Considering Nandana Sen’s lineage, merely saying that she comes from an illustrious family somewhat feels like an understatement. Sen is the daughter of Nobel Laureate and Bharat Ratna economist Amartya Sen and Padma Shri winner Nabanita Dev Sen, who is one of the most well-known authors in the contemporary Bengali literature. Her sister Antara Dev Sen is a veteran journalist and editor and Sen, after being an acclaimed actress working with directors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ketan Mehta has also forayed into writing children’s books.

Admittedly, her love for putting pen to paper far exceeds her affection for the camera. She has published three children’s books in the past and her fourth book Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm was launched recently. In this interview, the Harvard alumnus talks about her favourite childhood books, her creative inspirations as an author, her work as a children’s rights activist and about a possible comeback in films.

You have been a successful actress. What inspired you to become a children’s author?

Children’s books bring together two great joys of mine. Firstly, I love working with kids, and I’ve always loved to write. Even when I was at my busiest as an actor, I wrote quite a bit – screenplays, short fiction, Op Eds on child rights, poetry.

Tell us a bit about your own childhood. What were the books that you loved reading then?

I read voraciously as a child. I kept coming back to Alice in Wonderland, Tagore’s Galpo Ghuccho, Erich Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa (which became the film The Parent Trap), Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, children’s books by Ashapurana Debi, Roald Dahl, and Margaret Atwood. Many of the authors I loved the most as a child are my favourites even today.

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Both your parents have been authors so did you pick up the habit of writing from them?

I grew up in an all-female family of writers in Kolkata, but going further back, not just my parents but both my maternal grandparents were celebrated writers. My paternal great-grandfather, a renowned scholar, was the author of “Hinduism,” still an international bestseller. In fact, my sisters are successful writers as well, and my brother is a popular singer-songwriter in Boston. Can I deny that writing runs in both sides of my family? (laughs)

“New book ideas pop up in my head all the time – even if I do nothing but write for the rest of my life, I know I still won’t have time to write all the books that I have ideas for!”

How do you come up with the ideas for your books?

My books are quite different from each other, and each has its own unique inspiration. And new book ideas pop up in my head all the time – even if I do nothing but write for the rest of my life, I know I still won’t have time to write all the books that I have ideas for!

Even if I do nothing but write for the rest of my life, I know I still won’t have time to write all the books that I have ideas for!

So, Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm, the one that has just come out, is a book of rhyming story-puzzles inspired by nonsense poetry. When I was little, I used to get wonderful letters from my father every week, all addressed to Toomble Tumble (as my pet name is Toompa). Baba introduced my Didi and me to all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, logic puzzles, math puzzles – and I loved the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll, Sukumar Ray, and Edward Lear. So, it is from all of those influences that chatty little Talky Tumble was born.

On the other hand, the idea for Mambi and the Forest Fire came out of a workshop I did with kids. This was in Sneha, a home in Kolkata run by the NGO Sanlaap, for women and children rescued from trafficking. The idea was to encourage the children to freely express their feelings and have fun, through theatre, music, and dance. I invented the character of Mambi the shy but spunky monkey for the kids at first, – and then the kids jumped right in the completed the whole story!

And Kangaroo Kisses, the very first book I wrote, is a bed-time dialogue in rhyme between mother and daughter, entirely inspired by my beloved niece and muse Hiya, who never wants to go to sleep!

What does it take to write an interesting book which engages the imagination of little kids?

I don’t think there’s any one formula. What’s most important is to connect with the world of total wonder that every child has access to, where absolutely anything can happen. A world that we slowly and unknowingly surrender as we grow up. Children can always tell when a grown-up is “faking it” – trying hard to belong to that world, rather than invoking it naturally.

You are also a children’s rights activist. Tell us a little bit about your work on that front?

Working in child protection has always been a big part of my life. I love my work as the Cause Ambassador of RAHI, with whom I’ve been associated since 2000, when I originated the role of the traumatized protagonist of the play 30 Days in September in Prithvi Theatre. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon doing an interactive session with students in Kolkata, to raise awareness about the crisis of child sexual abuse (which affects over 53% of India’s children) and to engage survivors in RAHI’s healing workshop.

As it turns out, the same morning I also inaugurated a new Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre for Mission Smile, another NGO I’m proud to be the Ambassador. It conducts free life-changing surgeries for children with cranio-facial deformities. I’m also a Champion for End Violence, a partnership launched in New York by UNICEF.  They have an ambitious, comprehensive and evidence-based approach toward stopping violence against children across the world. I can’t think of a more urgent global initiative.

“I’ve always had an eccentric taste in films as an actor, and now I find that I’m even more selective because the opportunity cost of not writing (in order to act) feels too high as I love writing so much.”

Your last film came out in 2014. Would we be seeing you on the big screens any time soon?

Yes, I’m sure you will. I love being so busy as a writer. Four books out since last year, but I do miss acting. That said, I’ve always had an eccentric taste in films as an actor. Now I find that I’m even more selective because the opportunity cost of not writing (in order to act) feels too high. But honestly, I’d love to act in a film that’s beautifully written, moving and original. I’m especially keen to do a children’s film.

Oh, and it’s very important NOT to preach to children, even when you have a clear and valuable point to make.

What would be your one word of advice for anyone who wants to write for children?

Drown yourself in children’s books, and spend as much time actually telling stories to kids as you can.  Oh, and it’s very important NOT to preach to children, even when you have a clear and valuable point to make. Always focus on delighting, not on being didactic.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years? (laughs) Most often I don’t know where I see myself in five minutes! What’s wonderful about being spontaneous is that it has allowed me to change my life around several times without worrying. What’s not so wonderful about it is that it’s hard to plan ahead – though some things have always remained constant. For instance, I know that five years ahead I’ll still be writing, working with children, obsessively watching films. And spending as much time with my family as I can.

And I hope to have finished Mother Tongues, a book I am working on with my mother, on three generations of rule-defying Bengali women (and the fashioning of a “feminist” literary tradition within the shifting political contexts of Kolkata, and India).

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