Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree


Year Published:2022 (2018 original Hindi edition)


Tomb of Sand
Geetanjali Shree

Translator: Daisy Rockwell


Tomb of Sand is the first book written in Hindi to win the International Booker Prize. Daisy Rockwell writes in her translator’s note that, “the traumatic events surrounding the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan have led to an entire literary genre, on a scale similar to that of Holocaust literature.” While this may be a surprise to hear for Western readers like myself, Rockwell states, “It is an enduring shame and a major lacuna in Western publishing that virtually all of these classic works do in fact exist in excellent English translations, but almost none have ever been published outside of South Asia.” The great works Rockwell alludes to are from writers mentioned in various parts of Tomb of Sand, but feature most prominently in the opening chapter of the third section of the novel. (There are too many to mention here, but there is a list taken from the novel at the end of this review.) In this chapter the writers seem to come alive and enter the narrative as Beti illegally crosses the border between India and Pakistan with her mother. This is the central movement of the novel. Tomb of Sand is the story of a physical, as well as a moral and intellectual journey, uncovering past events and their devastating impacts on the lives of ordinary people after the Partition of India and Pakistan. In addressing this issue, Geetanjali Shree deconstructs the concepts of borders and boundaries as nebulous instruments of oppression that have no relationship to nature, as well as the borders constructed through sexual identity, the construct of family and even how age can divide the self through the perception of others.

The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, from English controlled India, divided families and has been the source of much cultural anguish and religious and political animus ever since. The division was made along broad religious lines determined by the Radcliffe Line: Pakistan represented a majority Muslim population, while India represented a majority Hindu population. Comparisons could be made to the division of Germany after World War II, and the division, in particular of Berlin. But the Indian/Pakistani Partition resulted in what was possibly the worst refuge crisis in history, a fact little acknowledged or understood in Western countries. It also inspired mass violence and attempts by millions to migrate. It is estimated that over two million people disappeared while attempting to migrate in either direction after Partition.

There is no specific time setting for the narrative, but Tomb of Sand feels contemporary. The tension between traditional Indian values and Western ideals of science, objectivity and secularism form a part of the novel’s thematic background. And Ma, 80, is of an age to have been a young girl during the events of Partition that are described in the novel. The story of Tomb of Sand is quite simple. It is primarily the story of Mohatarma Chandraprabha Devi, otherwise known as Chandra, or as she is most usually addressed by her family, Ma or Amma. Ma has recently lost her husband. Depressed, she lays on her bed in her room, her back to her family, and no-one is quite sure how to reach through her emotional barrier. Ma lives with her eldest son, Bade, and his wife, Bahu. Bahu takes pride in the care she gives Ma, but Bade is just as concerned that Ma signs over cheques regularly because he is using her pension for financial investments. When Ma disappears - she seems to have oozed through the crack in a wall, because how else could she have gotten out? - the family panics. When she is found again Ma is determined to move in with her daughter, Beti – a journalist who has, until now, lived an independent life – while Bade and Bahu move to a new house after Bade’s retirement. But we get the sense that Ma is determined to stay with Beti.

Tomb of Sand will be challenging for some Western readers. There are the obvious cultural differences that readers will have to accommodate. Some concepts will seem strange, like the title itself, Ret Samadhi in the original Hindi, which alludes to deep meditation or asceticism, leading to a state in which consciousness and memory are confined; in Ma’s case this is her eighty year old body. But ‘Samadhi’ also refers to the long history of countries like India, in which physical artefacts are readily dug from the sand, like the ancient Buddha statue Ma has kept all her life, or the way history and culture are embedded within the country’s psyche, ever a presence beneath the thin veneer of modernity. The narrative represents these tensions through the family. Beti is a modern woman. She is a feminist with a career and a lover. Her sister-in-law, Bahu, has followed a more traditional path and sees meaning and purpose in playing her role as the good daughter-in-law. Oversees son – that is how we know him – maintains close contact with Ma and the family by telephone, but it is clear he has pursued a career in the Western world. And Ma, the focal point of the family, who would seem to represent traditional Indian ideals of motherhood and matrimonial fidelity, seems determined to escape her family’s control after the death of her husband. Her friendship with Rosie, a hijra, allows her to further slip free of her family’s influence as Rosie takes on a larger role in her life. Together, they plan a trip to Pakistan.

Shree’s narrative both embraces and rejects Western modes of storytelling. Some readers may feel similarities in the slow unfolding of the narrative until the climactic scenes of the last section, with the structure and pace of Moby Dick. Others may discern some similarities with Don Quixote. Ma, after all, has been unhinged from the life she led by her husband’s death, and the new life she adopts, with her daughter acting as her Sancho Panza, has a picaresque quality. But to say that is also to misrepresent the novel. Shree’s approach is somewhat experimental. The reading experience is of a coherent, mostly linear narrative (the first chapter is a flashback as are some later chapters) but you are also reading something that is, at times, impressionistic and meandering. Shree foregrounds her narrative philosophy in the opening words of the novel: “A tale tells itself”. A story, her narrator constantly asserts, has a life of its own, has gaps, can be incomplete, create meaning as it goes, and may possess “a dollop of the unfathomable”. This results in peculiar digressions, such as chapters devoted to the story of crows who take an interest and play a part in the drama of the family (crows have a connection with ancestors in Hindu religion), or the intrusion of the narrator into the story at various moments, who is connected to one of Ma’s grandsons, Sid, but is not a part of this story (although is a part of other unrelated stories we are assured), yet sees things other characters miss or has unrelated thoughts – “what counts as a murder nowadays” – that seem entirely irrelevant, until they aren’t.

