Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2022

Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

Upfront, I didn’t love Tomb of Sand the way I expected to.

I expected to love it because it won the International Booker, and the English PEN award, and Joe at Rough Ghosts (one of the first in the world to review it) recommended it to me.  But I just didn’t engage with the narrative voice or the playful writing style which often IMO strays into excess:

And what aromas.  A row of stalls lined one side of the lawn.  Chinese, chaat, burgers, pasta.  Barbeque, mushroom, potato, capsicum, seekh kabob, onions, reshmi kabob, pineapple.  Puri, kachauri, filled with tomatoes, peas, dal.  Pulau , palak paneer, mutton, chicken, fish.  Jackfruit, aloo dum, parval, stuffed bitter gourd.  Dosa, idli, uttappam: made of rawa, rice and suji.  Pizza corner, pau bhaji corner, salad and fruit separate, food of every type.  In such a heady atmosphere, what need for the sort of buzz that comes in bottles?  But this is the age of excess, and the home of a Very Important Officer too, so in this arena too there is plenty—chilled beer, gin, sprite, fruit juice, vodka, white wine, rosé, red wine—pomegranate red, bright red, even topaz-red—cola, Pepsi, lassi, shikanji, jal jeera, twinkle-winkle sparkle-farkle. (p,105).

If your eye glazed over as mine did while you scanned that paragraph, there’s another 16 lines of it. If you find this voice ‘loud and irresistible’ as the International Booker judges did, you’ll be fine with Tomb of Sand.  (And yes, I’ve re-read my post about postmodernism and I know that what I’ve called ‘excess’ is called maximalism.)

Over 739 pages, we follow the progress of the central character, Ma, recently widowed and refusing to engage with the world.  Exposing this appalling tradition still expected in parts of India, Ma is, in fact, behaving exactly as expected where (despite government efforts to stamp out their abuse), widows are supposed to disengage from the world as if their lives are over, even if they are widowed very young. But when Ma turns her face to the wall and refuses to move, this causes consternation among her family.  As if there is something odd about feeling profoundly depressed when a mature, intelligent women loses all agency because of these outdated cultural mores.

The head of this family is Bade, a pompous ‘eldest son’ about to retire, who expects everyone to obey his every whim:

There are few eldest sons who know how to talk with their family members, i.e. how to call to ask how people are, have heart-to-heart chats, converse intimately.  Giving orders, suggesting ways and means, or if not that, teasing and joking, these are the ways eldest sons speak.  Outwardly attired, as it were, in the tough exterior of his father, even if his heart is his own and soft to the core. Bade’s tone could be rude, dictatorial, sarcastic, fussing, worrying, talking of this and that.  Because how could eldest sons know how to speak straightforward words of love?

(Talking to outsiders is another matter. In such cases, there can be political debates, talk of poetry and films, and other sorts of sharing.) (p.330)

There is also a favoured grandson called Siddharta (Sid, otherwise known as Overseas Son) who breezes in and out of the novel resenting his mother’s worries; Bade’s wife Bahu whose compliance has brought her no happiness; and Ma’s daughter Beti, a ‘modern young woman’ who rejects societal expectations and lives a bohemian independent life.

That is, until Ma goes missing one night, ends up filthy and bedraggled in hospital, and then comes to live with Beti.  Who soon discovers, like millions of women before her, that mothering her mother means she is burdened with the care of an elderly parent, with little respite.  What respite there is comes from Rosie, a hijra, who turns up out of the blue, surprising the disapproving family who don’t understand how Ma could have had a friendship with her.  Rosie, actually, is the nicest, most loyal and graceful character in the whole novel.

Beti’s boyfriend KK is not best pleased about this alteration in a relationship that suited him very well, but that’s not the worst of it.  Ma decides to up sticks and travel to Pakistan, where (accompanied by the distraught Beti) she relives the trauma of partition and reveals her true identity and how she came to have an enduring friendship with Rosie.

That’s the basics of the plot but (as you’d expect with a book of 793 pages) there is much more to it than that.

The main focus of the novel is satirising the role of women and patriarchy in modern India, but there are other critiques as well.  The political dimension includes an interrogation of political-geographical borders and national identity which take no account of culture or history.  Shree also explores class and poverty, some of this intentionally dealt with almost as an afterthought.  For example, in a brief passage satirising aspirational India, Bade tells an anecdote about Phussa, a contractor who transcended his lowly beginnings to command a vast battalion of labourers only to go backwards financially when the wind changed. Phussa returns to his parents with a horribly messed-up kidney. (p.149) This is a fleeting allusion to the trade in kidneys in India, theoretically outlawed ten years ago, but the kidney trade is still big business and unscrupulous doctors with rich clients still harvest kidneys from desperately poor people.

Shree slips jokes in all over the place.  When the family is moving house…

The spiders wander about fretting that the objects around which they’d spun their webs for all eternity are being pulled out from under them, and they rush about on their many feet pitter patter pitter patter for fear of being dashed to the ground.  This just proves it! they grumble to one another.  No one has time for Gandhi nowadays! (p.140)

Spiders are not the only sentient beings with a place in the novel.  A crow has a significant role, but there are also roads, walls and doors as characters, and a magical cane.  The narrative voice is like a dispassionate god looking down on the foolish affairs of humans.

The door does not dance.  Everything passes through it: people air colour laughter sunlight flies aroma gnats dust mores bits of intoxication snatches of conversation flotsam jetsam.  Door wide open.  Standing perfectly quiet.  Still. Placidly cool for centuries.,  It sees all, hears all, understands the heads and tails of things with no head or tail at all.  Those who hear for only a moment don’t understand the context, and in this atmosphere they don’t even care to, and in this age, what’s hard to understand is not worth struggling with, but the door does not see with superficial narrowed vision; it recognises the unpresent.  It is experienced, sagacious, solid, learned. (p.115)

Ma’s moment of triumph comes at her 80th birthday at the Officers’ Club:

You, Ma lifted her cane and pointed it towards Beti, You will be the one to go with me.

