Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.
First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.
Tilted Axis, UK edition
Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.
Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.
Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell
However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.
Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.
The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.
Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.
Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.
Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not, Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.
The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:
No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?
Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:
What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.
When Rosie eventually begins to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.
Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition. Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.
Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.