“I have bronchitis.” It’s almost the first thing Nandana Sen says, walking in just in time for her session at Kitab Khana, the hip south Mumbai bookstore. A few days later, emailing from London, she’ll provide an update: “…taking a while to get rid of the bronchitis”.
I put it down to being a thing with Bengalis. An instant kinship with anyone with Ray or De, Chatterjee or Banerjee for a surname. And that we consider illnesses legit social conversation. You only need to be halfway through Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines to know that.
But it also tells you something about Sen. In her decade-long acting career, she gravitated towards offbeat roles. Now, at 49, having turned full-time children’s writer, she shows no traces of really having belonged in glamorous Bollywood. Mainstream actors don’t talk about bronchitis, let alone make public appearances.
She parks herself on the stage floor, as close as possible to the kids in the audience. She asks for names, birthdays, favourite books. Later, in a different context, she says, “I’ve always been more comfortable with kids than with adults.”
She gets the kids to play characters from her fable, Mambi and the Forest Fire. In her geeky glasses, ringlets flying as she jumps with them and swishes an imaginary tail, she’s more drama teacher at school than that woman with a famous face, and a famous surname.
Book signings and photos done – she sits Santa Claus-like, hauling children on to her lap one at a time – we find ourselves two chairs in one corner of the store.
She’s keen to talk books, kids, and social work. More specifically, her books, her social work. “Not Yet [her latest book] was just published is in nine Indian languages [bilingual, including English]…,” she’ll annotate our conversation in the end.
The book is nuanced: a mother asking her daughter to go to bed, the young one imploring, “Not yet”. Though in playful rhyme, the scenario is relatable. “There were many inspirations for it. First, having a niece I’m close to, who never wants to go to sleep. Second, I’m fascinated by the magical time between being awake and falling asleep, when the imagination runs wild and anything seems possible...” This confluence of younger-older concerns runs through Mambi too, a fable about friendship and chivalry, but trials that manifest as a forest fire.
In the last two years, Sen has written three books. She’s got two more coming up. Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm, about a kid and her single mother, in nonsense rhyme. “The inspiration was the Jabberwocky [Alice in Wonderland]. The words seem nonsensical at first, but are anagrams for kids to unscramble. In the second story, you discover antonyms in every line.”
While her transition from actor to author seems abrupt, Sen says she’s always been writing. Perhaps the best testimony is her monthly fiction series, Youthquake, for The Wire. She writes evocatively on adolescence, sexual violence and childhood trauma. The audience is adult, but kids are still her subject.
Sen’s desire to work with kids started early, during school in Kolkata. She was part of book-collection initiatives for kids less fortunate. She’d go on to work with UNICEF, and now Rahi – Foundation (they work with child sexual abuse victims).
All this while, she remained a voracious reader. “When I went to Harvard, I had one-and-a-half suitcases full of books. I knew I would feel bereft without them,” she says.
It makes you wonder if she was a misfit in movies. Sen crosses her arms at this point. “I’ve always had eccentric taste in films. I picked themes I connected with, or causes I felt passionate about.” Black, Rang Rasiya and Autograph (Bengali), yes. Marigold, Tango Charlie and Prince, not so much.
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But she walked away from it. You might presume a degree of stability, besides the stellar education, that enabled it. But privilege is a byword in Bollywood. And yet, you’ll struggle to find actors who chose to leave it all, and make successful alternate careers.
Sen isn’t done with films either. She wants to turn one of her scripts into a children’s film. “I grew up watching children’s movies by Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Tapan Sinha. But now, there’s the perception [in India] that children’s films don’t make money.” She reckons they could, as those in the West do. But something tells you she’s not preoccupied with profits. The creative arts need people like that.