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Book Review: Bani Basu’s A Plate of White Marble Offers A Strong Commentary On The Plight Of Widows In India

Bani Basu

Bani Basu’s A Plate of White Marble is a translation of her Bengali classic Swet Patharer Thala. First published in 1990 in Bengali, it has recently been translated by Nandini Guha in English and published by Niyogi Books. The story tells the tale of a woman of an era that just witnessed the independence of a nation.

The story and characters

The story begins in 1955 and narrates the tale of Bandana, who loses her loving, indulgent and a modern husband Abhimanyu at the age of 27. She is now forced into leading life as a widow, as per the norms set by society. She is given crude clothes to wear, stone glass to drink from and a plate of white marble set on the floor to eat from. She is treated like an outcast and is forced to give up all her favourite things. She anchors herself to the upbringing of her son, Abhiroop as a way to survive it all. She is given a new lease of life when she is rescued from her miserable marital home by her Kaka, a man of modern and rational thinking. Bandana slowly but surely rejects the norms when she finds herself constantly humiliated by society, mostly women. When her Kaka passes away after some years, her son Roop becomes her only anchor and she sacrifices every happiness for his. Yet, when Roop grows up she loses that last anchor too.

Through Bandana, we are taken on a roller coaster ride to see the status of women in our society, how they’re rendered miserable and are judged for their choices when they try to break free from stereotypes. But, sadly nothing has changed even today.

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The translation from the original feels seamless and has beautifully captured the essence of Bandana’s various roles – that of a wife and daughter-in-law pleasing her marital family, a widow trying to stay committed to her late husband, a mother struggling to provide for her fatherless son even if it meant to suppress her own desires and lastly, her own independent self.

A hard-hitting story

A Plate of White Marble is a thought-provoking book and a tough pill to swallow, it condemns the horrors and atrocities inflicted upon Indian women especially widows. The characters are strong and well crafted. This book will make you angry, sad and happy as you root for Bandana all the way.

The book is less than 350 pages, but Bani Basu has delivered such a poignant story, throwing light on the customs of that period, and gender-based discrimination within a patriarchal society that widows had to endure. A society that does not allow women to live outside the shadow of a man, the superstitions that plague them both within and outside their homes, these things are so well etched in Basu’s book.

What I found amazing is how even in the early ’90s, Basu boldly points out the discrimination carried out against widows. Through the protagonist, the writer breaks stereotypes but not
without making the character go through several trials. The author has highlighted the hypocrisy and gender-based discrimination that is still carried out in the society, and in doing so gives us something to think about.

Status of women

The house numbered 45 in Shyambazar Street may be full of educated individuals but when their eldest son dies at a young age, his wife is made to go through rituals that come with one becoming a widow. An invisible barrier comes up instantly, cutting off Bandana from the rest of the family. With absolutely no support from her in-laws, she takes up a job and slowly sheds all the absurd rituals that marked her as a widow. Although Bandana puts up a brave face, she is critiqued and ridiculed behind her back, even by her own son and daughter-in-law. But Bandana surpasses them all. This ordeal may sound familiar to so many women in Indian, who were widowed at a young age, were left to fend for themselves, and had to battle social stigma lifelong.

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Society has always been cruel to women and Basu lists down all the ways in which it draws a line between a man and a woman. While a widower can remarry and live an unmarked life, a widow is conditioned to leave behind her material comforts and even basic needs. This book is an important read for many reasons but mostly in assuring women that they too have the right to live and dream as they want to.

Although the plot is set in the era after Indian independence and I can say with authority that a woman’s life hasn’t transformed much. A woman is always seen as somebody’s wife, mother, and daughter as her identity. The book has captured this aspect poignantly.

There are many instances when the norms set covertly or overtly by the society are questioned in the story. The biggest of them which I felt was – why does the society pile up more pain on an already shattered woman? Why is our society so unsympathetic?

An important story and writer

The following lines by the protagonist summarise author Bani Basu’s dream for a society free of all kinds of social evils and injustice:

“What is the benefit in converting life into a chain of meaningless rituals?… Our strength is not only for ourselves but or for our families alone. Even though little, if you reserve that small amount of strength and dedicate it to the sad, the hapless, the ill-fated, then from that one fountain, will flow for you a stream of joy, that which removes all sorrows.”

Bani Basu is one of the most prominent figures of the contemporary Bangla literature and through her works she has always tried to bring change in the society in general and in the mindset of the people in particular. Through the mastery of her writing, she has shattered the age-old barriers of caste, creed, culture and rituals into million pieces.

Prof. Nandini Guha has done a commendable job as far as the translation is concerned. I loved the way she has translated it with suitable words and phrases, all the while keeping in mind the original work. One can always count on Niyogi Books for bringing underrated translated gems to the readers. A must-read.

The views expressed are the author’s own.