Transcending Borders

India is the second most populated country in the world. It is also the world’s largest democracy, with a long and colorful history that spanned millennia. The convergence of different ethnicities and religions resulted in a rich and diverse culture. It is also this diversity that served as a rich inspiration and backdrop for writing. Its literature, like its civilization, spanned millennia, with the Veda, a canon of sacred Hindu writings, one of its earliest forms. Among the most enduring works of Indian literature include the Sanskrit epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana. This long tradition has trickled into the contemporary as Indian writers are stamping their class all over the world of literature. Among this list of esteemed writers are Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh, and Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was even awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, becoming the first non-European writer to win the award.

Modern Indian literature has also produced some of the most recognized literary titles in the contemporary, several of which have won prestigious literary prizes across the world. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) have all brought home the prestigious Booker Prize. This further underlined the impact of Indian literature on the modern literary landscape. While these were books originally written in English, translated works of Indian literature, initially written in one of the subcontinent’s several languages, have been taking the global stage. One of the more recent literary pieces to gain international recognition was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand.

Originally published in 2018 in Hindi as Ret Samadhi (Hindi: रेत समाधि)), the book’s English translation was released in 2021, carrying the title Tomb of Sand. The book was warmly received by literary pundits, making it to the 2022 International Booker Prize longlist; this is an annual award given to translated work of fiction published in either the United Kingdom or Ireland. Tomb of Sand already made history by making it to the shortlist but it created bigger waves when it won the award. This victory made Shree and the book the first Indian writer and the first Indian book to win the aforementioned award. The competition was steep as Shree’s book went up against former winner and Nobel Laureate in Literature Olga Tokarczuk, and rising Japanese star Mieko Kawakami. The Polish writer’s shortlisted novel, The Books of Jacob, was cited by the Swedish Committee as her magnum opus.

“A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are. This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass. The setting sun gathers fragments of tales and fashions them into glowing lanterns that hang suspended from the clouds.”

~ Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

Thus opened Shree’s fifth novel. These sentences immediately provided a brief peek into what the novel was about: two women and borders. So how does this tale of women and borders unfold? Looming above the narrative is Ma, an eighty-year-old matriarch, who was also one of the two women referred to in the opening sequences; as the story moved forward, more women were introduced by Shree. We first meet her in the house of her son, Bade, one of her two children. Ma, grieving the recent death of her husband, has turned her back on the rest of the world. She has become a shadow of her former self, a withering relic lying prone on what can only be perceived as her deathbed. She refused to rise from her prone state. Not even the coaxing of her son would force her. Bade was married to Bahu and the couple had two children, Siddharth or Sid for short, and the one who was first introduced as Serious Son. When Serious Son was made the CEO of the Australian office of the company he works for, he was referred to as Overseas Son.

For nearly 200 pages, the readers’ image of Ma was of an aging woman who has lost the will to live. She barely showed any interest in her environment and refused to converse with other people, including the members of her family. Things started looking up when Overseas Son brought home an expensive and colorful cane that was ornately decorated with butterflies. This cane, it seemed, possessed traces of magic that turned Ma into a Wishing Tree. Because of this magic, her extended family started flocking to her, asking for blessings and miracles. The cane also had the power of reinvigorating Ma. In an unexpected twist, Ma who was described as “a woman so small she could slip through anywhere”, mysteriously disappeared. A Buddha-figure long part of the household disappeared with her. When she reappeared, a transformation has taken over her, an unexpected subversion. She was on the cusp of her last breath but a last spurt of inspiration made her embrace life. It was her journey to regaining this zest that was one of the focuses of the story.

