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India's Booker Prize Winner Explores the Human Cost of the Enmity Between Her Country and Pakistan
A review of Geetanjali Shree's Tomb of Sand
Photo Credit: David Parry
This year’s International Booker Prize was presented to Indian writer Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi in original Hindi), translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. This is the first novel in any Indian language that has won the world’s most prestigious literary award.
Shree weaves a 730-plus-pages-long, languorous tale that begins with a middle-class family in Delhi and ends in an unexpected tryst and twist in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan. The story is inherently unconventional, given its concern with an 80-year-old woman and her unexpected renewal after what seems like a surrender to life’s imminent end. Eighty-year-old Ma (Hindi for mother) is the central protagonist, who takes to her bed after the death of her husband. She lives in a “joint” family—a multigenerational home—with her son and daughter-in-law. Ma also has an adult daughter, Beti, (the Hindi term for daughter) who makes the convention-defying choice of living a single, independent life, instead of settling into marriage and domesticity, despite her family’s disapproval. Interestingly, Shree chooses to identify the family members only via their relationships to Ma, never once revealing their names, perhaps as a device to emphasize how Ma’s identity has been wrapped up with those for whom she’s lived her life up to this point.
When we meet her at the beginning of the book, recently widowed Ma appears to have given up on life and washed her hands of any familial interests or concerns. Ma’s entire family is greatly concerned about her refusal to leave her bed and resume life. All efforts and exhortations come to nought as Ma literally turns her back on them, “getting closer and closer to the wall, and her back became a wall itself, keeping at bay those who came to coax and cajole: Get up, Ma, Get up!”
Then, one day, Ma walks out of the house and, for a harrowing few days, is nowhere to be found. Eventually she is recovered in a terrible state—of both mind and body—by Beti, who takes her to her home, much to the chagrin of her family, who see Ma’s residence with Beti as a potential endorsement of Beti’s wayward choices. There, Ma regains her health and expands into the new space, reclaiming a rather unusual lease on life within Beti’s already questionable lifestyle. To compound the scandal, Ma deepens her friendship with Rosie, a hijra— a trans-woman—and Rosie becomes a regular at Beti’s house, even assuming differently gendered identities in service to Ma. The story then takes a dramatic turn when disaster strikes Rosie, and Ma declares her intention to travel to Pakistan. The family is not too thrilled about this idea, but Beti and Ma launch out on the trip. Little does anyone understand Ma’s true motives.
On the journey, Ma’s tragic past, rooted in India’s 1947 Partition, is revealed. India’s Partition, which took place as the British left India, was a seminal event that divided India into two, resulting in not just the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but also in a gargantuan tragedy that killed nearly 2 million people and created one of the largest displacements—an estimated migration of over 14 million people—in human history.
Ma, whose name is Chandraprabha, was 16-year-old Chanda in 1947. Chandraprabha’s fraught and reckless journey into Khyber—among the more dangerous regions of Pakistan due to terrorist activity—and the revelation of Chanda’s life and fate before and during Partition comprise perhaps the most compelling part of the book. That story is ultimately one of romantic love torn asunder by Partition.
Stylistically, the book’s tone remains deceptively light throughout, wandering into many stories—some metaphorical, some real and some magically real—before it delivers on its most compelling arc. Shree lavishly uses metaphor, insight and humor to provide resonant accounts of India’s urban middle class: their petty grudges and grievances, their loyalty to familial duty, their daily gripes about being underappreciated, the social metaphysics behind their value judgments and their scandalized astonishment at the rapidly evolving ecosystem of possibilities available to unconventional women, including Beti, in modernizing India.
One of Ma’s grandsons is labeled “Serious Son,” whose ludicrous struggles to learn how to laugh are hilariously depicted. The same character goes on to become “Overseas Son” when he moves to Australia. His mother, Ma’s Bahu— literally daughter-in-law in Hindi—is a malcontented, middle-class wife perpetually clad in traditional sarees and Reeboks! Shree humorously captures the contradictions that modern middle-class life in India embodies: “The word privacy isn't even in the dictionary here and if anyone lays claim to such a right, she is eyed with suspicion. What’s she hiding, after all?”
Shree is clearly an accomplished writer with a masterful command of both Hindi and English, and she takes many artistic liberties with style and storytelling. In reading this book, I was reminded of the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” That is what Shree does. Her alliterative, almost poetic, use of language foreshadows Ma’s renewal even as Ma refuses to leave her bed: “No, no, I won’t get up. Noooooo, I won’t rise nowwww. Nooo ris-ing nyooww, Nyooo riiise, nyoooo. Now rise new. Now, I’ll rise anew.”
The larger story is accompanied with stories of objects and beings of disparate kinds, including crows, walls, doors, chrysanthemums, canes and much more, imbuing each of them with meaning and purpose. There is a section of almost 25 pages where crows assume a central role when Ma converses with them and they together ponder Bade’s (Ma’s older son’s) plight.
