Tomb of Sand 
by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell.
Tilted Axis, 735 pp., £12, August 2021, 978 1 911284 61 1
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Ma,​ as everyone calls her, is exasperating to her family. Eighty years old and recently widowed, she refuses to get out of bed. Despite the entreaties of her son Bade (in whose Delhi house she lives), and pleas from her daughter Beti, daughter-in-law Bahu and grandson Sid, she lies with her face to the wall, as if readying herself for death. After 170 pages of inactivity, she’s more than a little exasperating to the reader, too. A dragged-out ‘No’ is about all we hear from her – ‘Nooooo, not getting up anymooooore’ – and though there’s a promise of action ahead, involving border guards and a bullet, it’s a test of patience whether we can wait. Still, if Laurence Sterne can take four volumes out of nine to get Tristram Shandy born, why begrudge Geetanjali Shree her unhurriedness? ‘Freedom is made of no,’ we’re assured,No is fun.’

The fun lies in the novel’s linguistic exuberance: puns, comma-less disquisitions, alliteration, double entendre, euphony. In the afterword, the translator, Daisy Rockwell, talks about Shree’s relish for the sound of words, their dhwani; though fluent in English, she wrote the novel in her mother tongue, Hindi, in order to give assonance full rein. Any translation, the novel tells us, can turn into ‘an absolute catastrophe, where smile means knife, and eat is feed and you’ve arrived is why don’t you leave and of course is oops, I’m trapped.’ Yet Rockwell reproduced a Hindi-esque effect in English with sufficient brio for Tomb of Sand to win this year’s International Booker Prize. The prose can be discomfiting: allusions are perplexing and wordplay is strained (‘Their minds turned to curd: hue and cry occurred’; ‘One more knot. A no, not. A know not. A knew not. A new not. A new desire’). But there are markers to sustain the narrative, and engagingly terse chapters, and the humour never lets up. Overseas Son, Sid’s Australia-based brother, has an incapacity for laughter, but it’s not a condition that afflicts the author. While Ma lies flat in bed, there’s stand-up comedy at the expense of her dependants and their fallings-out. Bade and Beti haven’t spoken in years (‘The bitterness was gone, but the habit remained’), in part because of their contrasting lifestyles: he has done well for himself, both as a civil servant (grand family house, huge garden, door permanently open to supplicants) and as the person in charge of Ma’s money; she has embraced bohemianism (‘baggy, saggy clothing’) and made a name for herself by writing tough (and to Bade unintelligible) books. As well as sibling antipathy, there’s a ‘ledger of marital complaint’, as the Reebok-clad Bahu squabbles with Bade over what possessions to take with them now he’s retiring and they’re moving to a smaller property. Amenable Sid tries to keep the peace but Overseas Son, in touch by phone, takes the side of his hard-done-by mother. They’re a parodic dysfunctional family, united only by their anxious fussing around Ma: ‘Whether or not they get along, Ma is the tie that binds.’

At this level, Tomb of Sand is a social-realist comedy about the strain on a family when an elderly member is confined to bed or, when out of it, suffers falls and mystery ailments. But fantastical elements complicate the texture, along with lengthy pauses from the main narrative (‘if a story wants, it can stand in one place, refusing to budge’) and snatches of ancient legend, folk tales, poems and songs: ‘In every story legend fable myth there lies a dollop of the unfathomable and a dash of the riddle.’ As Shree sees it, the non-human world is as animated as the human one: clouds laugh, flowers flirt, doors are wise, roads have maternal feelings, and crows convene meetings to discuss climate change. Two treasured objects in Ma’s room add to the fun. One is her lightweight, shiny gold cane, a present from Overseas Son, which when jerked releases a cloud of colours, like butterflies or a rainbow. The cane is magical. In the neighbourhood, there are rumours that Ma, holding it vertical as she lies horizontal, is a Wishing Tree; people queue up in the vain hope of having their wishes granted (‘Please bring electricity to our village’; ‘Please give Dhanno a son’). No less revered than the cane is the ancient stone Buddha that came into the family a generation ago – if sold to a museum it would probably fetch millions, but, Bahu aside, nobody is willing to part with it, least of all Ma.

Neither cane nor Buddha has the power to prise Ma from her bed: she’s too ‘exhausted after years of subsuming her own rhythm to that of others’. Then one day, when no one’s paying attention, she vanishes. ‘A feminist soul might say she wasn’t there before, either, hadn’t been for years,’ but her disappearance causes panic and distress. For thirteen hours – or days or weeks, no one seems sure – she’s missing, and when she reappears she causes pain and outrage, to Bade at least, by moving in with Beti.

The novel then shifts to a mother-daughter fable, a tale of two women, one (Ma, already tiny) growing smaller as she ages, the other (Beti) growing bigger as she puts on weight. For a time the daughter becomes the mother, surrendering her freedom and neglecting her boyfriend, KK, in order to get Ma back on her feet. It’s a sunlit, restorative interlude, with tea taken on the balcony every morning and a chapter given over to the ‘sounds of peace’ that help Ma and Beti to ‘nest in intimacy’. But Beti isn’t the only nurse and enabler. The deep-voiced Rosie Bua begins to visit Ma, bringing flowers, herbs, pickles, ointments and luxurious gowns. The two of them go back a long way, though quite how far isn’t disclosed till near the end of the book. Beti feels ambivalent about Rosie’s intrusions: having wrested Ma away from Bade, and restored her to life, she fears losing her to a stranger. But ‘newly embodied in the company of whichbody Rosie’, Ma is further rejuvenated, as if a 16-year-old again.

