Book World: ‘Tomb of Sand’ meditates on the cultural diffusion that permeates India
Tomb of Sand
By Geetanjali Shree
HarperVia. 624 pp. $29.99
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Novels about India acclaimed by the West are all too often written from the perspective of the land’s White colonizers. Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster and George Orwell set stories in British India while caricaturing South Asians or casting them in supporting roles.
But since India achieved independence from Britain, accompanied by the 1947 Partition – the subcontinent’s most damning historical trauma – more Indian writers have started to earn significant Western recognition: Two decades ago, Arundhati Roy was the first Indian citizen to win the Booker Prize for her haunting novel “The God of Small Things.” Now, Geetanjali Shree amplifies the country’s Western literary acclaim with “Tomb of Sand,” her International Booker Prize-winning novel originally written in Hindi and translated into English by Daisy Rockwell.
The meandering novel follows the nearly 80-year-old Ma through a series of adventures. After she acquires a magical cane, Ma rises from her bedridden state and soon goes missing. Later she returns home, falls down and convalesces under the care of her journalist daughter, Beti (meaning “daughter”), an outcast in the family for being an unmarried, socially progressive woman. The mother-daughter pair ultimately ventures across the Wagah border from India into Pakistan so Ma can reunite with a forbidden former lover.
In Pakistan, she experiences one last fall in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, “flipped backward like she was doing a somersault,” after getting shot by a detention officer for traveling without a visa. It’s a shocking scene that resonates even more deeply after the bombing at a Peshawar mosque this week, in a region increasingly plagued by militant attacks. Shree reveals Ma’s unceremonious demise at the beginning of the novel, explaining to readers that her death at the hands of Pakistani authorities “was no ending . . . she’d simply crossed yet another border.”
Borders – physical and conceptual – are central to the novel. “A border does not enclose, it opens out,” says Ma. “It is a bridge between two connected parts.” In the novel’s sprawling 600 pages, Shree questions the rigidity of borders between genders, countries and family members.
Somewhere along the way, Ma bonds with Rosie, a hijra (transgender woman) who periodically transforms into a male tailor, allowing Shree to question the gender binary and the subjugation of India’s hijras. The novel takes a page from Salman Rushdie’s playbook with its adept use of magic realism; a powerful cane, gender-bending shape-shifters, and talking crows and partridges that allegorize India and Pakistan punctuate the novel’s moments of true-to-life sincerity, particularly when Beti is caring for her aging mother – “a love so full it envelopes from all sides.”
But reading the English translation of Shree’s novel is, at times, like wading through a sandstorm, which Ma describes as “flailing, trying somehow to keep [. . .] from drowning.”
Even for a reader familiar with Indian culture and Hindi, extricating oneself from the novel’s many tangents – rife with platitudes that are irrelevant at best and pontificating at worst – proves difficult. The rambling plot and vast range of characters, often identified only by their title in relation to Ma (Bade: “elder,” Bahu: “daughter-in-law”), risk losing readers.
Still, “Tomb of Sand” is a matter of form meeting function, an homage to the vibrancy of Hindi that threatens to lose its shine in a globalized world where English peppers its cadence. As the book’s translator notes, Shree writes in English fluently but chooses to pen her novel in Hindi to preserve the language’s dhwani: its unique vibration and resonance, often through wordplay, alliteration and assonance.
Rockwell aims to mimic the dhwani in the English translation, tossing phrases like “fume fume fume,” “love-shove,” and “sputtering stuttering” onto a single page. But the effort can sometimes read as sophomoric, even silly. Only a reader who understands the unique rhythm and rhyme of Indian chitchat (fittingly called “gupshup” in Hindi) can begin to appreciate Rockwell’s strenuous exercise in maintaining the dhwani of the original.
The novel also meditates on the cultural diffusion that permeates modern India, for better or worse.
“Any random guy you address, in whatever Indian language, answers in English, and in bad English at that,” mourns Serious Son, one of Ma’s grandsons who later moves abroad and is known as Overseas Son. In one of the novel’s funniest moments, he laments, “What is all this shortening of Siddharth to Sid and Pushpesh to Push and Shatrunjay to Shat and Ma to Mom?” Perhaps Serious Son’s move overseas, then, hints at the inevitability of globalization, diaspora and code-switching – even among those who rail against it. Casual Indian cultural references thread the novel, although they may elude unfamiliar international readers.
A quick mention of “Aamir Khan from QSQT” refers to the star of the 1980s Bollywood film, part of a mishmash “masala” genre blending comedy, romance and film. “All the masala, it’s all there,” Shree writes separately of the Bollywood industry, in another sweeping brushstroke of social commentary that feels gratuitous.
Other nods to Indian culture and mannerisms are more apt: When Ma playfully says “chee chee” while watching White people kiss in an English-language film, readers can readily grasp the phrase as the Indian equivalent of a cheeky “ew” moment.
And one of the novel’s standout scenes is when Partition-era writers, “lost souls flitting about in the ether,” convene at the Wagah border’s daily lowering-of-the-flags military ceremony – a patriotic, two-nation event that would have been difficult to envision had I not previously attended it. Among the Partition-era writers Shree references is Krishna Sobti, a Hindi-language feminist novelist to whom Shree dedicates “Tomb of Sand” in admiration.
In some ways, Shree’s winding epic appears to parallel the works of Western literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf. Much like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby,” the narrator in “Tomb of Sand” has an insider’s access and stealthily weaves in and out of the story.
And similar to Woolf, Shree alternates between roving stream-of-consciousness and staccato, half-page chapters. This includes a chapter encompassing a single sentence in which Rosie, the transgender woman, dies – invoking the passing mention of Mrs. Ramsay’s death in “To the Lighthouse,” which serves to highlight its very indignity.
But to compare Shree to Western writers is to miss the point of “Tomb of Sand”: to exalt Hindustan beyond the bloodstained legacy of its former colonial powers. Such a comparison would also fall victim to using “Western pretensions” as standards to emulate, which Shree cautions against through her novel’s subtle snark at the Indian propensity to idolize Whiteness: After all, “the absence of color is considered the most desirable color,” she writes.
For her part, Shree is cut from a different cloth, unabashedly paving her own path through the sandstorm of writers pining for Western acclaim. Rockwell aims to keep up, but “translation is a tricky business,” the novel confesses midway. “Stories contain meanings that aren’t always apparent.” Indeed, there are endless meanings and urgent messages to be excavated in “Tomb of Sand,” even if reading it in English is a patient undertaking.