Tomb of Sand
By Geetanjali Shree
Translated by Daisy Rockwell
Delhiite Geetanjali Shree writes in Hindi, and has authored five novels and several short stories. Her works have been translated into English, French, German and Serbian, as well as India’s other languages. Daisy Rockwell, meanwhile, is based in the United States and has translated a number of classic works of Urdu and Hindi literature into English.
Ret Samadhi is Shree’s latest novel, translated into English by Rockwell as Tomb of Sand. Earlier this year, Tomb of Sand won the prestigious International Booker Prize for Translated Fiction, marking it as the first Hindi-language novel to make the cut. Called by the judges a “joyous cacophony”, the book’s win is a significant breakthrough for Indian literature.
Tomb of Sand is split into three parts — ‘Ma’s Back’, ‘Sunlight’ and ‘Back to Front’ — but before we get to them, there’s a helpful lesson in language with three explanations of the word ‘samadhi’.
First, it is a state of deep meditation, or trance. Second, it is an ascetic’s death by self-entombment. Third, it is the tomb of a saintly personage, or one who has died heroically.
The first Hindi language book to win the International Booker Prize is a ‘joyous cacophony’ that is given an English translation that lives up to its play with language, form and structure
Shree uses the word to represent an ageing body on a spiritual journey, while ‘ret’ [sand] suggests the landscapes on which tombs are often built.
Shree’s octogenarian heroine, Ma, lives in upscale Delhi with her eldest son Bade [Barray], who is the ‘Man of the House’, or — as the author abbreviates him — the MOTH. His wife is called Bahu, and she is obsessed with Reebok shoes. They like to address each other as “D” — short for ‘darling’ — and have two sons. There is also Sid, Ma’s youngest son.
The family is worried because Ma has plummeted into deep depression after the death of her husband. A classic, traditional South Asian wife, she put all her energy into looking after him. He was her reason for living and now that he is no more, she doesn’t know what to do.
The woman who was once alert and alive, who coped and survived, cannot get out of bed any longer. Unable to see her waste away, her family insists that she get up and find a new purpose in life. To their utmost surprise, Ma decides this ‘purpose’ will take the form of a trip to Lahore, Pakistan. Hue and cry follows. Ma is old, this idea is preposterous. What is she thinking? A resounding ‘No’ from all.
Only her daughter — the liberated, feminist Beti, who is unmarried and lives on her own — supports Ma. This is her chance to pay Ma back for all the times in the past when Ma supported Beti’s own escapades, leaving a window unlocked so that the youngster could slip out and explore life on her own terms, while everyone else — far too concerned with social mores and stifling traditions — shouted, “No, absolutely not, she won’t go out!”
The mother and daughter catch a taxi and sneak off to the Wagah border to enter Pakistan. Although theirs is not a clandestine crossover, Beti is worried what will happen when officers discover the chironji seeds that Ma’s long-time friend, Rosie Bua, had asked them to take for someone she knew in Pakistan.
Ma and Beti go around seeing the sights of Lahore but, as the story unfolds, we learn that the trip is not so much about visiting a place as it is about revisiting a time: 1947. The splitting of a land. When people changed. When identities were lost and new ones found. When a young Ma crossed a border for the very first time, leaving behind her home, her friends and her life as she loved it.
Tomb of Sand gives a fresh perspective of what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist. The story addresses the individual issues associated with the political event of Partition, such as displaced families and changing dynamics of parenthood. It weaves together the experiences of youth and old age and reflects on the myriad relationships that connect people.
The novel oscillates between modern urban life and ancient history, folklore, global warming, Buddhism and much more. It twists and turns, allowing everything and anything to jump in and join the melee. However, this lack of straightforward narration will sometimes test the reader’s patience even if the haphazard clutter is, for the most part, humorous and wholesome.
Good then, that Shree takes care to slow the pace down at intervals, giving readers the time and space to absorb each character to the fullest. She takes her time with the characters and, no matter if they are human, animal, or even inanimate objects such as walking sticks or chrysanthemum bushes, each is sketched in layers upon layers of detail.
Then, in a complete turnaround, the author subjects readers to a devastating turn in the story, with a chapter that speaks volumes in its ruthless brevity.
Rockwell does a deft job of translating and her wordplay, etymology and coinage take on a life of their own, driving the narrative to what can well be called a love letter to the Hindi language. She also keeps intact occasional fragments of poetry, prayer and songs in their original language — their translations appearing alongside — because plenty of Shree’s original prose is too good to leave behind.
Readers not acquainted with the South Asian linguistic landscape may find the text thick with Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sanskrit, as the book revolves around a polyphonous ecosystem in which no language is spoken in a pure, unadulterated form. At the same time, this very multiplicity will entice readers from a variety of linguistic backgrounds.
And, as the exuberant translation enriches the senses, frequent references to the great authors of the Partition era — such as Intizar Hussain, Saadat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Manzoor Ehtesham — will surely revive interest in the trove of literature that came about as a consequence of that epochal event.
Shree has knitted an experimental tale that plays with language, form and structure, going as far beyond as it does deep within, to tell of human perseverance.
The reviewer is a writer and editor based in Karachi.
She tweets @sarashraf
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 10th, 2022