Rosie’s appearance in the novel is brief, and her fate tragic, yet as a trans woman (or hijra) she’s its linchpin – a ‘body unrecognising of the legitimacy of any borders’, a shapeshifter indistinguishable from Raza, the master tailor who makes clothes for Ma. It’s no accident that just as their twinship as RosieRaza is recognised, Ma develops a boil or cyst between her legs, which everyone jokes is a penis. It’s as if the novel has only now discovered what it’s about – not old age (Ma’s physical and mental travails) or a family feud ending in feminist triumph (Beti’s ‘abduction’ of Ma, as Bade understands it) but borderlessness, or the wickedness of creating frontiers between male and female, youth and age, husband and wife, brother and sister, Hindu and Muslim, or, most importantly, India and Pakistan. A border, Ma says in a long riff towards the end of the book, is for crossing and connection. A border should be a source of love, not hatred. A border should be notional, not national: ‘Do not accept the border. Do not break yourself into bits with the border.’

The riff comes in the third part of the novel and you could say that Tomb of Sand is a triptych – family to the left (‘Anything we say about the Mahabharata could also be said about families: they contain all that exists in the world, and whatever they don’t contain doesn’t exist’), gender in the middle, and nationhood completing the picture. The themes intersect and overlap, but there’s no denying that the third part is more political and out-there than the rest, with Ma coming into her own as an octogenarian freedom fighter, assertive, opinionated and quick on her feet. Her insistence on taking a trip to Pakistan is baffling to Beti. Then again, ‘Beti had grown accustomed to her own incomprehension. She did whatever Ma told her,’ which is why she ends up accompanying her to a country the rest of the family regard as alien and dangerous. To begin with, the two visitors are afforded a degree of comfort; the Pakistani ambassador sends a car to transport them to Lahore. But Ma continues to mystify Beti by treating Pakistan as home: ‘I didn’t come here. I left here.’ When the two of them take off, visa-less, and arrive in Khyber, they’re arrested and interrogated on suspicion of being spies. To add to the confusion, Ma gives her name as Chanda and her husband’s name as Ali Anwar, and demands to see him.

‘Is every story really a Partition tale – love romance longing courage pain-in-separation bloodshed?’ the novel asks, and answers with a long chapter in which a host of Partition writers are imagined gathering at Wagah, a village on the border, unable ‘to understand whether they have to go to this side or that side, and what is this side and what is that’. A Western reader is unlikely to be acquainted with these writers. ‘Some Partition literature has been written in English,’ Rockwell says, ‘but much more has been written in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bangla.’ It’s ‘an enduring shame and a major lacuna in Western publishing’ that although English translations do exist ‘almost none have even been published outside of South Asia.’ Shree pays homage to these authors while also seeking to join their ranks. Her novel came out in Hindi in 2018 but there’s a timeliness about its appearance in English on the 75th anniversary of Partition, a horror, too, in the four tales which Ma recounts about her experiences as a young woman caught up in violence and flight. To Beti, none of it makes sense; Ma’s answers under interrogation are ‘wackadoodle’; what’s all this about her having had a husband before the one who recently died? But, before the end of the novel, Ma and her now paralysed first husband are briefly reunited:

Like so many other things, the night of Chanda’s and Anwar’s tryst has not been recorded anywhere, neither in government records nor in a personal diary.

But that night in Khyber that lay silent beneath the diamond-studded sky belonged indeed to the two of them.

Ma would sit back and then lean over again. For a long time she hummed a raga in her rasping voice, and the two beings rested side by side, one seated, one supine, truly lost in the old times, in love beyond any border or boundary.

That’s why, when Ma burst out laughing, and said, Yaar, they made you and me two separate countries, Anwar smiled too.

The tryst might have allowed Tomb of Sand a ‘soothing finale’, a border-crossing, all-conquering love story, but we’ve been told there’s a bullet to come, and when it does the stage is given over to a crow caught up as a bystander. There’s also the brief reappearance of a teasingly jocular ‘I’, an unidentified friend of Sid, who apologises for his presence (‘I don’t belong here and it isn’t my story’), but without whom the narrative might not exist (‘he who’s got nothing to gain or lose from the story can see it because he stands aloof, unlike the characters standing in the middle’). Too elusive to be called the novel’s narrator, the ‘I’ is only one of many voices crowding these pages, not all of them human: ‘That’s how life goes – sometimes one person narrates, sometimes another; rock, bird, tree, water, too, narrate.’ But the ‘I’ adds another layer, as do the diversions on hospitals, foreigners, cricket, chrysanthemums, saris, hiccups and colonialism.

The novel is blathery and pontifical, exulting in its power to ‘fly, stop, go, turn, be whatever it wants to be’. After 700-plus pages (twice the length of the Hindi original), I longed for the compactness of Salman Rushdie’s Shame or Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. But too-much-ness is the brief: ‘The tale has no need for a single stream. It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters.’ The freshness is the female perspective on Partition, the stuff men brush over and which women like Ma have kept secret for too long. Through Ma’s encounter with her traumatic teenage past, ‘the tale of a dying woman evolves into a story about her thriving and flourishing.’ The dénouement has her lying down, the way she began the novel, but she’s facing the sky, not a bedroom wall, and though there’s a bullet in her body, her ‘pose of repose’ is a victory. ‘No one could taint the splendour of her final moment by partitioning it between Hindustan and Pakistan.’

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