‘I have seen the Mahanadi in so many ways: in the early morning light, in the reclining afternoon glow, in the blaze of the midday and in the shadow of the orange tinge of the sunset. I have seen this river in the form of its narrow current in winter, amidst profuse rain, in the forested region where it originates, and in the turbulent boundlessness of the estuary. And each time the river, serene, terrifying and quiet, has filled my mind with tremendous joy and nostalgia. Many people, both at the origin and basin of this river, are known to me. Their lives, inextricably linked with the river, have made me think, and have both fascinated and enriched me. The chronicle of this river, therefore, is also an extract of my life.’
One of the largest rivers of India, the Mahanadi has flown more than a thousand kilometers through Chhattisgarh and Orissa from the foothills of the Sihawa hills in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh and has fallen into the Bay of Bengal. Leaving behind the huge diamond reservoir at Sambalpur in Orissa, the archeological background of Subarnapur and Buddhist districts, the plains of Nayagarh, Cuttack and Jagatsinghpur flow through the middle of the deep forested gorge of Satakoshia, finally crossing the border near the port of Paradip.
But its journey is endless, as it flows day-after-day from the plateau to the forest to the ravine and finally to the plains. It unites with the sea every day. At every new turn, it leaves behind scores of villages, towns and cities. The din and bustle of a mofussil town, the solitary life in a standalone village, people’s struggle for survival, the episodes of their joys and sorrows, the sighs of the displaced people of Sambalpur during the building of the Hirakud dam mingles with the cries of the endangered people on the banks when the river overflows.
In the long journey of the river, it encounters mountainous plateaus, dense forests, villages and uninhabited emptiness. There are traces of the Paleolithic era at its source. There are ancient lyrical stories around it. Farmers, weavers and artisans have come and settled on the banks of the river to draw in the water. Mahanadi is to Odisha what Huang Ho is to China.
And so, Anita Agnihotri’s novel Mahanadi –The Tale of a River (translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen) captures all these essential elements in a never written story of a stream which is a sorrow rather than a joy for crores of people in Odisha.
A civil servant, Anita Agnihotri, writes in Bengali in a wide variety of genres — poetry, novels, short stories and children’s literature. Recipient of prestigious awards like Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Award and the Bhuban Mohini Dasi Gold Medal conferred by Calcutta University, her writing explores the vast and complex Indian reality, many facets of human relations, and brings out the unheard voices of the marginalised and the underprivileged and has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages.
Translator Nivedita Sen taught English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She worked on other popular genres, apart from Indian writing in English, post-colonial fiction and translation studies. She has translated Tagore’s Ghare Baire, and stories by Syed Mustafa Siraj, Leela Majumdar and others.
In the fiction, the narrative is through stories of the people living on the banks of the Mahanadi. Characters like Tularam Dhuru, Malati Gond, Neelakantha, Bhanu Shitulia, Parvati and others might never meet each other, but the story of their lives will remain strung together by the common thread of the ever– the streaming Mahanadi. The chronicle of Mahanadi is a journey through travails and misfortunes into life’s joys and mysterious beauty.
Writes Sen in the ‘Translator’s Note’: “A socially conscious writer with a relentlessly dissident voice, Anita Agnihotri’s writing explores struggles in the lives of marginalised communities that are oppressed by underhand politics, social privilege and economic disparity. Though she was a member of the Indian Civil Service, she has maintained an anti-establishment stance throughout her writing career spanning four decades.
“In this novel, her non-noncompliance exposes the irony of Nehru’s urging those dispossessed by the building of the Hirakud dam to accept their suffering in the larger interest of the nation. She critiques the police turned into mercenaries by the state when they passively stand by during a violent attack on a social activist because they are paid to do just that. But she also elicits commensurate outrage at two policemen having to confront and succumb to senseless Maoist violence. The novel depicts how a cotton mill falls apart due to squandering of money and corruption in higher places and also how an upcoming steel factory with international collaboration threatens the livelihood of betel-leaf farmers. Her characters with enhanced sensibilities are haunted by the blatant social and economic inequality they witness all around. Yet Tanmay’s research on the abysmal living conditions in the slum clusters of Cuttack cannot resolve their problems.”
What is of significance is that there are a lot of facts in the novel that substantiates the geography, history and economics of the river and the state it mostly passes through. She sensitively kindles – rather in great detail — the realism, the deprivation and the travails of the people living on the riverbanks. The river forms the crux of the narrative, both as the central character and the primary subject.
