Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree was unexpected. It’s a tale that hits like a lost, slow-moving freight train. A rambling, chugging adventure in prose that diverts again and again before pulling you back to its core. It is a tale of Partition sprinkled throughout with magical realism. But I wouldn’t compare it to some of Shree’s contemporaries like Rushdie and Roy. Her writing embraces both the beauty and bloodied limbs of a sprawling geography.
Eighty-year-old Ma, falls into a deep depression after her husband’s death. We first “see” Ma as her back, through her gaze on a wall, and the chant of “no, no nyoo!” But, with the help of a magical walking stick Ma finds the strength to rise and begin shedding the layers of her former identity. No longer is she an unshakeable image of a self-sacrificing Bharat Mata – much to her family’s confusion. Instead, she forgoes exquisite saris befitting her social status, for abaya gowns that swish with freedom. She spends most of her time with her friend Rosie, a hijra person.
Bodies and borders are the themes of this story. They are forever shifting and being created anew. When Ma and her daughter cross the Wagah border into Pakistan, we learn that Ma is crossing back to her home soil. But in Khyber, the two are arrested for crossing without a visa. Through Ma’s gaze, a border is revealed for what it should be; spaces for meetings, friendship, and love. Angry, bloodied lines that divide the geography cannot exist because a border has no religion. “It is meant to illuminate both sides.”
An older protagonist with such a complex metamorphosis is refreshing. Ma is not a straightforward character. She has lived with the trauma of Partition and concealed her true self for most of her life. But her response to trauma is beautiful, despite my instinct to fear for this woman who defies all of the paper and rules that determine the spaces in which our bodies are allowed to exist.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Indian forms of storytelling, like a performance of the Ramayana which is spoken, chanted, and sung, may struggle at first. The book was written in Hindi to preserve this unique element. But, Daisy Rockwell’s English translations were sometimes too loyal where the poetry was masked by cliches stacked atop a maddening number of rhetorical questions.
Geetanjali Shree was already an award-winning author when she and Daisy Rockwell won last year’s International Booker Prize. Her work has never tried to pander to a Western audience’s vision of what “Indian” or “Pakistani” means. If you’re still not convinced to pick up Tomb of Sand, then I’ll leave you with my favorite line: “The blood will burst their borders and seep away, and all the limbs will dry up and stiffen, but everyone will keep chanting Allahu Akbar and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.”
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