Tomb of Sand: Geetanjali Shree

Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Published by Tilted Axis Press

Tomb of Sand is the story of Ma, an 80-year-old woman who comes into her own after spending her life in roles dictated by society: as daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.

When the book begins, Ma’s husband has died. So she takes to her bed, turns her face to the wall and refuses to talk to anyone. Her son Bade and daughter-in-law Bahu, with whom she lives, are at their wits’ end.

Then suddenly, one day, Ma comes back to the world. After giving away her possessions to anyone who asks, she gets up from her bed, walks out of the house and disappears. Her family is frantic, and the police are called. She reappears after a few days with no memory of where she has been.

Ma decides she will leave Bade’s house and move in with her daughter, Beti. Bade is retiring from his government job and moving to a flat. Bade and Bahu think that Beti can look after Ma until their new home is set up. But Ma has no intention of returning to live with her son. She knows that her daughter will give her the space to be herself.

Beti is unconventional: she writes about women’s sexuality, has lovers and lives alone. Bade disapproves; he dismisses her as a “poor thing”, living on her own without a family and making a fool of herself. But, much to his bewilderment, his wayward sister is successful; she has made a name for herself, earns enough to live in an upmarket neighbourhood and has even met the President of India.

Beti does not mollycoddle Ma, but gives her the freedom she needs. Ma’s close friend, Rosie, a hijra (transgender person), is welcome to visit whenever she wants. Rosie helps Ma break free of the roles that have been set up for her.

“As though she’d removed all her layers, one by one, wife mother aunt this that, now at last she was simply herself, laid bare, apart, her own, untouched by the thoughts and concerns of any other.

“At eighty, Ma had turned selfish.”

As Ma and Beti spend more time together, it feels like they are swapping roles. Ma is becoming the unconventional one in the family, and Beti is worrying about domestic things. As Ma becomes freer, Beti feels she is losing her freedom.

Then Ma decides that she will travel to Pakistan with Beti. Beti agrees, thinking she is humouring an old woman, but the trip turns out to be more than she has bargained for. Ma has a secret that dates back to the days of the Partition,[1] and there is something she needs to do. And being Ma, nothing can stop her, least of all her family. She uses their concern to get what she wants.

“The family doesn’t give up its ways, nor does it stop seeing itself as the great guardian of all… How could they know that something else also goes on in families: in their self-gratifying super-sympathetic worry they do whatever she says, thinking it’s charity, and they humour her kindly at this last phase of her life, little realising that she’ll get them to do things they could never imagine in their wildest dreams.”

Geetanjali Shree captures the family dynamics beautifully: the way they fuss over Ma and blame each other when things go wrong, and the manipulating, bickering, and coming together when they need to.

As its eldest male, Bade is the head of the family. He is challenged by his women: Bahu continually squabbles with him, Beti refuses his help and goes her own way, and Ma has changed almost beyond recognition, wandering around in kaftans instead of her beautiful sarees.

Bade and Bahu have two sons: Siddhartha, Sid for short, easy-going, full of life and close to Ma; and Serious Son—known as Overseas Son once he gets a job in Australia—on whom his mother relies for support and advice. Sid is the only one in the family to actually have a name. The others are referred to by their roles: Bade means elder, Bahu is daughter-in-law, Beti is daughter and Ma, of course, is mother.

Geetanjali Shree uses a light touch, a chatty style and plenty of humour. The story is told from several perspectives, including that of a crow and a door. Shree also breaks the fourth wall from time to time, addressing the reader directly.

I love the fact that the two most vivid people in the book are an elderly woman, Ma, and Rosie, a hijra. Rosie is feisty and strong, something that is made poignant by the fact that society does not accept or care about people like her.

“There are no films for us,” she says, “no literature, no art, no clothing. We wear what you discard. We count for nothing. Toss me away in the lake… and no one will notice there’s one less. Who cares about us? We don’t even exist, and if I don’t, then what do my rights matter”.

Rosie and Ma are the characters who stayed with me long after I finished the book.

The translation by Daisy Rockwell is excellent. Rockwell keeps the Indian flavour of the language, its cadences, and the mix of English and Hindi. The original version of the book in Hindi, Ret Samadhi, uses a lot of English words, so, in keeping Hindi words in the translation, Rockwell has stayed true to the original. The snatches of poetry are in Hindi or Urdu, followed by their translation, which is wonderful for readers who understand these languages. I kept thinking I was reading the book in its original version.

This is a novel about breaking boundaries, whether they are boundaries of nation, gender, or religion. Tomb of Sand is a reminder that there is more that unites us than divides us, a valuable lesson in this time of polarization. The book is funny and moving—and completely original.

Tomb of Sand is the first Indian language book to win the International Booker Prize. I hope this leads to more Indian language works being published for a global audience.

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[1] The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 in which over a million people died.

3 thoughts on “Tomb of Sand: Geetanjali Shree

  1. The writing is original, imaginative, and fun to read, especially for the first few chapters. But then it just goes on and on and on and on and on. Sorry. Tried hard to like it but I can’t get any investment going. Normally I like the nothing much happening books but this is that in the extreme for me.

    1. suroor alikhan

      I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I didn’t have a problem with the narrative. And it gets more exciting in the last section, when they go to Pakistan.

  2. Pingback: The Best Books of 2022 – Talking About Books

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