As a novel, Mahanadi is poignant and is a fitting tribute to the place and people. Anita Agnihotri has been a percipient writer.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
Author: Anvita Abbi
Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021
Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.
During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).
A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear.
In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.
The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.
While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.
It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.
The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.
The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.
Anasuya Bhar explores the history of the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated only by the poet himself and by Aruna Chakravarti. Both the translations are featured here.
The national anthem and the national song of India are both parts of a post-colonial narrative and did not originate prior to the British colonisation of the country, which happened effectively, from the middle of the eighteenth century. India has been broadly classified as a civilisation and a cultural phenomenon, rather than a race or a territorial presence prior to the British colonisation.
India has remained an idea ever since the ancient times, perhaps even prior to the advent of the Classical Graeco-Roman civilisation of the west. The historicisation of India’s past has been a much debatable issue, with European historians representing India from their perspective. Much damage was done, for instance, by James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), which rubbished the country as thoroughly debased and wanting the civilisational touch of the European west. The reality of India, or more correctly Bharat, inhered in the local and regional historical specificities, its literature, culture, myths and legends. The historical perspective of our inhabitants was that of the Puranic history whose chronology, order and narrativity depended on a time scale different from the idea of time in the western rationale for chronology. In other words, the European west’s rationale consequent of the enlightenment, and the enlightened concept of history, was a later addition to the Indian consciousness.
The concept of a distinct nation, and as an individual entity in the consciousness of a socio-political presence in the history of the world, was also, a comparatively belated concept in our country. In fact, it was not earlier than the Mughals that the country was conceptualised as a unified entity from the North to the South, from the East to the West. The Indian sub-continent is strategically guarded by the geographical presence of the Himalayan range, the Indian ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Hence, the territorial boundaries which become crucial in determining the political borders of the European or the American west are not of much consequence over here. The borders that are present in the former continents are a result of political aggression and imperialism. The borders that ensued in the Indian subcontinent and eventually created Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and also Sri Lanka, are, however, a result of the European and, particularly, British intervention.
The consciousness of India’s nationalism was, as mentioned in the beginning, a later one and quite clearly a colonial aftermath. Among the first to mention the lack of an indigenous history was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838 – 94), the celebrated novelist and intellectual of nineteenth century Bengal, who himself attempted to write, through his various essays, a historical consciousness for his country. The writer of our national song ‘Bande Mataram’ (in Anandamath, 1882), Bankimchandra was also the first to think of a ‘jatiyo’ or a nationalist consciousness, and attempted to take a fresh look at the puranic history based on myths and legends. He rewrote the narrative of Krishna, and also looked afresh at the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.
The nationalist consciousness was given a fresh lease through the several attempts for promoting indigenous products and enterprises by the Tagores of Jorasanko in Kolkata. The Hindu Mela (Hindu fair), begun since the mid-1860s by Dwijendranath Tagore (1840 – 1926) was among the first to strike concepts of an indigenous nationhood, by giving impetus through homespun fabrics, cultivation of rural handicrafts and traditional food items like pickles or ‘bori’, such that a space could be created independent of the parameters used by the colonial masters. Rabindranath (1861 – 1941) also refers to several attempts of his elder brother Jyotirindranath (1849 – 1925), in creating the matchstick factory or even striking a competition in the ship trade with their English counterparts in the waters of Bengal in his autobiographical Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences, 1911). He also mentions the latter’s attempt at designing a national dress for the country, trying to fuse various drapes of traditional clothing. This is again very interesting because, a distinctive sartorial appearance would help in identifying the Indian from the European, even externally. The sari as we wear it now, was first conceptualised by Jnanadanandini Devi (1850 – 1941) of the Tagore household. She gave the Indian women a dignified attire by fusing the styles of Parsis and Gujaratis, and also by improvising on the styles of the European gown to give us the blouse-jacket. The unification of various styles automatically veered towards a oneness in the same territorial boundaries and the nationalistic consciousness came first through cultural means.
