In Tomb of Sand, the first Indian-language novel to win the International Booker Prize, the Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree combines linguistic energy with unflagging wit to uncover the secrets and lies of Indian family life. To this are added frequent interpolations on the out-of-joint times, marked as they are by “the jacking and hijacking of roles; the back-to-front of related relationships. How does mankind soldier on,” she wonders, “or animalkind, or lock, stock, and barrelkind?”
The book, Shree’s fifth novel, begins as a comedy of manners set in an upper-class family that would likely consider itself middle-class. They come from old money—they even, in the case of the man of the house, a senior government official, cultivate a distinctly feudal haughtiness and sense of noblesse oblige—but their concerns are humdrum: social status, money, homes, food, clothes, and most of all the tightrope of family relations. The main characters remain largely unnamed: they are Bade (elder son), Beti (daughter), Bahu (daughter-in-law). Then two grandsons and, at the center, the aged mother—Ma, Mata ji, Amma.
Ma starts out the novel a new widow in a funk, in bed in her son’s home in New Delhi. “When footsteps neared the room,” Shree writes, “she’d turn her back, she’d stick to the wall. She’d play dead, eyes and nose closed, ears shut, mouth sewn, mind numb, desires extinct; her bird had flown.” Ma disrupts the family’s daily grind with what James Joyce called “silence, exile, and cunning.” She is a classic maternal figure—doling out tough love and excellent humor—but she is also, through some trick of long years, an increasingly unknowable quantity, harboring a well-concealed past.
Shree sets out to explore how Ma’s muteness brings out the best and worst in her kin, among whom there are constant exchanges at cross-purposes but few scenes of direct, meaningful conversation. The family is driven by genuine, sometimes hysterical mother-love, but it’s also one in which the brother and sister, Bade and Beti, are estranged; he is dismissive of her “misspent youth” carving out an independent life as a writer and in romantic relationships of her own choosing, while she balks at Bade’s paternalism (but does not ever confront it). As for Bade and Bahu, they only ever address each other in order to gripe. At one point, Bahu is overwhelmed by a family crisis:
For a moment she wanted to go back to Bade’s side, lie against his back and close her eyes. But they’d spent so many years fretting and fuming at one another: that was now the most comfortable way to interact; if she did something affectionate they’d both be embarrassed.
Bahu’s stream-of-consciousness stew of concern and injury is one of the most potently funny aspects of the novel: she is always calling her favorite child, Overseas Son, to vent. He fathers his mother—“To what has already occurred the son adds imagined oppressions and exhorts her to put on her Reeboks and stamp out of the door”—and thoughtfully sends figs for his grandmother’s chronic constipation.
Our social scientists have been barking up the wrong tree, announces Shree, in declaring the great Indian joint family obsolete. People don’t need to live together, bound by physical walls, to be a family; family’s a state of mind. In this case no one’s grouses are the basis for a psychological rendering of family life’s toxic side—as they would be in, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels. The crabbed words in Tomb of Sand provide fodder instead for philosophizing on personal relations. (The poet, translator, and folklorist A.K. Ramanujan once noted that in the Indian tradition the study of psychology has by and large been philosophical, aiming at salvation and ecstasy—instead of, presumably, the unpacking of inner life. We have no equivalents, he said, to Rousseau’s Confessions, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, or Richardson’s novels.) Shree’s characters are all role-playing, but seriously, even sincerely—eager-to-please yet resentful Bahu, solicitous and patronizing Bade, free-spirited Beti, the two chalk-and-cheese yet equally devoted grandsons.
Beti, who also lives in the city, is torn whenever she visits the family. She raises a foot to step over her brother’s threshold but can’t decide whether to go in or leave, and as she “pauses in this pose at his door, the thought flashes through her mind—have I been acting until now, or am I just about to start?” This hyperaware performing can drive the players to despair, but they never take it lightly or drop the act:
The ability to show compassion is the primary goal of all family members; it is the means to fraternity love peace happiness. If you can bestow a poor thing look on someone else, you become their Sorrow Destroyer: godlike! and begin to relish the sight of your own reflection.