Shree’s narrative voice, then, sometimes feels anarchic, but this serves a broader concern of the novel. Shree refuses to allow narrative conventions to define the boundaries and preoccupations of her story, offering us instead these lives in all their messiness. It’s a trope that is reflected in all aspects of the story. When Bade and Bahu move house the narrative ponders the question of what makes a house a home: “That which resides within is what turns a home into a castle … It has nothing to do with the measurements of the perimeter.” There is a constant tension between the inner life and the outer world. ‘Measurements’, like Blake’s Newton attempting to measure the universe, are a particularly Western concern that elide the formidable spiritual life. Western historical research is portrayed as pedantic, “always hypothesizing about which date which event occurred”, while “Storytellers are a thousand times better than historians, they describe whatever draws their interest, whether it’s the small moments or the big.” Likewise, science is dehumanizing, dismisses feeling and instinct in preference for the jalebi, or brain, and technology is isolating rather than liberating. At a significant moment in Ma’s story we are reminded, “Nowhere is this night recorded.” Well, it’s recorded here, one might think, but Shree is again referring to the inadequacy of Western paradigms to make sense of the lived experience and the inhumanity of Partition. It is significant that Shree chose to write this novel in Hindi, I think, since Rockwell, her translator, tells us she can speak and write English perfectly well.

Tomb of Sand rejects the concept of borders as defined by Western ideology and history. The 1947 Partition is, of course, is the main target. It is the subject of the third part of the novel, when Beti and Ma cross into Pakistan in search of connections to Ma’s earlier life and her first husband, Anwar. But borders are crossed not only in a narrative sense by Shree’s narrator, or by Ma and Beti, but in other ways, too. Rosie is a hijra, a term denoting an official third gender in India, usually defined as biological males who live the life of a female, or people who may identify as neither male nor female. Rosie (also known as Raza when dressed as a male) confuses Beti with her indeterminate body. When she recites poetry she turns in two directions, reflecting her indeterminate status. Beti, herself, is aware of her own changing position. Having chosen the life of a modern woman, she is drawn to the thought of a more traditional life that would give her the comforts and protections of a family when she is older. She is also aware that her relationship with her mother is changing: “Beti became the mother, and made Ma the daughter.” Likewise, there is a generational division in India, overturning the preeminence of the older generation who deride the influence of American culture, by a younger generation who see their elders as, “slaves of custom and tradition”. This is not to say that Shree merely dismisses her Western influences. True, Western culture does not serve someone like Rosie. “Who cares about us,” Rosie tells Ma. “We don’t belong in their markets, they have no need to advertise for us, open shops for us, earn a profit … imagine what a vile invisible afterthought we are. There are no films for us, no literature, no art, no clothing.” But Shree’s narrator is also aware of the limitations of tradition, which is itself a border that must be crossed, especially for women in India. “Where do customs come from?” the narrator asks as prelude to deconstructing the origins and power of traditions, and decides that customs reside within the interests of patriarchal power: “Machismo is hidden in the layers of nearly every custom.”

For many Western readers like myself, Tomb of Sand may well be a gateway text into what Daisy Rockwell has called ‘Partition literature’. It’s a book that has its challenges, both culturally and narratively, but the book is by no means inaccessible. You realize, as you read, that there is a defined narrative path, despite digressions and despite passages that may at first feel opaque. This is customary, after all, for many books good enough to win the Booker Prize. Tomb of Sand is a worthwhile novel that will benefit from a slow, deliberate read, as well as rereading. Nevertheless, despite its self-consciously peripatetic style, it ends in a surprisingly dramatic third section that draws the disparate elements of the narrative together into a satisfying conclusion.

Indian Writers - “Partition Literature”

Geetanjali Shree speaks of the rich Indian literature largely unknown to Western readers in her narrative. Below are some of the writers Shree makes reference to. In the third part of her book, some of these writers come to life to take part in the story as Ma and Beti cross into Pakistan. Other creative people such as Indian film makers, actors and artists are also represented in her story.

Daisy Rockwell discusses the challenges of translating Geetanjali Shree's book into English in this short video (1 minute)
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Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell
Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell
Accepting the International Booker Prize, 2022
Partition Cartoon
‘I only ’ope nothing goes wrong, madam’
This satirical cartoon shows Nehru and Jinnah sawing through Mother India [Hindustan], with Gandhi and the British looking on. The caption ‘I only ’ope nothing goes wrong, madam’, suggests the inevitable disaster of Partition.