by Geetanjali Shree
translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
‘What is a border? It’s something that surrounds an existence, it is a person’s perimeter. No matter how large, no matter how small.’
Tomb of Sand, which won this year’s International Booker Prize, is about borders – and about crows. Crows, I hear some readers ask? Why crows? Well, crows do feature in the novel, I suppose because, like all birds, they do not recognise borders, not national ones anyway.
‘The crow meeting was underway. Regarding the horrific problems they were experiencing due to climate change and the science-worshipping humans. There was much cawing as the environmentalist birds pulled their prepared speeches from under their wings and read them out.’
Borders come in all shapes and sizes, those between East and West, between religions, between races, and between the sexes – or genders. All of those feature here. Then there are the kind that are so important in this story, those between countries, the political borders, more specifically – to a novel written by an Indian woman – that between India and Pakistan.
The plot divides into three periods:
Ma, eighty years old, loses her husband and takes to her bed in her son Bade’s home, face to the wall. No amount of encouragement by Bade or by her daughter Beti and other members of the family can shake her out of her apparent depression. So small and shrinking that she could slip through a crack in the wall, one day Ma disappears.
‘At some point in the coming days, they will definitely figure out that the Buddha was not even packed, that it had gone missing. As had the elderly Ma.’
Found at a police station thirteen hours, or is it days, or maybe weeks later, she is no longer depressed but has taken on a new lease of life. Bade and his wife are in the process of moving house, so Ma moves in with Beti and soon takes over. She moves into the main bedroom, takes an interest in plants and forms a friendship with Rosie/Raza, who is a member of the hijra community, those whom the government define as hermaphrodite, transgender or the third sex.
‘The guard isn’t worried either…….Is there irony in his tone? Does he, too, wonder if this is Rosie coming in Raza attire? Or does he actually think that the one comes to look after Mata ji, the other to stitch and hem Ma’s clothing ….’
Rosie comes and goes as she pleases, dispensing new apparel as well as ideas. When Rosie dies (is murdered?), Ma takes off on a pilgrimage to Pakistan, dragging Beti – and a Buddha statue – with her. She wishes to retrace the steps she made many years ago, before Partition, and find again her former husband Anwar. Although apparently having diplomatic permission to travel, they have no visa and fall foul of the authorities in Pakistan. Ma twists and turns in amusing interplay with the border guards but eventually gets her wish. Even the semi-tragic ending cannot dim the humour of the two women’s situation.
For someone with only a superficial knowledge and understanding of Indian history and culture, Tomb of Sand was a challenging read. For someone, like me, who is something of a grammar geek, it was an even greater challenge. Creative and original the novel certainly is. However, in places, the rules of conventional punctuation and sentence structure seem to go out with the refuse. The translator, Daisy Rockwell, describes it as a love letter to the Hindi language. And I can only guess at the challenge faced by her in putting it into English.
‘I will talk straight to him, to your father. Let me see him.
‘Do not drag him into this.
‘Drag him in? He’s already right in the thick of it.
‘Why are you talking gibberish, madam? This is a government case, not a game.
‘Please be quiet.
‘Will HE keep quiet? Call him, let’s find out.’
Yet, for all its peculiarities of vocabulary, phrase and sentence, the novel contains some beautiful descriptions, unforgettable wordplay and gorgeous figures of speech. Tomb of Sand is feminist in tone but not agressively so. It presents both East and West with all their flaws, in particular the foibles of Indian life and the position of women in society. It mocks European attitudes to Asia, and relations between the white and the brown and black. In presenting life as it is, it can be irreverent at times, even vulgar, but it handles even serious social and political matters with humour. In fact, much of the book is outrageously funny.
‘If constipation is the problem, Granny, then a small stick-sized solid is the equivalent of a pitcherful of water: Sid was going on with his usual bullshit.’
Prizewinning literature – especially contenders for prizes like the Booker – is a curious beast, sometimes pompous, often remote. In the past, I have put winners down, thinking this is not for me. Tomb of Sand was engaging and enjoyable. Although I have not read the other shortlisted works (yet), I can’t help feeling it was probably a worthy winner.
‘The growing-smaller woman whistles like the wind in the desert that flows without colliding with anything, and slowly the layers of sand fly up, and forms meditating in samadhi are revealed.’