Sit up and take notice of the widows in India

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Sit up and take notice of the widows in India

Mansi Dhanraj Shetty reviews Bani Basu’s 'A Plate of White Marble' translated into English by Nandini Guha.

When was the last time you took note of a widow in your neighbourhood? Did you skip her name on your guest list for your wedding or your child’s naming ceremony? Did you feel uncomfortable with the coloured clothes she wore or her extroverted demeanour? If the answer to any of this is yes, read on.

An updated article in The Hindu Business Line dated 8 January, 2018 states that there are at least 55 million widows in India. To put things in perspective, that’s more than the population of countries like South Korea or Myanmar! The Loomba Foundation World Widows Report 2015 stated one in three widows worldwide reside in India and China. Discrimination and ostracism, patrilineal inheritance, patrilocal residence, lack of public policy and the gendered division of labour in a society deeply affect the condition of widows. Given the ongoing pandemic, a recent news report mentioned that around 12,000 widows had petitioned stating that during the lockdown their pension had been discontinued by the Woman and Child Development Ministry without any valid reason.

Another note while researching, it’s strange that the plight of Indian widows is largely being covered by international news sites in late 2019-2020 rather than our own Indian ones. This makes me question whether we have marginalised their voice to such an extent that it isn’t important for mainstream media anymore. Given this, critically-acclaimed Bengali author Bani Basu’s ‘ Svet Pathar Thaal’ (Bengali) remains as relevant three decades later as it was when published in 1990. Translated for the first time in English by Nandini Guha as ‘A Plate of White Marble’, the novel has been given a fresh readership by Niyogi Books, the Delhi-based publisher.

A young bride, a wife, daughter-in-law, mother a widow — ‘A Plate of White Marble’ helps the reader experience the status and position of an educated young woman in contemporary India across all these life stages. Uncharacteristically widowed at a young age, Bandana is perplexed about the sudden change in attitude towards her. From being an integrated part of her husband's household she is now questioning her presence in the same place. Her every move is viewed in context with her renewed status. From the kind of clothes she should wear, the food she should eat or the amount of times she should eat is all governed by her widowhood. This makes you question whether the grief of widowhood is really the loss of your husband or what you go through as a result of it.

Starting slowly, the oppressive Number 45 Shyambazaar Street is built in the imagination of the reader more in order to prepare them for Bandana’s outburst rather than set the context in which she belonged. As soon after you feel the rest of the text flows from one slight to another breaking only when she reads letters from her paternal uncle do things slow down again somewhat foreshadowing another change.

Bought up with love and care, Bandana’s uncle is woken up from his reverie after an experience at the Kashi Ghat where an elderly lady dying in his arms tells him, ‘Lord Bishwanath, please do not make me a widow in my next life.’ He comes and fetches his niece from her marital home to give her a new life. As Bandana matures, she understands that society will never accept her as a modern woman who does not believe in adhering to the unruly customs of widowhood. There is a constant struggle in what makes her happy and how she would like to be perceived. When we feel perception will break her down again, she finally breaks free.

The novel subtly addresses the hypocrisy across strata with strong characters being the voice of reason. Whether be it Kaka (father’s brother), Koli (her sister-in-law) or later Sudipto (her son’s art teacher), they all question her need to be a martyr on the altar of societal perception. They want her to be able to do things for herself, things which make her happy which give her purpose rather than what others expect out of her.

As much as we claim that we have changed as a society, the inherent apathy for someone who is different than us in anyway just seeps through. Even in this day and age, our archaic social conditioning makes us question when a widow dresses up in vibrant colours, interacts with abandon with other men or even steps out of the house to earn a living. The book will hopefully make you at least check yourself before you assume the way a widowed woman leads her life in these times. Her life. Her choices. May its time we stop sacrificing those who are living for those who are long gone.


Mansi is a voracious reader who devours books to satiate her hunger. A partner at One by One Design, a design and digital studio that works closely with Kitab Khana and Indian Novels Collective, among other publishing houses, and the Founder of What Are You Reading Today? – a mood-based book recommendation site, Mansi would readily retire if she was paid to read!

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