In more ways than one, ‘Tomb of Sand’ is an ode to the rich history of storytelling in South Asia. It exists, like all great stories, in liminal and discernible spaces at once.
Fiction allows one to taste possibilities. But its principal function is to record events whose truths cannot or couldn’t be documented by historians. It reveals the character of a time, age, and culture. One such tale, a novel, that ‘tells itself’and has come closest to articulating truths that can only be supplied in fiction, is Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi, translated into English as Tomb of Sand (Penguin, 2022) by Daisy Rockwell. Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize — the first Hindi novel to do so, it may as well win and create history. Like many, who are swooned reading its assiduous English translation, the thought to describe it paralyses me, too.
Is it a Partition novel? Or a fiercely feminist fable? Or an utterly fresh candidate of the ‘stream of consciousness’ literature? Or is it the response that you get when you ask yourself: What if Ducks, Newburyport had not one, but several sentences, and had as many themes as it did or stories it told, but was written in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and English? Perhaps something ground-breaking like Tomb of Sand must defy categorisation, for a new world demands rejection of the old ways of boxing, fetishizing, and labelling. It must stand as a testimony to itself.
The story begins with a woman: an eighty-year-old Ma. She has recently lost her husband. And ever since his death, she has taken a samadhi of sorts. Each family member tries to break her trance-like meditative state but to no avail. Or perhaps she’s depressed? Maybe she’s planning her next move while her son Bade is concerned regarding getting cheque books signed or even blank papers, because you never know. Bade’s wife, Bahu, wears Reeboks and feels no one respects her sacrifices or even takes cognisance of them. And two grandsons: Overseas (formerly Serious) Son and Sid — Granny’s favourite. In creating a character like Ma, Shree not only crosses a boundary, she builds a world of possibilities where nothing is an exception but weirdly normal. Sample this: “In a story, you make whatever you want [to] happen, otherwise, how could you push a real woman through a crack in the wall like a pail and pick her up on the other side and splash her about?”
The many narrators of this novel utter myriad things that convince you that the story is digressing quite often, but there’s a method to this madness. You simply need to trust it. And when you do, then you’ll meet two ‘other’ women: (1) Beti — the runaway daughter who brought shame to the family, she is a freelancer, feminist, and women’s rights activist, and (2) Rosie — a Hijra, othered in every way, who stands and performs at the border of gender. Rosie’s arrival in this story is no declaration of a new narrative arc, but a shifting of borders, for soon Ma verbalises her desire to visit Pakistan. While Ma was definitely ‘recovering’ in Beti’s flat, she didn’t see that coming. It’s true that given her age, Ma’s family is bound to fulfil her desire, but they wondered whether it’s worth crossing the border to do that, risking everyone’s life.
Shree writes: “Anything worth doing transcends borders.” And so, Ma did cross the border, along with her daughter. Without a visa. Because she came that way. Didn’t she? And who can tell her where she belongs: here or there? Does she need anyone’s permission to cross the border just because two governments decided to draw a line? Whenever she is enquired about her whereabouts by inspectors and officials in Pakistan, she keeps offering humorous and sarcastic responses. She even delivers a monologue on borders. It at once is a narrative necessity and a stubborn choice, but it helps build suspense. And every mystery must be preserved until the time is right because Melissa Febos noted in Girlhood: Essays (Bloomsbury) that a “mystery solved is always a death: that of possibility, denial, the dream of our own invincibility.”
Part humorous, part dark, part wholesome, and part unbearable, this book allows its readers a glimpse of its many worlds through wordplay. Rockwell mentions that the original — is the translation not original? — has words in English, too. She deliberately leaves many things untranslated. And that makes it more wonderful, accessible, and original. Reading this book also reminded me of what Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi wrote in their exceptional epistolary memoir Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir (Faber & Faber): “Speaking to other people, though, requires channelling who or what I am into language they can understand. It requires folding.” Tomb of Sand is that attempt at folding, to make people look inwards: to re-examine this “age of excess”, to be tolerant to the ‘other’, to be respectful of one’s choices, and, above all, to have faith in literature, for stories — even the most traumatic ones like Partition — exist someplace where the borders of consciousness get blurred, where the magic happens and one can approach reality anew.
Saurabh Sharma (He/They) is a Delhi-based queer writer and freelance journalist.
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