The Tagores of Bengal were also among the first, after Rammohan Roy (1772 – 1833), to venture beyond their homes. Dwarakanath (1794 -1846), grandfather of Rabindranath, not only stayed in England for a substantial period of time, but also endeared himself to Queen Victoria as the ‘Prince’. Debendranath (1817 – 1905), his son, was in the habit of touring the Himalayas extensively, and even took his youngest son Rabi along with him. Satyendranath (1842 – 1923), another of his sons, was the first Indian to qualify in the Indian Civil Service; he too, extensively toured several parts of India and abroad. Rabindranath was a frequent traveller from a very early age. The women of the Tagore household, beginning with Jnanadanandini Devi also moved out of their antarmahal (inner quarters) and into the other parts of their country and even the world. Indira, Mrinalini, Sarala, Pratima along with Jnanada were frequent travellers both within and outside the country. Hence, the country and the ideology of India as a nation were familiar concepts to the members of this remarkable family from Bengal. Of course, there were other influential households in nineteenth century Bengal, but none so extensively influential.
The formation of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885, marked the culmination of several isolated and scattered attempts at nurturing a nationalist consciousness. I have, however, given a few instances from Bengal. I am sure similar attempts were made in other states as well. Even in the formation of the INC, we see the pivotal role played by Janakinath Ghosal (1840 – 1913), husband of the well-known litterateur Swarnakumari Devi (1855 – 1932), elder sister of Rabindranath. According to the memoirs of his elder daughter Hiranmayee, Janakinath was a key presence at the time of the formation of the Congress. Later, Sarala (1872 – 1945), their younger daughter, not only became a part of the Congress, but was also among the foremost figures in Bengal to enthuse young men into the national struggle through cultivation of physical fitness programs. Sarala also worked closely with Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita in some of their philanthropic programs.
Jana Gana Mana, now venerated as our National Anthem, was most possibly first composed as a hymn, by Rabindranath Tagore. This hymn was first recited on the second day of the annual session of the Indian National Congress on 27th December 1911, by none other than Rabindranath himself. This was followed by a second performance of it in January 1912, in the annual event of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’ or the Brahmo Congregation, and then it was published, for the first time in the January edition of the Tattwabodhini Patrika, which was the official journal of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’, with the title ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ or ‘the determinant of Bharat’s destiny’. The journal was, at that time, edited by Rabindranath himself. The original song, composed in Bengali, has five stanzas. The Anthem makes use of only the first of the five and usually covers an average time of 52 seconds when sung. The original language has been retained, although its intonation is Devanagiri.
The song is a hymn to the all-pervasive, almighty, and the maker of the country’s destiny, the power of whom presides over her natural boundaries of the Himalayas and other mountains and the rivers, and where resides individuals of all races, cultures and religions. It has been the benefactor, through thick and thin, assimilating the good with the bad, and when the country has been lying destitute in trouble and pain, has extended its hand in empathetic wonder. The sun of Bharat’s destiny will rise again and the pall of darkness shall be drowned in the light of a new dawn – a new beginning and a new hope. Rabindranath did not live to see this dawn, but his visions were realised and honoured by the makers of the Constitution of the Republic of India.
The hymn that originated in the poet’s fiftieth year, perhaps had its germs planted in him through his entire life as the beginning of this essay tries to elaborate. It was only time and the political needs of the country that expedited its utterance in the year 1911. The poet’s vision found embodiment in other and similar creations as well. His Gitanjali (1912) contains the well-known poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’ (XXXV) –
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father let my country awake.
The year in which he composed and first presented Jana Gana Mana, that is 1911, was in many ways a very crucial year in his personal history. As mentioned earlier it was his fiftieth birth-year, and he was gradually beginning to be acknowledged for his poetic greatness in his own land. The following year, that is 1912, he would go to England, with some of his own translations into English, and which would, introduce him to the world as a major poet, among other poets. 1911, was also the year which marked the coronation of King George V and the transfer of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi. In fact, Rabindranath’s hymn was initially mistaken to be sung in honour of the new Emperor of the British dominions, but was later clarified to be otherwise, and was acknowledged to be a ‘prayer’ for his own native land and independent of such intentions.