One day Ma—with the help of a nifty folding cane Overseas Son brings her from Australia, both walking aid and magic scepter—starts to rise. A madcap journey follows in which she swerves away from her persona as just the nurturer of her children, now anxiously nurtured by them, to claim an older past—a childhood in a Punjab on the Pakistan side of the border. Returning there will eventually endow her with both name and narrative.
But first she goes missing, losing her way when she walks out of the house to entrust a family heirloom to an old friend, the confident, bustling Rosie, her would-be Sancho Panza. Rosie represents everything the family finds mildly horrific—proletarian wiles, love that seeks no recompense, and, despite her bravado, a vulnerability to the violence inherent in this class-fractured society. In sociological terms she is from a third-gender community known as hijra, whose members usually make a living from impromptu singing and dancing; in Shree’s poetic vision she becomes a river flowing both ways, at times appearing in the persona of the tailor Raza Master and then segueing neatly to the always flamboyantly and femininely dressed Rosie.
Ma is eventually found after thirteen hours—though it may well be thirteen days or thirteen weeks; why bother with precision, Shree asks—and she decides on a whim to make her home now in Beti’s apartment. The bedbound grieving widow slowly transforms into a voluble, neighborly figure, aided by the irrepressible Rosie:
Rosie of course cheerfully visited all the time, and what did it matter to Beti whether she’s this or she’s that. Yes, perhaps she found it a bit unsettling when she found her cutting Ma’s toenails—just a tiny bit—but only because, oh, hey, she could have asked me. These two were having a wonderful time while Beti was off busy with something. She was also in a bit of a quandary as to whether Ma should be so free just because she’s found a free helper? But.
Beti’s quiet home life becomes a social whirl, giving her much joy but also sleepless nights and existential panic. She can’t focus on her writing, feels her face blurring into a housewife’s or even metamorphosing into Ma’s, all the while mothering her mother through illness and accidents. The dutifulness strains to a sullen cracking point in Beti’s internal monologue:
If this is what was to become my lot then I too should have done what others do, they who have the advantages that come with not living alone, here I have to deal with the disadvantages of being alone, but also the disadvantages of being with everyone by force of circumstance.
But Ma’s highly corporeal presence in Beti’s life turns out to be spectral in another sense, for Ma is still really under Bade’s care; the elder son, by tradition, has eternal charge of his mother. His “son-ego was shattered” whenever Beti seemed to have done more than he had for their mother, so in his opinion Ma is only away visiting.
Shree’s marvelous ear for the carping and affection that make up family life is not just put in the service of satire: families are her canvas. She says of them what has been said about the Mahabharata: “They contain all that exists in the world, and whatever they don’t contain doesn’t exist.” She is alert to the more trying aspects of Indian domesticity, particularly to do with cooking, such as the need to pluck greens leaf by single leaf, or the impossibility of eating simply. The dal calls for roti and sabzi, which in turn beg for the accompaniments—“ghee, chutney, salad, raita, and a little rice. All of them come together and call out for sweets…. Even food has a joint family!”
Shree’s scrutiny of family relations across her fiction is reinforced by her often referring to characters, as in Tomb of Sand, only by kinship terms. Her third novel, Tirohit (The Roof Beneath Their Feet, 2013), is animated by the play between the womanly “inside” and the worldly “outside,” public presumptions and private truths. It centers on the unlikely friendship between two women: the rich, married, unhappy Chachcho (colloquial for paternal uncle’s wife) and the penurious, single, socially invisible Lalna (meaning “Lallan’s”—her relation to this man remains vague). Lalna and Chachcho create an island of girlish fantasy on their shared rooftop—dressing up, eating, singing and dancing—an open yet clandestine space that complicates the inner/outer divide.
The afflicted love between sons and mothers is an abiding subject. In Mai (2004), Shree’s brilliantly observed first novel, an imperious grandmother is roundly ignored by her husband and worships her son, always pressing food on him and occasionally thrashing about in mysterious pains, calling on her boy—middle-aged like Bade—to massage her, crying out, when he does her legs, “More…harder…oh god…a little higher.” In Khali Jagah (The Empty Space, 2011), a couple tries to go on living after losing their teenage son in a bombing. The story is told by the abandoned child they adopt to fill in that blank, which he sometimes tries to do but often resists. The father finds that his only remaining purpose is to go on repeating about the dead boy, “I am so lucky that I came into the world to be his father.” The mother, frozen in the aftermath, unable to cry for fifteen years, keeps trying to track similarities between lost son and replacement; when the adopted boy turns eighteen, he notices that “Ma looks overwhelmed with gratitude that I have resurrected him so! She sees us both, eighteen years old, lying one inside the other.”
