Published: 26th August 2019
Choosing adoption over having kids is a personal decision: Nandana Dev Sen
Through her latest book In My Heart, Nandana Dev Sen talks about adoption and love and why every child has a need to know where they came from
Nandana Dev Sen wears many hats – actor, activist, screenwriter, writer and recently, a mother. She adopted a girl child and is as happy as she has ever been. Her most recent book, In My Heart, also talks about adoption, and in the most intimate and sensitive way possible. The book is about Mia and her quest to discover her 'tummy mummy' — her biological mother. And what does she find? Read the book to find out! Here's a conversation we had with Sen that should convince you to grab this book. Excerpts:
The book wonderfully describes adoption to a young mind. How and when did you think of writing this book?
I’d been thinking for a long time – in fact, for as long as I’ve been working with children, many of whom were institutionalised, displaced or homeless – about how much we need a gentle children’s book about adoption. We know that loving homes could transform thousands of young lives in India, yet adoption is rarely addressed either in our books for kids or our mainstream media. In My Heart addresses questions that every adopted child is bound to ask about her/ his birth mother – I’ve witnessed them being raised by adopted kids within my own circle of friends and family, long before I became an adoptive mum. Going through the process myself made the topic even more emergent, of course.
Nowadays, more and more people are adopting, or at least want to adopt, and don't want to have a child of their own. What do you think of this trend?
There is still an immense backlog of kids who desperately need homes in India. It’s true that there is growing interest in adoption now, and the process has become much more streamlined, thanks to the commitment and hard work of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. It’s also true that at a very young age, I decided that whenever I would be ready to be a parent, I would adopt rather than bear a child. But in general, there is not a strong trend of parents choosing adoption over having biological kids. After all, it’s an absolutely personal decision for every parent, like it was for me. Families come together now in so many different but equally wonderful ways – biology, adoption, surrogacy, second marriages, LGBTQ parenting. I hope In My Heart encourages its readers to think more actively about the fact that beyond genes, it’s the universal bond of love that unites every family, biological or adopted.
All together: Nandana Dev Sen at Tata Steel Kalam KLM, Victoria Memorial | (Pic: Mala Mukerjee)
How much of the story or instances are borrowed from your own life, seeing that you adopted a girl as well?
While our daughter has not asked about this yet as she’s a bit too young, I’m close to many children who wanted to embark on a search for their 'tummy mummy'! It’s totally natural to have a need to find out more about your biological mother, even if it’s impossible to know the answers and it’s right for the family to act supportively. I hope this book makes it easy to discuss this issue, which can sometimes become quite emotionally fraught for both the child and the parents.
Operation Smile, RAHI, Apne Aap and UNICEF are just a few initiatives you work for. And you also write a lot for children. Is there any reason why this particular cause has a special place in your heart?
I grew up in Kolkata, and as it turns out, I started working (and playing) with kids when I was little more than a kid myself. I’ve always believed that there is nothing more urgent than protecting the rights of children. They are by far the most vulnerable of this world, where three out of four children suffer some form of violence. We must all invest in and fight for the health, safety, dignity, education, and happiness of all children. After all, what future would our planet have without them? (smiling)
If Sen had a better aptitude for Science and Math, she would have loved to be an astronaut, she says
You are an actor, activist, screenwriter and writer. What do you like to be identified as the most?
I must say I’ve never believed in a binary or reductive definition of identity. To 'write' is to create, and to 'act' is to do (a root that both 'actor' and 'activist' share), and all my areas of work complement rather than contradict each other. To choose one identity over another would be as impossible for me as choosing to be a mother rather than a daughter! They are an intrinsic part of who I am, and who I love to be.
With everyone in your family being iconic individuals, we really wonder what it was like growing up. Did you grow up around books, were you encouraged to pursue all art forms instead of chasing marks? Also, today, do you turn to your family for feedback?
It was marvellous to grow up in an all-female family of writers, surrounded by books, steeped in a culture of endless argumentation and compulsive creation. I was quite nerdy and always loved reading, so marks were not the problem. My family never obsessed about grades; on the contrary, in my third year at Harvard, Ma said to me, very seriously – “I’d be so proud of you if you have a bit more fun, and for once get a B instead of an A!” But I was already having the most fun I possibly could, soaking up lectures from huge inspirations like Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee. And yes, to this day, my mother is my first and most indispensable reader. Wherever we are, we always send each other drafts of what we are each writing.
On the cover: The book cover | (Pic: Express)
You've emphasised on "developing translations as a literary form" and have done your share to further this belief. With many Indian languages fading into non-existence, what do you think we can do to speed up translations or draw more attention to it?
Yes, it is an enormous priority in multilingual India to cultivate greater and better translations – greater in quantity, and more creative and effortless in quality. It's sad, to say the least, that we can’t stay abreast of even the best vernacular books written in our country, let alone introduce the rest of the world to them. This is an equally big crisis in children’s books here, stemming from the same problem. We haven’t learnt to appreciate the importance and artistry of translation, nor the value of knowing vernacular literatures. As a result, most privileged kids are fast losing their connection to their mother tongues, especially in the cities. I’m lucky that one of my books, Not Yet!, is available in India in nine languages, and I’m glad that I translated and published a bilingual book of my translations of my mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s much-loved Bengali poetry, but the truth is that very few companies publish translations. Or, indeed, bilingual books, which are especially wonderful for kids to have in India, where most child readers are culturally bilingual (or trilingual). It is imperative that we create an infrastructure that would give translation the recognition and dignity it deserves – we need more publishers, more academic programmes, more financial support, more acclaim and accolades for translators. I'm delighted that this year, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature was awarded to No Presents Please, gloriously written in Kannada by Jayant Kaikini and masterfully translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. As a jury member each of us had to read 88 books, but the truth is, most of the translated works were not as imaginative or ambitious as they could have been. That said, as a DSC Prize judge I was proud that we had four marvellous books in translation on our stunning longlist, and I hugely appreciate the support and encouragement that this award gives to translators. We urgently need more such strong incentives across India – not just commercial, but also critical, cultural, and academic.
Can you tell us a little about the illustrations of In My Heart, done by Ruchi Mhasane, because they seem as sweet and tender as the writing itself?
Ruchi is a wonderful artist, and her illustrations added a lovely poetry to the story. She also produced them in record time! Right from the start, we had long intercontinental discussions, by phone and email, about our ideas for each spread. I so enjoyed working with Ruchi, and also Parag of the Puffin design team.
Author's gaze: Nandana Dev Sen | (Pic: Mala Mukerjee)
Quick four questions -
What are you reading currently?
Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison.
Your all-time favourite book?
Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray.
Your favourite quote?
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” - Alice in Wonderland
Which book would you recommend for the child of today (barring your books, of course!)
The Grinch by Dr Seuss – for timeless fun, infectious rhymes, ingenious illustrations, and an early discussion of empathy. What more could anyone ask for? (laughing)
For more on her, check out nandanadevsen.com