Mrs NC Sen, the first woman to fly in an airplane in India, does not need to be known by her husband’s initials anymore. Her full name was Mrinalini Devi Sen, and she was a poet whose adventures began long before her ride in a Henry Farman biplane became an immutable part of aviation history.

On December 19, had published an article, headlined Who was Mrs Sen? The search for the first woman to fly in India, about an aviation enthusiast’s attempts to ascertain the identity of Mrs NC Sen. The aviation enthusiast, Debasish Chakraverty, had been scouring the archives of the elite Tollygunge Club in Kolkata, and found that in December 1910, Mrs Sen had flown as a passenger in a short flight piloted at the club by Belgian aviator Baron Pierre de Caters.

Newspapers and magazines of the time had celebrated her as the first Indian woman to take to the skies, but she was identified merely as “Mrs NC Sen”. Some reports said she was the sister of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a princely state in Bengal. Others describer her as the sister-in-law of the Maharani of Cooch Behar.

Chakraverty corroborated in his research that Mrs Sen was indeed the sister-in-law of Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar. Suniti Devi was the daughter of prominent Bengali philosopher Keshub Chandra Sen, and Mrs NC Sen was, therefore, one of Keshub Chandra Sen’s four daughters-in-law.

Through a process of elimination, Chakraverty inferred that Mrs Sen could have either been Mrinalini Devi, wife of Nirmal Chandra Sen, or it could have been Nirmala “Nellie” Sen, wife of Saral Chandra Sen. was unable to trace either of their descendants before publishing the December 19 report. However, after the article was published, a descendant of the Sen family emailed and confirmed that Mrs NC Sen was, in fact, Mrinalini Devi.

That descendant was Sanjiv Lall, the grandson of well-known thumri singer Naina Devi, great-grandson of Nirmala “Nellie” Sen, and the great-grandnephew of Mrinalini Sen. “It most certainly was Mrs Mrinalini Sen, who was the first woman from India to fly,” said Lall, a conservator of heritage homes in Goa.

Lall then put in touch with Mrinalini Devi’s grandson, Devdan Sen, who was able to paint a more vivid picture of his paternal grandmother’s life, through a small autobiography she wrote about her life.

The woman who eloped

Mrinalini Devi was born in or around 1878 to the Luddhi family in Bhagalpur. She was barely around 12 when she was married to the Raja of Paikpara, on old princely state in Bengal. Her husband was a few years older than her. “He had a propensity for drink and was by all accounts prone to flippant whims,” said Devdan Sen, a travel writer and businessman who lives in England. Once, the Raja arranged a wedding of two monkeys, which prompted Mrinalini Devi to quip that “she didn’t know who the actual monkey was – the poor creature or her husband”.

This was just one indication of Mrinalini Devi’s spirited personality. Another example is the story of her elopement – a legend in the Sen family history.

The Raja of Paikpara died at the age of 27, leaving Mrinalini Devi a young widow. At the time, says Devdan Sen, Calcutta had a thriving middle class society, with many social gatherings. At one of them, Mrinalini Devi met Nirmal Chandra Sen, a promising civil servant and one of Keshub Chandra Sen’s 10 children. The Sens were a reformist family affiliated to the Brahmo Samaj, which had worked hard to abolish the funeral custom of sati.

“After her husband’s death, he [Nirmal Chandra Sen] helped my grandmother escape the confines of young widowhood by climbing a wall and riding off in his carriage,” said Devdan Sen. Since Mrinalini Devi did not have any children from her first marriage, she placed her brother on the throne of Paikpara and went on to marry Nirmal Chandra Sen.

The couple was a part of Calcutta’s elite society and it was during this period that, as Mrs NC Sen, Mrinalini Devi got to fly in the historic Tollygunge flight of December 19, 1910. In her autobiography, she dedicated a small chapter to the experience.

The pages of Mrinalini Devi's autobiography, describing her experience of flying. Photos courtesy: Devdan Sen

“In my opinion, she was deeply spiritual and would not have encouraged any commemoration of the remarkable flight,” said Devdan Sen.

Feisty, outspoken, beautiful

Mrinalini and NC Sen had four children. Their three daughters – Srilata, Arati and Anjali – were nicknamed Violet, Pansy and Rosie, respectively. Their son, also called NC Sen, was nicknamed George because he was born on the day of King George V’s historic visit to Delhi in 1911, which the senior NC Sen was attending.

Soon after becoming the first Indian woman to fly, Mrinalini Devi moved to England, where her husband worked as a senior civil servant looking after the interests of Indians living and visiting the United Kingdom. According to Devdan Sen, Mrinalini Devi travelled quite a bit around Europe, visited Egypt, accompanied Rabindranath Tagore to Paris, and knew British author HG Wells. “She maintained some of her Hindu customs despite being the head of Brahmo household, and had aarti performed at the home every evening,” said Devdan Sen.

From Mrinalini Devi's autobiography. Photo courtesy: Devdan Sen

Before the start of World War II, Mrinalini and NC Sen returned to India and lived in Calcutta. Mrinalini Devi was fond of writing Bengali poetry, and in Kolkata her poems were published occasionally in Desh magazine.

Devdan Sen describes his grandmother as “notoriously outspoken, known to speak her mind to all, whether a child or the governor of the state”.

Rena Ripjit Singh, one of Mrinalini Devi’s nieces, remembers her as a “feisty, gutsy and beautiful woman”. “I knew her in her sunset years, but she must have been beautiful,” said Singh. “You could see the vestiges of beauty in her face.”

Mrinalini Devi (right, standing) and her husband Nirmal Chandra Sen (left, standing), posing with the men who organised the Tollygunge flights in 1910. Photo courtesy: Debasish Chakraverty