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Review – ‘Tomb of Sand’



Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winner, marvelously translated by Daisy Rockwell from its original Hindi version ‘Ret Samadhi’, moves effortlessly across geographies and history while staying rooted, for the most part, in the family. Sprawling over 700 pages divided into 3 parts, Shree’s magnum opus asks its readers, more than anything, for patience. It is difficult to isolate the heart of ‘Tomb of Sand’, for it is simultaneously a partition novel, a family drama, and, to an extent, a love story. Yet the multi-themes of this novel are all continually infused by a faithful depiction of the infinitude of feminist realities.

The story begins with a family located somewhere in North India. Shree does not concern herself with much factual information, like the locations of houses or names of cities or even the names of the characters. Although we do learn Ma’s name in the end, we are familiarized with the main characters only through the colloquial monikers of Ma, Bade (elder son), Beti (daughter), and Bahu (Bade’s wife) for the most part. These monikers ensure that, even as they delve deeper into their tales, the reader is always placed at an arm’s length from the people living these stories. Despite the occasional chapter that breaks the fourth wall, Shree wants the reader to be an observer, who is free to love, hate, judge, or empathize with the characters of the story, whether they be people, crows, or doors. Besides the central four, there are a myriad of characters that come and go as the story progresses such as Sid, Bade’s and Bahu’s younger son, Rosie, Ma’s transgender friend who features prominently in Part II of the book, a crow that narrates part of the story, Sid’s friend who pops in and takes over the narration every once in a while, and so on.

Shree follows a somewhat non-linear storytelling with several strands of the story strewn in the first two parts, most of which comes together in the final part once Beti and Ma crosses the Wagah border into Pakistan. Part I, titled ‘Ma’s back’ is situated largely in the ancestral home, where after her husband’s death, Ma refuses to get out of bed. Attempts by everyone, including her favorite grandson Sid, to bring her back to ‘normal’ life result in repetitive screams of ‘no’. But, Shree hints that ‘normal’ isn’t what Ma wants anymore. Deftly crafted by Shree and translated by Rockwell, Ma’s repeated screams of “No, now I won’t get up” are developed thus:

“No, no, I won’t get up. Noooooo, I won’t rise nowwww. Nooo rising nyooww. Nyooo riiise nyooo. Now rise new. Now, I’ll rise anew.[1]”


Shree presents the word ‘no’, an act of defiance in itself, as the road to Ma’s freedom. In Rockwell’s translation the power of the ‘no’ is described thus; “A path opens with no. Freedom is made of no.[2]” With this ends Ma’s duty-bound life and she becomes a woman who dares to rebel against the orders that society has laid out for her.


One day, Ma disappears from the house following which she decides to move in with the estranged, still-single, black sheep of the family, Beti, who, in the eyes of dutiful Bahu, has a “bizarre lifestyle”[3]. Beti, the daughter for whose “comings and goings” Ma always cleared the path for when she was younger, is a proud feminist who left home to lead an ‘unrespectable’ life in the eyes of the traditional Bade and Bahu[4]. Nevertheless, in subtle strokes of brilliance, Shree makes the reader repeatedly question Beti’s feminism. She prides herself in welcoming a transgender person, Rosie, into her house, which she believes would be impossible in the ‘conservative’ Bade’s house. But will she continue to welcome Rosie into her house when the costs of hosting them outweigh the satisfaction it gives her pride?

‘Tomb of Sand’, in its first two parts, pays much attention to the severely gendered unit that is the Indian family. The men of the family are rarely discussed but Shree’s sharp sarcasm tells us that in this family, like many others, “[s]houting is a tradition, an ancient custom upheld by eldest sons”[5]. Bade, who is the son upholding this tradition, does not care much for his wife or sister but has immense respect for his mother. When Ma switches to more comfortable clothes from the saree in Beti’s house, Bade throws a fit in his mind because ‘Ma isn’t Ma without sarees’[6]. Like many a manchild, he places his mother on a pedestal and never recognizes the sacrifices she must make in order to satisfy his ideal of her.