The once withering flower has seemingly started to blossom once again. As changes started tiding over, the dynamics of Ma’s family and her surroundings also started to change. Ma’s reappearance, however, spelled chaos, rather than stability. As she was finding her way back to life, she was subconsciously deviating from cultural mores and deconstructing India’s traditionally patriarchal patterns that have long dominated her life. For one, she opted to stay with Beti, her strong-willed and independent-minded daughter. By default, the death of their father made Bade the head of the family and the care of Ma has automatically become his responsibility. By shifting the role to Beti, Ma was challenging gender roles. Beti would also figure prominently in the story, making up the other half of the two women at the heart of the narrative.

Ma’s unexpected decision, however, threw Beti off her guard. She did well on her own and was a successful journalist but she had to readjust her mindset to her new role as Ma’s new caretaker, in the same manner, that her brother was adjusting to his new life as a fresh retiree. In the company of her daughter, Ma found herself revitalized. The death of her husband unshackled her from the old rules, which increasingly became apparent during her stay with her daughter. Ma and Beti’s roles started to reverse. Beti, the more progressive thinker, was thrown off balance by the changes taking place in her mother. The most glaring of these changes, perhaps even one of its highest forms, was Ma’s unexpected friendship with Rosie Bua, a hijra. To the unfamiliar, a hijra is an individual who was born a traditional male but identifies as female. Rosie was also instrumental in bringing Ma back to life. But like the many characters that populate the novel, Rosie added more madness to the story.

“Laughter is a gift that humans have learned and taught. There must have been some time in the past when humans didn’t know how to laugh. Nor did they feel joy at the birth of a child, nor sobs of sorrow at the passing of a loved one. Then the two had to be strained apart so they got joy from joy as well as a method for removing sorrow. Then humans became happy even after they weep, and when they laugh, they’re just plain happy.”

~ Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

The women formed the core of Shree’s trailblazing work. The novel underscored their plights in contemporary Indian society where tradition remains ubiquitous and a primary driving force. Shree’s writing was most scathing in her commentaries about men. Overseas Son was depicted as a mirthless man, devoid of happiness, a product of his self-importance. Meanwhile, another male character believed that eating leftover food will kill him. As such, he demanded that his wife cook fresh meals every day. Men who refused to recognize privacy and boundaries were ubiquitous. Beti was their antithesis. She refused to conform to the expectations of society. She confronted her brother’s aged views, thus, earning his ire. There was a subtle emphasis on marriage being a woman’s ultimate destination. When it was apparent that Beti refused to settle into marriage, Bade remarked: “She might be all set in terms of home, money, work, but when all said and done, she is still alone”.

However, the novel does not reduce itself to a mere exploration of family dynamics and contemporary Indian social mores. The novel possessed political overtones as it tackled the Partition. In another act of defiance, Ma was able to convince her daughter to cross Pakistan, to Lahore. It was also Ma’s fulfillment of Rosie’s dream of going to Pakistan. The catch was that they did not possess any visas. Chaos ensued, overlaid by a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy. In the last stretch of the novel, Shree ruminated on the novel’s second prominent subject: borders. Its exploration of borders elevates the narrative as it is applicable on a global scale. Borders are physical impositions established by authorities to impose limitations. Shree also subtly underscored her distrust of government documents, e.g. visas and marriage certificates. They were means by which government impose control.

In Shree’s astute storytelling, borders were not merely physical objects that divide or lines that physically separate one state from another. Borders, in Tomb of Sand, took different shapes. These were prevalent from the onset. We read of the borders between life and death. Also prevalent and seminal in the story were the borders between genders, not just between males and females but also among members of the LGBTQ+ community. Elsewhere, there were discourses on contrasting subjects such as traditions and modernization, the young and the old, the rich and the poor. In various images, Shree underscored how borders have adversely affected us. As the story reflected: “Every part of the body has a border. So does the heart. A border surrounds it but it also binds it to the other parts. It doesn’t wrench the heart from the rest. Fools! If you cut a border through a heart, you don’t call it a border, you call it a wound. If you lock a heart inside a border, the heart will break.”

