Book Excerpt: A Plate of White Marble by Bani Basu (Translated from Bengali by Nandini Guha)

A glimpse from A Plate of White Marble originally written by Bani Basu in Bengali as Swet Patharer Thala and translated by Nandia Guha (Published by Niyogi Books, 2020)

There was no consolation. Yet Bandana repeatedly read the  letter from one end to the other. She remembered everything— from holding Kaka’s hand and going to attend Gandhiji’s  lectures in Deshbandhu Park to putting coins in the trunks of  elephants and looking at giraffes at the zoo. She could easily  picture those cold Sunday mornings when they used to reach  Esplanade, peeling oranges all the way. Kaka smoked very  strong cigarettes. The fingers of his right hand were yellow with  nicotine stains. When Bandana was small, she was under the  impression that all Kakas would have coppery yellow fingertips. 

A Kaka surely meant someone in whom this feature was an  integral part, inseparable from his image. 

When her mother died young, Kaka immediately decided  not to marry and start a family. Baba had tried to persuade him  to change his decision. Kaka had the same argument every  time, ‘Dada, this child is so naughty, you will never be able to  manage her on your own. If this girl is to be brought up well, I  will have to join you in taking charge of her.’ 

Her nights were spent with Baba, her days with Kaka.  Her studies, her music were all a result of Kaka’s enthusiasm.  Her mother’s death had naturally caused her father to go into  depression. Kaka, the unconquerable celibate with his loving  personality, is what seemed now to emerge from these letters and  rise to hold her hand. She rummaged in the drawer for letters. On  white Bond paper, the writing was like millions of ants in rows. Not  a single line was even slightly crooked. The flow of pure language  did not break down anywhere. His alphabets were slightly curled.  He always signed off in a single line, ‘With blessings, Kaka.’ 

Buri Ma, 

I am travelling in the direction of Kalamuni mountain. This place is  around 7091ft above sea level. It is as green as green can be. Two small  waterfalls in the valley fill the heart and its desires, and while flowing  down, give more and more hope of life. Everywhere, wherever I look,  I see red, blood-coloured bunches of rhododendron. From April to July,  these flowers will bloom regularly. As soon as the snow melts, new green  tufts of grass raise their heads from amidst the cracks in the stones. I  can’t ever differentiate between them and the simple, beautiful children. 

Sheep and goats graze without any fear. They are shepherded by big  mountain dogs. At times I feel I am suddenly back in that ancient era  when mankind looked after animals, and had not learnt farming. With  household animals, they travelled from one country to another in search  of green fodder. They depended on nature’s bounty and lived alongside  animals. That simple life was really good! The people who live in the  tiny villages dotting the high reaches of the Himalayas still lead lives  like that. Matoili, Mapa, Borophu—the names of the villages are so  musical! From November till almost May, they construct temporary  homes in the lower reaches of the Himalayas and live there. In the  summer, as soon as the roads are free of snow, they start climbing up  the slopes through the extensive green belts of Bugiyal. Shepherding  their grazing goats, they gradually reach the top, to the country of green  grass and pink flowers. They are very reliable guides in this region. I  have no dreams of conquering any mountain peaks. From a distance,  I have seen a divine gold shower falling out of the crown of Trishuli.  Standing erect, shoulder to shoulder like a best friend, is the Hardeol.  On the peaks of these mountains the veins of ice hang downwards.  With the effect of the sun in the afternoon they dissolve, and making  an immense sound, come sliding down. The mist obliterates everything  around, and a stormy breeze blows. If you want to see the earth in its  original form, you can come here. For one whole fortnight I have lived  the life of a shepherd along with the goatherds in Bugiyal. 

For a long time, Bandana accompanies her Kaka. Holding  his hand, she too goes on an outing. In the misty Ghoom,  before the cloud-covered, golden Kanchenjunga, she suddenly  sees herself standing between her Baba and Kaka, on an April  morning of 1948.

A couple of months back, Kaka had written a short letter— would Bandana like to accompany him to Amarnath? However,  they could not take Roop with them. If Bandana was willing, he  would start making arrangements. The letter had come from  Kankhal, Haridwar. Many letters came from there. Who knew  whether he had made a permanent home there. He never wrote  about himself. However, there was no question of Bandana leaving  Roop and going, as even now he clung to her till the time he left for  school. Until the school bus crossed the street corner and turned, he  kept looking unblinkingly at his mother standing on the veranda.  When he returned too, he did not look in any other direction, as  though he had been forbidden to do so by some magician. 

Excerpted with permission from A Plate of White Marble originally written by Bani Basu in Bengali as Swet Patharer Thala and translated by Nandia Guha (Published by Niyogi Books, 2020)

About the Author

Bani Basu (B. 1939) is one of the most versatile contemporary writers in Bengali. An eminent academician, poet, novelist, essayist, critic and translator, Basu writes on diverse topics ranging from history and mythology to society, psychology and gender. She received her formal education from Lady Brabourne College, Scottish Church College and University of Calcutta, where she earned a masters degree in English. She served as a lecturer and later, as the head of the department of English at Bijoy Krishna Girls College, Howrah. Her translations of Shri Aurobindo’s poems and two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s stories and one volume of D.H Lawrence’s stories won a wide readership. She started her career as an original author with the publication of the novel, Janmabhumi-Matribhumi in 1980. Her well-known novels include Antarghat (The Enemy Within), Maitreya Jatak (The Birth of the Maitreya), Kharap Chhele (Dark Afternoons), Swet Patharer Thala and Pancham Pusush. Bani Basu has won a number of awards including Tara Shankar Award (1991), Shiromani Puroshkar (1997), Ananda Purashkar (1998), Bankim Purashkar (1998), Katha Award (2003) and Sahitya Akademi Award (2010). A number of her stories have been adapted into films and TV serials.

About the Translator

Nandini Guha is a retired Associate Professor of English at the College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She received the Katha Award for translating Kharap Chhele (Dark Afternoons) by Bani Basu. Other remarkable translations from Bengali to English include Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography Utal Haoa (Wild Wind) and Anita Agnihotri’s Akal Bodhon (Awakwning). Guha has also contributed translated pieces to Women in Concert, The Essential Tagore and Shades of Difference.

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