In Mai and Tomb of Sand, mother–son relations are complicated by the more thoughtful bond between mothers and daughters—in both novels the younger woman struggles to circumvent everything the elder’s straitlaced life represents, only to acquire belatedly some subtle lessons about freedom within the family rather than in flight from it. In Tomb of Sand these close-to-home themes acquire larger resonance with Ma’s decision to visit Pakistan, with Beti in tow: “You, Ma lifted her cane and pointed it toward Beti, You will be the one to go with me. It was an order.”
With this turn in the plot, the family drama becomes a travel story with mythic overtones—a journey across modern India’s most contentious border, whose creation was not just historical blunder turned geographic fact but also the fount of seventy-five years of mixed emotions, grappled with repeatedly in the subcontinent’s literature, cinema, and painting. Shree rejects the idea of Partition—dividing a country along religious lines—with humanist lyricizing rather than political argument, as when Ma delivers an extended soliloquy on borders: “Asses! A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts. Between night and day. Life and death…. A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.” Shree also threads in elements of the fantastic—such as talking crows greatly concerned with human affairs—perhaps as an argument about the impossibility of cold realism capturing this history of divided but joined-at-the-hip families: the fictional one of people and the imagined one of nations.
When Ma and Beti reach the border, Shree turns out a parade of well-known Hindi and Urdu writers, all of them gathered at a crossing where armed soldiers from India and Pakistan strut daily in a showy drill of competitive jingoism. The writers declaim lines from their novels—among them some of the classics of Partition literature, such as Intizar Husain’s Basti (1995), Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama (2016), and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (1981)—to illustrate the illusoriness of national borders and the bewilderment of those subject to their apparent fixity. She also calls up the best-known metaphor Partition has produced, the character Bishan Singh from Saadat Hasan Manto’s timeless story “Toba Tek Singh,” who clings to the no-man’s-land between the two countries when he and other inmates of a lunatic asylum are being transferred from one to the other. Here, reincarnated as a ghost, he runs amok among the “wise, lost” writers and border patrols: “His invisible fist gave it to the demons on both sides…. He who had gone mad from the years of lunacy between the two countries was not in the mood for leniency today.”
Since the family talks a great deal but reveals little, Beti previously had no idea about her mother’s background in Lahore, the city she fled as a young woman in the tumult of Partition. As Beti starts to glean this past, she sees that Ma is after more than just a nostalgic visit to a childhood home: she wants a reckoning of the costs of violent rupture and a reconciliation with estranged relatives, even if this means endangering her life and driving her daughter nuts from incomprehension and fear.
Very quickly mother and daughter run afoul of the Pakistani authorities. Still, Ma is adamant that she cannot return home till she has fulfilled her mission, thereby anticipating, it would appear, a tragic end. But Shree does not want us to expect a straightforward story, all its elements converging on denouement. She warns the reader late in the book:
So which will it be? The path of shadows or of sharply delineated dark shapes? If you’re game for the first, come along, fellow traveler. Prefer the second? Then stop right where you are.
This is a credo she affirms repeatedly in the novel—that stories are not to be read as poor versions of life: “They don’t have to be contemporary or complementary or congruent or connubial with the real world. Literature has a scent, a soupçon, a je ne sais quoi, all its own.”
Such commentary runs throughout Tomb of Sand, accompanying the action, sometimes dogging it. For Shree, to tell a story is to reflect on the nature of storytelling, and in this and her other novels she often sounds a clear contra-Flaubertian note. “Surely not every storyteller has to be like God, omnipresent, omniscient, the Creator?” says the unnamed child narrator in The Empty Space. And later, “It’s a disease, this habit of those who build chronologies, to fix everything, stabilize everything, in one straight sequence.” In any case, how to be God when, as she says in The Roof Beneath Their Feet, “things don’t really happen when they’re happening. They happen later. When a storm within links them up to the larger picture.” In Tomb of Sand, she emphasizes that a story is a living being. It could turn nomadic, or refuse to budge and become a tree, end up preserved in tombstones, samadhis. (The word in the novel’s Hindi title, Ret Samadhi, gestures at its dual meaning—both memorials to death and endless trances, states of deathlike meditation.)