The book’s length belies a tale bereft of action and a straightforward story. The lack of linearity, however, can be disorienting. Reading the novel hence requires patience. Shree, a literary renegade herself, deviated from literary traditions, ditching a more robust plot development for a tale that draws the focus on the characters. Ma was capably supported by an eclectic cast of secondary characters. Together with Ma, they moved the story forward. Each coming from different social strata, these characters rendered the story with different textures. Their insights and ideas contributed to the madness that Ma ushered in. To an ordinary writer, such madness would have unsettled the rest of the story. Shree, however, was no ordinary writer. She turned this madness into a riveting family saga. It is Ma’s brand of madness that turned her into an endearing character.

“Thus, to understand the body one must first know the eart. The mind coils within the body, earth. It is the fluid in solid. Reflections swimming within the whimsical mind. Its pace, its gait. Lying closed, if you open it, then it’s open; shut it again, it says closed. The capacity to crackle and flow lies everywhere. The slightest crack the slightest bubbling: the earth slids and the liquids inside fountain flame rock and boulders course about.”

~ Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

Adding madness to the novel was its dynamic structure. The perspective constantly shifted from one character to another, from family members to casual strangers, and, at times, an omniscient narrator. We rarely hear from Ma but the polyphonic voices aptly recreated an image of Ma, who was also referred to as Amma, Mata-Ji, and Baji, depending on who was narrating. Through their perspectives, we see Ma as an unconventional but psychologically complex character who can love and hate in equal parts. She also has the uncanny ability to take the readers’ attention in one instance and then disappear the next. All of these details, however, belie an octagenarian who has lost who she truly was. Ma, we learn, grew up in Pakistan. Ma’s return to her birthplace was a critical juncture as she dropped her other nicknames to reclaim her real identity. She becomes Anwar-Chanda, the woman she was before she was forced to retreat from Pakistan in light of the Partition.

While the novel covered a vast territory of subjects, the novel was also a homage to storytelling and writing. Details of the nature of the narrative were woven into the rich tapestry of the novel. This was also apparent in the plethora of literary devices Shree utilized. The novel was a convergence of a plethora of plot devices. Stream of consciousness converged with anthropomorphism, satire, and elements of magical realism. Shree’s writing flowed, although she had the compunction to string several words consecutively in one sentence. Nevertheless, her descriptive and poetic prose complemented the different plot devices she employed. With her writing, she managed to draw different images. Inanimate objects, such as doors, canes, and even dust, became animated. The perspective of crows and partridges rendered the story a distinct complexion.

Translated into English by Daisy Rockwell, Tomb of Sand is no ordinary story. It is a far-reaching story that grappled with a vast array of timely and seminal subjects, ranging from family dynamics to the shift from traditions to modernization to the thin lines between life and death to the constantly evolving societal norms and gender roles. It also grappled with intergenerational trauma and forced migration. It had historical and political undercurrents. It was also about the art of storytelling. Indeed, it was a lush landscape that was captured through the story of an octagenarian who refound the zest for life after spending it conforming to the roles society has imposed on her. Shree managed to grapple with all of these while keeping the flow lighthearted. This was a challenge in itself but Shree has demonstrated that she was no typical storyteller. She managed to navigate these dire straits with astuteness and elan. While no easy read, Tomb of Sand was a thought-provoking literary piece that asked the reader to reflect on realities that persist in the present, from borders to the shackles that hold us back.

Death comes to all. Even to birds. The chukar, whom most people would call a partridge, and which gourmands enjoy cooking and eating, died. The crow’s heart broke. No one tells their tale, although other stories of ornithological friendships are famous the world over. Take just one example: the tale of the friendship between Garuda and the parrot. That tale is centuries old, and those in the world who are educated, and thus familiar with great ancient civilizations, are certainly familiar with that friendship, and those who are not, clear, wherever they may be, are absolute ignoramuses.

~ Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand
Rating

92%

Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

To be honest, had it not been for the International Booker Prize, I would have not encountered Geetanjali Shree and her novel, Tomb of Sand. When the longlist was announced by the Booker Prize, it was one of the titles that immediately grabbed my attention and when I saw how thick it was, I somehow had an inkling that it was going toe-to-toe with Nobel Laureate in Literature Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. The Polish writer’s shortlisted novel was singled out by the Swedish Academy as the best of Tokarczuk’s oeuvre. I admit I was pleasantly surprised when I learned Tomb of Sand was declared the winner. This only piqued my interest in the book further. Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of the book sooner than I expected. Because of my growing interest and anticipation, I read the book ahead of the other books on my pipeline which included the 2021 International Booker Prize winner, David Diop’s At Night All Is Black.

For sure, reading Tomb of Sand was no walk in the park. At the start, I struggled to find my footing. The shifting perspectives unsettled me. The language was also unusual; it was common to see related words strung together in a sentence, with no commas separating them. And yes, the novel was without quotation marks. Moreover, the story was stagnant in the first 200 pages, with Shree preoccupied with introducing more characters into the mix. However, as soon as the action started picking up, Shree had my focus. It was then that I started to appreciate the direction Shree was stirring the story to. Its lightness and humor belie several sensitive and seminal subjects, many of which are relevant in the contemporary. I hope I get to read Shree’s other works, and the other books in the International Booker Prize longlist as well.

Book Specs

Author: Geetanjali Shree
Translator: Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 721
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

In northern India, an eighty-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention – including striking up a friendship with a hijra person – confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two.

Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness, Geetanjali Shtree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging, funny, and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders.

About the Author

Geetanjali Shree (गीताजंली क्ष्री), also known as Geetanjali Pandey, was born on June 12, 1957, in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, India. Owing to her father’s vocation as a civil servant, Shree spent her early years living in different towns in Uttar Pradesh. Her peripatetic childhood, coupled with the scarcity of children’s books in English, played a major factor in Shree’s establishing a deep connection with her Hindi roots. Shree completed her Bachelor of Arts in History at Lady Shri Ram College, a constituent women’s college, affiliated with the University of Delhi. She received her master’s degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Shree’s interest in Hindi literature was further roused while completing her Ph.D. work at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. She was then working on a paper about Hindi writer Munshi Premchand. It was during this time her first short story, Bel Patra (1987) was published in the literary magazine Hans. Post-doctorate, Shree started pursuing a career in writing while keeping a teaching position at Jamia Millia Islamia and Zakir Husain College in New Delhi. She resigned from her teaching job to pursue a full-time career in writing. In 1991, she published a collection of short stories Anugoonj. Two years later, she published her first novel, Mai (1993). The English translation of the novel, released in 2001, earned Shree her biggest breakthrough. The translation won her the Sahitya Akademi award. It was also shortlisted for the 2021 Crossword Book Award. She followed up this success with Hamara Shahar Us Baras, Tirohit (2001; English translation The Roof Beneath Her Feet, 2011), and Khālī jagah (2006; English translation The Empty Space, 2011). The Empty Space was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Shree’s latest novel, Ret Samadhi (रेत समाधि) was published in 2018. In 2021, the novel was translated into English as Tomb of Sand. It earned several accolades, the most prominent of which was the 2022 International Booker Prize. This win made her the first Indian writer to win the prestigious literary prize. Shree has also written an intellectual biography of Premchand in English. Her writings have been translated into multiple European and Indian languages and are a part of the syllabus in many universities across the world. She also received the Indu Sharma Katha Samman award and has been a fellow of the Ministry of Culture, India, and Japan Foundation. Apart from writing, Shree is involved with the theatre scene in Delhi, mostly with the well-known group Vivadi. One of her most successful scripts was the adaptation of Umrao Jan Ada, an Urdu classic novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Her plays have been performed widely in India and abroad. 

Shree is currently residing in New Delhi.