Shree’s original work and Rockwell’s masterful translation are literary endeavors worth examining in service of both unconventional storytelling and making vast literatures across languages more broadly accessible. In one interview with India’s state TV, Shree insists that the original book in Hindi and its translations are not in any kind of hierarchical relationship with each other. Instead, the original needs to provide rich content so that its translations can be “differently rich”—a worthwhile goal. While I didn’t read the Hindi version, I did refer to it, and in reading Rockwell’s translation, there were many points where I could “hear” the Hindi original. Hindi couldn’t be more different from English in script, sound and sensibility, so this feat is all the more remarkable.
A word about the title, where Shree’s command of metaphor shines again. The original Hindi title is Ret Samadhi, and ret means “sand.” Samadhi, however, has two meanings: “tomb,” yes, but also “a deep meditative state.” A tomb encircles death, from which one may not return. In contrast, in a meditative state, one may not be reachable, but one could return from it. Shree relates a little tale of how the Buddha found the true Middle Path of balance when he arose from a long samadhi (as opposed to a prescription of complete renunciation, typically attributed to him). The Buddha’s story is both metaphorically and literally present—via an ancient statue—throughout the book. Ma, who has spent a lifetime dutifully giving to her family, eventually rises from her samadhi to pursue something for herself—closure for a romantic love that has lain buried in the sandy tomb of an unfulfilled past. In parallel, Ma’s journey leads her from one samadhi to the next.
As other reviewers have noted as well, Shree appears to have employed a sort of “stream of consciousness” approach to writing this tome, perhaps a worthwhile experiment in exploring new boundaries for the craft. Unfortunately, however, large swathes of the book come off as disjointed, even untethered, from the main story. They appear to tell rather than show us the world that Shree wants to depict. Often the book wanders off into side stories that don’t necessarily contribute to the main line or its emphasis. A few times the novel, largely told in third person, rather randomly takes on the first-person point of view of a character who is never properly introduced. In one chapter, it’s Beti’s voice that takes over. For this reviewer, these choices didn’t contribute to the story, its telling or impact.
In the first three-quarters of the book, the somewhat thin story-line seems stretched, while it seems equally rushed in the last quarter. Some characters are unevenly treated. For example, Rosie occupies a central place in the story up until the journey to Pakistan, at which point there is an explosive revelation related to Partition and then ... nothing. That left several unanswered questions for this reader. I couldn’t help thinking of Arundhati Roy and her masterful and architectural command on storytelling in her debut novel, The God of Small Things, which also won the Booker Prize in 1997.
Overall, my main criticism of the book is that it is not sufficiently a Partition novel, despite being marketed as such. Although Shree pays expansive homage to the great literature and writers of Partition when Ma and Beti reach the Wagah border between India and Pakistan, this particular Partition story is told in a rushed and haphazard manner, replete with loose ends. Having worked as a citizen historian for over a decade with The 1947 Partition Archive (an initiative devoted to recording and archiving the oral histories of witnesses of Partition), I found this perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book. I was hoping for a more fleshed out story about that tragic chapter in my native country’s history. This mismatch is probably a result of the publisher’s marketing (Partition is in!) and not the author’s intent, especially given that 2022 is the 75th anniversary of both India’s independence and its botched Partition.
Interestingly, while Shree does not explicitly venture into the politics of the region, the book’s theme carries some weight in the Indian political context today, both along the perpetually fraught border with Pakistan even 75 years after Partition and within India, where, given the rise of Hindu nationalism, interfaith marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are now routinely stamped with pronouncements of “love jihad.” This so-called jihad refers to an alleged Muslim conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam and diminish the country’s Hindu population—never mind that at 900 million-plus this population is five times the Muslim one.*
India’s 1947 Partition created one of the most militarized borders in the world and a persistent animosity between two nations whose people could not be closer in a shared culture, language and history. This book is Shree’s protest against such man-made borders that destroy love, amity and much more. In her video interviews Shree appears to be offering the book as a small mutiny against treating borders as unbreachable barriers, rather than bridges of peace, which is how she urges us to see them.
Shree’s book is clearly a call for ending hostilities in the Indian subcontinent. However, she never once directly calls out the politics of the region or—more importantly—the current right-wing regime in India, which actively promotes Hindu fanaticism in a country that promised its citizens a secular democracy upon its birth 75 years ago. I can’t know if Shree’s choice is an artistic or a pragmatic one —already her work is coming under fire for perceived religious infractions against Hindu deities by an increasingly politicized citizenry. But I do know that art often works in subversive ways, first by making us feel—and then compelling us to question—our prejudices.
This reviewer hopes that this book will do the same for the region’s citizens.
*This sentence has been amended for accuracy.
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