Writing books for kids is no child’s play! But for actress, child activist and now author Nandana Dev Sen, what’s especially fun about writing for children is that you can use fantasy to make reality more lucid and evocative for kids, a reality from which privileged children are at times quite disconnected. She has recently come out with a new book for children titled Mambi and the Forest Fire — an adventure about discovering personal strengths and celebrating the unique gifts that make every child special.
“Most of my stories that I would like to share are a by-product of the work that I have done for child rights and their protection.” In fact, Mambi — the protagonist of her book — too is an outcome of her close association with children’s issues.
“Mambi as a character came into my life at a home for kids, who have been rescued from child trafficking and from the streets, in Narendrapur, not far from Kolkata,” she shares and adds, “The plan was to spend a day playing with them, encouraging them to express their feelings through singing, dancing, play-acting and other creative expressions. Since these kids had a history of trauma (even though they were extremely brave, resilient and talented), they were very shy, and initially lacked confidence to open up. Looking at them, I spontaneously made up the story of a shy monkey named Mambi who wants to be like others, because she feels everyone else can do things better than her. However, in the end she emerges to be the most heroic one out of all of them. After I created Mambi, I asked the kids to join in, who started inventing characters for the story that filled up the forest. Their transformation was astounding, as by the end of the day they were the most playful, irrepressible rocker group of kids, who just didn’t want to stop,” she recalls.
Writing has always been very close to Nandana, especially because of the tradition that she comes from. She grew up in a family of strong women with voices that made a difference, and was always a great admirer of the works of writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Marie Steinem, Ashapoorna Devi, Mahashveta Devi, etc. “My grandmother Radharani Debi, and my mom Nabaneeta Dev Sen redefined what it meant to be a feminine voice in poetry. My grandmom was way ahead of her times.
She was an argumentative woman, who wrote under two personas; in ’30s and ’40s, she touched upon explicit topics ranging from bold sexual fantasies to boyfriend problems. My mother apart from being a successful writer for adults, also touched upon the topics related to children,” she says. Nandana, also a Harvard graduate, trained in acting is keen on doing only those films that deal with subjects that she is passionate about.
“From playing Sugandha (Raja Ravi Varma’s muse) in Rang Rasiya that mainly focused on the freedom of expression to playing Rani’s sister in Black (a film that dealt rights of children with disabilities) and The Silence based on child sexual rights, etc., you will mostly see me doing unconventional and intense films,” she says. Believing in the transformative power of children’s books as deeply as she does in the wide influence of cinema on masses, Nandana feels translation in literature is another area that needs to be paid due credit.
“Translating works in different languages is not an easy route. We don’t give enough importance and credit to the creativity and the sensitivity that goes into translations. Anywhere else in the world, translators are seen as writers in their own right, as they are re-inventing and recreating the works that could get lost with time.” As a birthday present, Nandana recently did a bilingual translation of her mother’s book of poems from Bengali to English.
After having released second children’s book, Nandana is busy with her future projects including a book on progressive Bengali women. She concludes, “Among the adult books, there is one about three generations of rule defying Bengali women. It is actually the world of my mother and grandmother seen through my eyes. Another one is a screenplay that I wrote, soon going to be adopted into a novel. It is a story set in the interdependent world of entertainment journalism, cinema and politics.”...