Shree is repeatedly drawing our attention to the fluidity and interconnectedness of things. If stories can take pretty much any form, other concepts such as love or time are similarly elastic:
One can speak of love at any time because love is lovely. It is natural. Also tempestuous. When love is boundless it breaks out into the cosmos. Its essence reaches a pinnacle and the drive to overpower one another flames out.
And time is a trickster, the days, weeks, and months ribbons that he “flings about as he watches for his own amusement, to see if anyone can measure them, but no one can, and whoever knows this ahead of time throws in the towel.”
Such transmogrifying can sometimes verge on twee. It doesn’t always convince but it does hint at the sources of Shree’s imagination. If her family story is a Mahabharata, her cogitations could be said to sound a Hindu philosophic note, more specifically the idea, to quote Ramanujan again, that there is continuous traffic between the concrete and the abstract in Indian thought systems:
Contrary to the notion that Indians are “spiritual,” they are really “material minded.” They are materialists, believers in substance: there is a continuity, a constant flow…of substance from context to object, from non-self to self.
Shree has no doubt drawn on the many writers she invokes directly in Tomb of Sand, but the novel I was most reminded of is an English-language one: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), which is as taken with the strange birth of nations, as drunk on wordplay. In his introduction to the anthology of Indian literature he edited with Elizabeth West to mark the fiftieth anniversary of independence (and Partition) in 1997, Rushdie recalls a university student interrogating him about his novel: “Fundamentally, what’s your point?” He had no answer except that the whole thing from beginning to end is the only point.
Rushdie offered the same defense for the anthology, while also arguing that the best Indian writing in the past half-century was originally produced in English—something of a dare that drew much shock and horror then but now feels quaint, not least because translations into English, which he lamented the poorness and paucity of, have since considerably accelerated and improved.
Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Tomb of Sand—originally published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing house focused on contemporary Asian writers—is a glittering example. Perhaps her greatest achievement is the recreation of Shree’s animated, conversational, on occasion rambling style. She combines a literary English (translating, for instance, what is simply “So why then shouldn’t folk go on about mangoes?” as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning–inspired “Oh, mangoes, how we love thee. Shall we count the ways?”) with an ear for how Hindi’s onomatopoeia, alliteration, and puns might echo in English (“Ye hasi nahi, hai hahakar” becomes “This isn’t just hee hee ha ha it’s hoo ha, it’s brouhaha”; “Ram hame rama rehta hai” is rendered as “Lord Ram ram-bles into our hearts—that’s why we call him Ram”).
A book and its translation inevitably speak to different things in their separate literatures. In English, the question asked of Rushdie about the fundamental point arises with Tomb of Sand, as it does with all loose baggy monsters of novels. One answer could be: a need to account for the turbulence, both moral and climatic, of the age and thus the breakdown of fundamentals. Things were in their place once: the elder had only to raise his eyes for the youth to fall in line, and at the first drop of rain the tree knew it was time to bear fruit. Now “all of nature is plagued with confusion” and everything is a “topsy-turvy mishmash.”
This anarchy seems to play out in two directions. Shree celebrates the creative disruptions of truth that literature allows, and often calls out the hubris of the well-informed and the silliness of soulless rationalists. “Understanding has become a much eroded, much abused word,” she writes in Tomb of Sand, “to the point that its sense has come to mean to establish meaning, when its real sense is to displace meaning. To give you such a shock you see lightning.” At the same time, this chaos has had deleterious effects on Indian culture. One character observes how
any random guy you address, in whatever Indian language, answers in English, and in bad English at that, even the Hindi spelling on the signboards is wrong, and as for spellings of English words, the less said the better.
It is not a purer existence Shree is after, but a more harmonious one. She dispenses with facticity and realism in favour of dhwani, a word that implies both tone and resonance. When Beti cannot work in her own home, it is because the dhwani has been scrambled with her mother’s entry—things are out of key. All the same Ma is creating, for herself, a new tune, rediscovering her body and talking to herself, communing with sunlight and houseplants: “Melody is important. Whether love affection friendship are madness or no, there should always be a melody in one’s heart that plays throughout life.”
