing to have this irreverence and be a bit sarcastic,” she says of her approach, referencing again the boldness of Paul McCartney’s Sgt Pepper uniform — now reincarnated in his daughter’s children’s collection — contrasted by the dressy tunics he still wears, which have often been custom-made by her.

“I look at what he and my mum (Linda McCartney) wore and people around me at the time, who happened to be well-known artistes, and I feel maybe men have lost a little bit of that eccentricity,” McCartney says. “It’s become a little more segmented. There’s the “fashionista” or the really conservative person. How do you encourage the two to meet?” Ask Bloom and the reality might be closer than you think. “What social media around the world has done for men is to allow them to embrace their own sense of style, something which wasn’t always the case,” he says. “I think men now see through fashion as a uniform and are embracing the fact it can represent who they are, and how they wish to be.”

— Anders Christian Madsen
(The Daily Telegraph)