With A Plate of White Marble, Bani Basu's Bengali classic Swet Patharer Thala finds first English translation
The following excerpt is the opening passage of the book.
Eminent Bengali author Bani Basu's book Swet Patharer Thala, first published in 1990, has for the first time been made available to English language audiences through the work of award-winning translator Nandini Guha as A Plate of White Marble.
It tells the story of Bandana, who while grieving her husband’s early death, doesn’t conform to societal ideals of widowhood. She dares to begin her life afresh, her son being the only mark of her past she holds on to. But once even that anchor is lost, she leaves behind the safety of home, and joins a children’s home to work for those in need.
The following excerpt from A Plate of White Marble by Bani Basu, translated by Nandini Guha, is the opening passage of the book and is reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher, Niyogi Books.
The house at Number 45 Shyambazar Street had its date of construction engraved right at the top of its façade. From this, it could be learnt that the house was not built in this century. If not hundred, it was close to eighty-five years old. Thanks to the moist winds from the holy Ganges in its close proximity and the salty winds from the Bay of Bengal within 105 kilometres to the south, houses in Kolkata do not survive as long as the rich, traditional manor houses of England do. However, first-class materials from the British companies — marble, pillars, arches, tiles, original Burma-teak windows, doors, rafters and the limestone-layered, twenty-inch-thick brickwork — continued to ostentatiously preserve the antique glory of these homes till today. This carefully polished old heritage, going by the name of ‘aristocracy’, may well be called stiff-necked orthodoxy, with all its evil fallout.
A walk along 40 feet of black- and white-chequered marble would lead you to a black marble stairwell. The corridor would start again, this time on the ground floor, 40 feet in length, chequered black and white, in exactly the same pattern. One had to walk down half its length to find the dining room door. And to walk this whole length in the afternoon could make one tired.
The house was structured like an army barrack, rows of rooms crowding its southern fringe. Not only its first-floor rooms but even those on the ground floor could enjoy the famous southern Kolkata breeze from time to time. To the north was a corridor. The tops of its doors and windows had red-, blue-, green- and yellow-stained glasses. As the sun moved to the north, these played to form multicoloured patterns on the marble floor. The house faced east. The roof top gave an excellent view of the sunrise.
Similar-sized, double-storeyed houses made up the locality spread quite far. In the distance, when the sun rises right between two palmyra trees, even those moss and mildew-covered, flowerpot-laden, decrepit terraces, crisscrossed with multiple wires, lined with clothes are bathed in the bright sunlight. Yet, one can never be sure whether that first ray of a new dawn touches the grounds of the other parts of the locality as well.
The early morning cacophony — the clangour from the local tube well as its handle rose and fell, the clang of utensils being scoured, the swish of brooms and the hoarse voices of housewives issuing orders and instructions — touches such a quarrelsome decibel that neither the Vedic hymns nor the tuneful Rabindrasangeet, in a grave baritone, or soft tenor, can find a way through, sadly beating a hasty retreat.
In the semi-paved, open courtyard on the western side were tile-covered servant quarters. There were also washrooms with big water-storage tubs and an unkempt garden. Some bird must have dropped a half-eaten fruit, who knows when. The cement had broken open there to make room for a guava tree, evergreen and perennially fruit-bearing. Next to it stood a pair of sacred neem. These too were the result of the gardening skills of birds and their like. The shade of neem is believed to be wholesome. The combined shade of these three trees sheltered the house from the setting sunlight and one had to climb up to the roof for a feel of the afternoon sun. The corridors had long shadows falling over them at this time. Freezing north wind entered through one odd, open, red-blue window pane. Needles of cold dew penetrated the soles. The northerly winds pierced the black woollen shawl, wrapped around her body and chilled her bones.
Even though every room in the house had drapes, typically styled in the fashion of Santiniketan, hanging on the doors, the entrance to the dining room was bare, lest soiled hands spoil them on entries and exits. The men of the house, the ruler class that is, did not have to bother about any restriction. They were reserved for the women and women alone. The mother-in-law used to say that a house’s character is determined by the deportment of its womenfolk. Signatures belong to the domain of men and etiquette to that of women. A scratch by a man is capable of producing a bag of money, while the conduct, modesty and practices of the women can make or mar the prestige of a house. And by the way, people have very dirty habits. They may just wipe wet or soiled hands on the drapes — and that throughout the day. It is better, therefore, that the door remains drape-less.
Through this little passage could be seen a dinner table at the extreme right. The eldest son of this house had introduced this system on his return from abroad, amidst strong protests and exchanges. Next to it was a fridge. This too was not very old, and introduced by the same individual after the same kind of disapproval and opposition, for fear that somehow fresh food would get mixed up with the stale and impure. Initially it was left empty, but for fruits, curd and sweets. Now everything found its way in. The freshly cooked dishes were kept on separate shelves. That was all. Lately, it had become a necessity in summer, for sherbets and cold water. It provided moreover a chance to show off to the visitors, as they were served chilled drinks. Yet it was a privilege closely guarded. In the left-hand corner of this room, a piece of black blanket was laid for a mat. In front of it, on the floor wiped clean, was placed a white marble plate, procured from Kashi-Benaras. Next to it, there was a glass and a bowl, both spotlessly white, made of pure, unblemished marble.
Serving Atap-rice on the plate from a small saucepan, the middle-aged, heavily built mother-in-law suddenly broke into wails. One fourth of her hair had turned grey. A broad streak of vermilion was visible in the broad parting of her hair. She was in an artistically woven, red-bordered sari, with three rows of the traditional temple pattern. She would wear nothing but these colourfully bordered saris. Her arms were full of loudly jangling gold bangles, wristlets and the special wedding bangles of iron and conch shell. Her wails however outdid their jangles. They must have derived their strength from the quality of her voice and the depths of her grief. ‘Where are you gone Khoka! Come and see, come and see my suffering for once. How can I possibly serve this child with such food?’
Two other women were seated there. One was a younger paternal aunt. Promptly, she pressed the edge of her sari to her eyes. The second was an older sister-in-law. She wiped hers and stood up. Very few married women, in fact, can stand for long such a blood chilling scene, especially when accompanied by the background score of esraj-like wails. The young woman, who had just entered the room for a meal, after the tiring barefoot walk down the long, cold verandas, her toes blotched by the cold, her body in shivers for weakness and unexpected agitation, suddenly spoke up, ‘Why not serve then something that does not pain you Ma, something that I can eat? Why this daily ritual of crying? To tell you the truth, I can’t eat this anymore, I just can’t…’ The last words were distorted as she choked in tears of frustration.
A thunderbolt had suddenly struck the room. The older sister-in-law had already got up to leave. She continued to stand in a state of uncertainty, looking simultaneously at the faces of the mother- and daughter-in-law facing each other. Then, abruptly, she left the room. The mother-in-law swallowed her ready wails and lowered her face, not to raise it again. The aunt-in-law’s face, her tears drying up, looked bewildered, as though someone had slapped her with an open palm. The prescribed meal of a widow’s broth of boiled rice, potato and green banana — just would not go down Bandana’s throat today. Combined rage, mortification and a sense of disgrace caused the food to turn into a coagulated lump in her throat.
— Feature images: A Plate of White Marble cover and Bani Basu. Photos courtesy Niyogi Books.
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