Toward the end of Tomb of Sand, as Ma momentarily finds a lost love, boundaries crumble to the strain of an old raga: “Something of great value slowly returned to them both. A fine, melancholic echo of whatever had happened that shouldn’t have, and whatever had happened that turned out well despite the bad times.” One could say all of Shree’s work is a tuning undertaken to pick up that fine, melancholic echo.
If in English Tomb of Sand raises the question of pertinence, in Hindi it demonstrates what the language can be stretched to do. My mother is also a child of Partition: about the same age as the Ma of the novel, born in that forbidding northwest mountain frontier where Ma and Beti end up, she grew up a refugee in Delhi, where most of Tomb of Sand is set. She happened to be reading the novel in Hindi while I read the translation, and she was taken with completely different discoveries, being brought up short by the Urdu—“difficult”—and delighting in the Punjabi. (These two are among the cousins to Hindi that Shree draws on to capture an everyday linguistic mix that is uniquely North Indian. As Rockwell points out in her translator’s note, a “household of the kind around which the narrative revolves is a polyphonous ecosystem in which no language is likely spoken in an ‘unadulterated’ form.”) My mother also assured me, referring to Shree’s love of wordplay and neologisms, that the novel features vocabulary “you will not find in any dictionary.”
Born in the Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh in 1957, Shree grew up speaking that language but was educated in English. She could have chosen to write in English, but on the other hand many Hindi writers of her generation and the preceding one are and have been perfectly bilingual. She has often remarked on her strategic choice of Hindi as a language of writing and how she remade it to suit her creative purposes. She writes in a 2011 essay for The Caravan magazine about resisting the hold of standardized Hindi, based on the variant called Khari Boli, instead drawing on the “full-throated expletives” of street talk as much as on the “sage-like, quiet tones” of formal speech.
My own Hindi is not sturdy enough to keep up with Tomb of Sand’s wordy and inventive style, but reading Shree’s Pratinidhi Kahaniyan (Representative Stories, 2010), which includes works from four previous collections of her short fiction, one sees how language rather than plot takes the lead. In an account of the truculent friendship between two women, Shree keeps coming up with terms—main jal-bhun rahi thi (I was burning up), hujjat karna (to bicker), makhaul udana (to make fun of), taane bhari avaaz (taunting tone), and so on—to characterize their wrangling till this synonymizing eventually starts to feel like the point of the tale. At the start of another story a character waking up asks sleepily, “Main jeeti hoon?” which could mean both “Do I live?” and “Have I won?”; what follows then seems to question whether one can, as a restless, stay-at-home wife, manage both.
When Tomb of Sand won the International Booker last year, Shree said it was a recognition for all of Hindi literature. In its modern avatar, this literature was born about the same time as Indian nationalism, and the preoccupations of the latter, especially freedom from colonial rule, were often its subject. (The same is true of fiction and poetry in most of the country’s other languages.) Some writers created from the trauma of Partition the basis of a literary renaissance—those in Shree’s border pageant as well as others such as Yashpal, whose epic novel Jhootha Sach, translated as This Is Not That Dawn (2010), is considered the high point of the genre. But not all these figures are widely known, and most have been only selectively translated.
This disregard is partly the fault of English—both its global dominance and its increasing hold on the Indian imagination. We are doubly illiterate, as Shree points out: we don’t speak the imported language well, and in the process of trying also lose our native tongues.
At the same time, there are clumsily forceful official attempts to make Hindi the predominant language of education and administration in a highly multilingual country, leading to, as the well-known Hindi journalist Mrinal Pande recently said, its footprint growing and its soul shrinking. So as critical as the question of the relative value of each language is this: Can Hindi literature capture the grossly uneven, even misshapen, results of independent India’s progress? Forged during that visionary and violent mid-twentieth-century era, in constant conversation with the ideals of nationalism, and then turned into a more artful instrument in the modernist fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, can Hindi reinvent itself again in this messed-up, “topsy-turvy mishmash” of an era without coming across as ingenuous or self-involved? Shree’s fiction offers a rousing yes.