The period that we are considering is also a very significant one in Rabindranath’s own consciousness of the nation and his concept of nationalism. In 1910, he published his novel Gora where he underlined the irony inherent in religious exclusivity and bigotry. His protagonist, a staunch votary of Hindu values and virtues, ironically emerges to be an Irish foundling reared in a Hindu home. Through him Rabindranath proves the efficacy of such conservative religious bigotry. His song ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ pledges to go beyond external divisions of religion and politics, and endorses the value of humanity; nor does it discount the importance of the west, but believes in the fruitful coming together of the best of all worlds. His school at Santiniketan, later to be identified as Visva-Bharati, exemplifies this coming together of the best of all the worlds. In 1919, he delivered a series of lectures on nationalism, which came together in a single volume called Nationalism, and further endorsed his beliefs in finding the nation through culture, history and habits rather than through and in territorial, narrow parochial walls. In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), published around the same time, he offers us a critique of the Swadeshi Movement that dominated colonial politics in the first decade of the twentieth century in Bengal. He subtly interweaves a tale of the ‘personal’ with the ‘political’ in the triangular narrative structure of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandip, only to expose the petty hypocrisies that inhere within the grand narratives of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’ and even ‘swadeshi’ at the cost of the common good and humanity at large.
Jana Gana Mana was sung by Sarala Devi Chaudhuri, Rabindranath’s niece and daughter of Janakinath, in 1912, and who had distinguished herself as one of the earliest women nationalists of the country. The song was, then, performed in front of veteran Congress leaders. Outside Bengal, the song was perhaps performed for the first time by Rabindranath in the annual session of Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, on 28th February 1919. The Vice-Principal of the college, Margaret Cousins, was so enthralled by the song that she asked the poet to translate it for her. This Tagore did, and the translation is called ‘The Morning Song of India’. A facsimile image of the same is shown here.
‘Jana Gana Mana’ has been translated into English by noted writer, academic and translator, Aruna Chakravarti. She is perhaps the only person to accomplish this beside the poet himself. The following is the translation made by her, along with the English transliteration of the Bengali original (Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books):
Leader of the masses.
Lord of the minds of men.
Arbiter of India’s destiny.
Hail to you! All hail!
Your name resounds through her sea and land
waking countless sleeping souls
from Punjab, Sindh, Gurarat, Maratha
to Dravid, Utkal, Banga.
Her mighty mountains—Himachal, Vindhya,
her rivers—Yamuna, Ganga,
the blue green sea with which she is girdled;
her waves, her peaks, her rippling air
seek your blessing, carry your echoes.
Oh boundless good! Oh merciful!
Hail to you! All hail!
At the sound of your call the people assemble
from myriad streams of life.
Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain.
Christian, Parsee and Sikh.
East and West stand by your throne
hands held in amity,
weaving a wreath of fraternal love;
of empathy, unity.
Oh you who bring us all together!
Hail to you! All hail!
Nations rise and nations fall
on the perilous path of history.
And you Eternal Charioteer
guide the world’s destiny.
Through day, through night, your wheels are heard
renting the air with sound,
dispelling terror, banishing pain;
blowing the conch of peace.
Oh true arbiter of India’s fate!
Hail to you! All hail!
In the deep dark of a turbulent night,
when our swooning, suffering land
lifted her eyes to your face in hope,
she saw your unwavering gaze
raining blessings, alight with love,
banishing evil dreams.
Like a loving mother you held out your arms
and changed her destiny.
Oh you who wipe out the pain of the masses!
Hail to you! All hail!
A new day dawns; a new sun rises
from the mountains of the east.
Song birds trill; new sap of life
is borne on the holy breeze.
India awakes from aeons of slumber
to the strains of your lofty song.
Head bowed to your feet oh King of kings!
Hail to you! All hail!
(Republished with permission from Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books)
Outside of the country, the song was also performed as the ‘national anthem’ of independent India, under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose on the occasion of the founding meeting of the German Indian Society on the 11th of September 1942, in Hamburg, Germany. The Indian Constituent Assembly allowed the performance of Jana Gana Mana on the midnight of 14th August 1947, marking the close of the historical session in the Parliament. It was on the 24th of January, 1950 that only the first stanza of the song was accepted as the National Anthem of independent India. The paeans of a land millennia old, perhaps heading the dawn of all human civilisation alone, is sung through glory to the world over, till date, bearing the torch of an all tolerant, enduring land, by the name of Bharat. Perhaps we still need to be in quest of its philosophy of oneness.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.
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Author: Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Niyogi Books
About the Book:
This publication of one hundred and twelve select songs of Rabindranath Tagore is primarily for the Indian and non-Indian listeners who have no access to the original language of the Poet, but enjoy listening to his songs and would like to understand what the song says.
Rabindranath Tagore, sobriquet Gurudev, was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.He is sometimes referred to as “The Bard of Bengal”.
Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious Women’s College of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well- known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books on record. They comprise four novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations. Her first novel The Inheritors (published by Penguin)was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko (by Harper Collins)received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days,First Light and Primal Woman: Stories.Daughters of Jorasanko, a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews.Her latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, has been published by Pan Macmillan Ltd under the Picador imprint, last year in 2020.
Among the various awards she has received are VaitalikAward, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar.
She is also a script writer and producer of seven multi- media presentations based on her novels. Comprising dramatized readings interspersed with songs and accompanied by a visual presentation by professional artists and singers, these programmes have been widely acclaimed and performed in many parts of India and abroad.
Author: Bani Basu, translated from Bengali by Nandini Guha
Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2020
“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 a 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 kilometers 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.” These are the opening lines of the novel A Plate of White Marble (Swet Patharer Thala) by Bani Basu.
One of the most versatile contemporary writers in Bengali, academician, poet, novelist, essayist, critic, and translator of eminence, Basu writes on diverse topics ranging from history and mythology to society, psychology and gender. From Sri Aurobindo’s poems along with two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s stories to a volume of D.H Lawrence’s stories, there is a huge readership of her work. Janmabhumui-Matribhumi (Motherland), Antarghat (The Enemy Within), Maitreya Jatak (The Birth of Maitreya), Kharap Chhele (Dark Afternoons), Pancham Purush( Fifth Person ) are some of her other novels.
Translated into English by Nandini Guha – retired Associate Professor of English at University of Delhi and a well-known translator of some seminal Bengali novels – A Plate of White Marbles brings to a wider audience the imperious social concerns.
First published in 1990 in the original Bengali, A Plate of White Marble tells the tale of the ‘new woman’ of an era that just witnessed the independence of a nation. Bandana, the protagonist, though grieves over her husband’s early death, never conforms to the social subtext and ideals of ‘widowhood’, thanks to her uncle. She dares to begin her life afresh in every possible sense. But, the road proves to be full of thorns as she gradually faces bitterness from many quarters of the society. The only thing she clings to is her son, but once that anchor too is lost, she leaves behind the safe concrete walls of what she used to consider ‘home’, only to work for a far greater cause—she joins a children’s home to work for those who need her the most.
Post her husband’s demise, the Bhattacharjee family is left grappling with the aftershock of the loss and the new set of “rules and rituals of widowhood” that she has to follow — a life devoid of colors, sweetmeats and celebrations.
Savor these lines of Bandana’s mother-in-law and her appearance! “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 colorfully bordered saris. Her arms were full of loudly jangling gold bangles, wristlets, and the special wedding bangles of iron and conch shell.”
But for the young widow, the kind of stuff in the house were cruelly painful: “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.”
The novel has a riveting description of the Bengal countryside: “The early morning cacophony — the clangor 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.”
As times go by, Bandana’s Kaka (uncle)visits her and unable to withstand her deteriorating health, he takes his neice and her son Roop to their maternal home, leaving House number 45 Shyambazar Street behind and shunning the absurd sacrificial rituals for women.
Through Bandana, the status of woman in an old-fashioned Bengali society comes to the fore. It also portrays how they’re rendered miserable and are arbitrated for their choices, when they try to break free from stereotypical shackles. Published thirty years ago, the novel hasn’t lost its appeal because the same old shenanigans bring into being even today.
A Plate of White Marble has several dimensions: how even an educated and modern woman is helpless when she is widowed at a tender age 0f twenty-seven; how she is forced to lead a life of austerity as a “virtuous widow“, by her in-laws and how she eventually comes out of the shackles and stops confirming to the conformist traditions that were forced upon her. Even when she begins to live a new life, she had to face difficulties, though she bravely fights the battle for a liberated life.
The plot of the novel is captivating and inspiring. The characters, the backdrop, and the portrayal are entrancing. The translation has impeccably captured the essence of Bandana’s numerous roles; a wife, a daughter-in-law, a widow, and a mother who is hell-bent on bringing up the child even if it meant sacrificing one’s own comforts.
Bani Basu’s original novel and the translation magnificently throws light on the age-old customs, the gender-based discrimination in a patriarchal society that doesn’t allow women to come out of the shadow of a man, the superstitions within and outside the homes.
A Plate of White Marble has a touching story to tell and it weaves the narrative fabulously.
Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books.
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