It was an order.

Let’s go now.

Ma stood up, more or less right in the middle of the party, and turned her face away from everyone.  There was a slight chill in the air with winter coming, and she shivered, but she allowed the shawl Bahu had wrapped about her to slip unceremoniously to the ground.

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. (p.529)

Tomb of Sand is said to be an important contribution to the literature of India’s Partition, and it does point to the fact that those who lived through it, like the survivors of the Holocaust, are coming to the end of their lives.  Their testimony is important.  The novel references numerous works of partition fiction, one of which is Kushwant Singh’s 1956 Train to Pakistan which has an unforgettable immediacy about these events. (See my review).

For other reviews see Danny Yee’s Book Reviews; Tony’s Reading List; and Joe’s at Rough Ghosts. (The interesting thing about this is that these litbloggers were reviewing this novel before the mainstream media had even heard of the book.)

Author: Geetanjali Shree
Title: Tomb of Sand
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781911284611, pbk; 739 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. It sounds interesting, Lisa, but not sure I’d have the patience for 700+ pages at the moment. I should read more books by Indian authors though…I’m shamefully inexperienced when it comes to Indian literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d suggest you start with Train to Pakistan. That is a brilliant book:)

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for this review with the excerpts . The first excerpt you have given had me appalled at the number of spelling mistakes – ‘ palaj paneer ‘ should be palak paneer ‘ & ‘ uttapam ‘ should be uthappam . I have never heard of ‘ Puklau ‘ – maybe the editor could have done a better job . . .
    Not to mention that I can ‘ t wrap my head around phrases like ‘ The door does not dance ‘ . . . Sometimes translations can’t capture few ideas / imagery properly I guess ( to say nothing of the fact that the ability of the reader to comprehend certain ideas / feelings also factors in ) . . . And being a genre fiction reviewer , I can ‘ t say I am pretty good with proper lierature . . . With all the noise this win is making in India , I was curious about this one although the summary did not particularly appeal to me . . .Thanks once again for this honest insightful review – I can skip this one without no regrets now I guess : )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, now, I’ve proofread that first passage five times, but I will check every word again to make extra sure I’ve made no typos!
      ***
      And I had, the ones you mention which I have now fixed, with apologies. It’s wasn’t an editor’s fault, it was mine, and the only excuse I have is that of course spell check didn’t pick it up because they’re not English words and the whole thing was a sea of red underlining.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh ok . . . Totally get it – Most of them are Hindi words ( actually North Indian food items ) while few like ‘ idli ‘ , ‘ dosa ‘ & ‘uttappam ‘ are South Indian food items : )

        Liked by 1 person

        • Still, it’s a lesson learned. With vocab foreign to me, if I’m going to quote it, I’ll do it on MS Word first, and then check it word-by-word, and then word-by-word again.
          And thank you for picking it up, I would always much rather know when there’s a mistake than not.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m sorry but I stopped at 739 pages. Sustaining that sort of tone for that long is a feat, for writer and reader. I’m not sure I have the energy for it at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind a long book every now and again…
      And as Joe says in his review, it’s not as long as it seems because there are lots of chapter breaks where there is nothing on the page at all.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks Lisa – I did wonder if this would be one I should try, but I don’t know that I have the gumption for something of this length if the writing doesn’t appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps do what I did? Borrow it from the library and try it, that way it hasn’t cost you anything.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. From the excerpts you give here, it seems to be written in standard English. I only recognise the patterns of Indian speech in the line “In such a heady atmosphere, what need for the sort of buzz that comes in bottles?” I was very surprised to see it had been translated by a white woman. Surely there are plenty of bilingual Hindi speakers working as translators. It seems a missed chance for an authentic voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I’m not sure how I feel about that…

      Daisy Rockwell is a highly skilled translator of Urdu and Hindi, and has been working in the field for many years. This translation has been highly praised for the way she has dealt with the playfulness of the prose and the vocab challenges it presents. If you look at her Wikipedia pages (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daisy_Rockwell) you can see her credentials… and that I think is why Tilted Axis Press published her translation. (See their About Page at https://www.tiltedaxispress.com/about for their credentials too.)

      I don’t think translators have to match the skin colour of the original authors. I think they just need to be really good at what they do, and respectful of the original text.

      Liked by 2 people

      • No, I suppose I do agree with that in general, but it did surprise me. One day perhaps I’ll read the book and be able to make up my own mind. There was a big hoo-ha here in the Netherlands when Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was asked to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem from the American presidential inauguration into Dutch. Partly because Rijneveld is a poet, not a translator, but mostly because he’s not Black like Gorman. I just love reading books where I can hear the accent in my head as I read.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I thought of that very incident when I saw your comment. I thought it was most unfortunate. A lovely poem, written to act as a catalyst for people to think about things differently, swamped by the discourse around it so that everyone talked about that instead of the poem.
          I also thought about translations from Indonesian that have made their way to Australia. I spent years learning Indonesian and it’s a lovely language but it would be very hard to replicate its ‘tone’ in translation. It’s primarily because they use the passive voice so much, because it’s considered more polite and respectful. To replicate that would look and sound very stilted in English. (LOL These days it’s almost a mortal sin to use the passive in modern English prose.)
          Very few of the translations we get are done by Indonesians, for the simple reason that fluency in English is highly prized and well-paid in the corporate world there. The pay rates for translation just don’t compete… the English-speaking translators who do it, do it as a labour of love.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. I really want to read this but it’s so long! A holiday book, I think …

    Liked by 1 person


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