The women in the family follow a duty-bound life, as shown through Bahu, who looks after the house and handles the maids, drivers, and gardeners. When Ma goes missing, Bahu is in a nearly pitiable state not out of love for Ma but of fear that blame will fall on her for failing in her ‘duty’ of looking after Ma. And then there’s Ma, who never needed looking after but was taken on as a responsibility both by Bade and the progressive Beti. Ma’s past as a wife and a mother aren’t explored much but it seems to have followed the same trajectory as that of Bahu’s. When Ma goes missing, Shree conveys astutely the lives of mothers and wives in patriarchal families, which are invisibilized after years of soulless, unacknowledged work,

“A feminist soul might say that she wasn’t there before, either, hadn’t been for years, taking care of the house and children she was a wandering shadow whose self was, in reality, missing.”[7]

In Part II of the book, Ma moves in with Beti, Ma grows stronger, Ma falls, Ma regains her strength, Beti falls, a tragedy happens, and something shifts in Ma, which leads her to resolve that she is going to Pakistan with Beti. In Part III, we see Beti’s feminism beginning to lose its footing in the face of Ma embracing her individuality. Ma’s unyielding pursuit of her history, interspersed with actual stories from her past, leads one to an ending that is not just steered but also crafted by Ma. Shree tells us that this is, at its core, the story of a woman who refused to bow down to boundaries and borders, both literal and metaphorical.


Shree employs a light-hearted, almost playful, tone throughout the book, even when the story moves into the ‘usually-handled-with-care’ territory of the Partition. Nevertheless, the playfulness of the storytelling does not detract from imprinting upon the reader the gravity of the Partition or its lingering effects on the citizens of both nations. Once the story reaches the Wagah border, Shree steadfastly defends her indisputable addition to the long list of Partition writers. In an ode to these authors, she devotes a remarkable chapter at Wagah in which the Partition writers from both countries come together to mourn the border[8]. Through these writers and her own words, Shree brings together one of the central theses of her work: what is a border? In a passionate speech by Ma to the guards holding her and her daughter captive at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ma says, “[i]f you cut a border through a heart, you don’t call it a border, you call it a wound”, alluding to both the wound in her heart that she seeks to heal and the wound that continues to afflict the two countries, 75 years after the border was drawn[9].


‘Tomb of Sand’ takes double the number of pages as the original to tell Ma’s story, perhaps, owing to the impracticability of performing a word-to-word translation of Hindi to English. Of the 80-odd chapters in Part II, some have sentences that go on for several pages whereas the shortest chapter has just two words. Containing several blank spaces, these shorter chapters give the reader time to pause, reflect and ponder which makes the deeply philosophical realms of the book more enjoyable. Evidently, and as previously mentioned, ‘Tomb of Sand’ asks of its readers a patience that is exhausting in an age pervaded by 280-words tweets. We do not get to the Partition part of this ‘Partition novel’ until about 500 pages in. Nevertheless, once the horrors of the Partition are described in Part III, the in-depth examination of the childlike quality Ma embraces after she ‘rises anew’ becomes essential in imprinting upon the reader the will of a woman who has withstood such dark times.


Rockwell, who shared the International Booker with Shree, does the translation justice, especially in places where she chooses to retain the original Hindi, Urdu, or Punjabi text followed by translations. This work is a celebration of the language, be it Hindi or English, which demands to be savored and experienced through the lens of a quirky, playful Ma who refuses to give up. Early on in the first part, Shree tells us that, “anything worth doing transcends borders''[10]. And ‘Tomb of Sand’ is worth it, borders and all.


Endnotes

1. Shree 2022, pp. 21

2. Shree 2022, pp. 52

3. Shree 2022, pp. 363

4. Shree 2022, pp. 35

5. Shree 2022, pp. 45

6. Shree 2022, pp. 381

7. Shree 2022, pp. 178

8. Shree 2022, pp. 535

9. Shree 2022, pp. 652

10. Shree 2022, pp. 12

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