The author was never congratulated by the Prime Minister of India despite becoming the first writer of an Indian language to win the Booker.

A colourful book cover of Tomb of Sand placed on a maroon background
Features Books Wednesday, July 13, 2022 - 21:36

First, turning away from the family, then surreptitiously slipping out of the house, and finally, after 80 years of living for others, beginning to announce her next moves like orders to be carried out, Ma is someone you’ve got to love in Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree’s Booker winning novel, translated by Daisy Rockwell. There is Beti too. The book tries to tell you at the outset that this is about two women, but you tend to sideline her, give her an encouraging pat and let her aid Ma’s story, not interrupt it. All of the 80 years are not spilled over the 700 something pages, but enough is dropped for you to gather the pieces and worry for the woman, who like many other women of her time, lived very little for herself.

Not that the writing ever details the sacrifices or lets you in on the moments Ma sat alone and cried. She seems to have lived a most ordinary life, at first, tending to the family settled somewhere in northern India, raising a daughter and a son, and so attached to the husband that when he dies, she takes to the bed, sticks to a corner and refuses to get up. ‘No, no, nyo’ she tells everyone who tries to persuade her. Instead she sticks so close to the wall, the writer lets you imagine her seeping through the small holes into it and falling off the other side.

The book, an enjoyable and at times testing read, dislodges your concepts about the ‘ordinary’ and intertwines relatable thoughts with fantastical fairytale-like episodes. Ma’s refusal to look at the family she dearly raised – even the favourite grandson Sid can’t get her to move – is itself not so ordinary in a woman who follows norms. Geetanjali lets only Sid have a name. The others are given their Hindi terms – the mother is Ma, the daughter Beti, the son Bade (Hindi for Elder, not to be confused with the English word ‘bade’ as I did), and the daughter in law Bahu. Outsiders, very close to the characters, get to have names. Rosie is Ma’s close friend, a trans woman who fashions clothes. Susheela is the domestic worker. And KK is Beti’s boyfriend with a key to her independent house.

The Beti you had pushed aside refuses to stay there and keeps dropping by Ma’s story. For a whole page, the way Ma let her have her way as a child when girls were rarely allowed outside the house, you almost think she is about to take over and make it her story. But you have to pay close attention – it is not that Beti did these things, any girl her age would want to, it is that Ma, a supposedly old fashioned woman of the house let her.

She would climb a mountain or plunge into the sea, or break off shards from the stars and swing from brittle bits of straw, fall apart, break down, and through it all, Ma still had confidence in her, and when those stars and straws evolved into the forms of friends and lovers, Ma would still open the window wide for her to leap out and go to them.

Daisy Rockwell and Geetanjali Shree / Twitter / Booker Prize

Yes, Geetanjali likes long sentences and does not believe in commas, so adjectives stay next to each other, inseparable. She takes it one step further sometimes and strings them into a single word, so three guys Beti once dated become one—BaldBeardGlasses. Bade, the man who you think would only be vaguely present in the backdrop, emerges very much to the front, creating beautiful visuals for you. A man, written to be so typical that he cuts the connection with his ‘wayward’ sister living alone on her own terms and thinks Ma’s place is with him, the elder son, surprises you with a fairytale of a chapter as he climbs a tree to take a look at his mother. (Geetanjali’s long sentences can be an influence). 

I may be jumping a lot further into the book but this is a pretty strong imagery you have got to dive straight into, Bade on a tree branch, dozing off, as crows surround him and see his dreams with him. Yes, crows. They can talk—the book loathes how humans have lost touch with the language of the animals, and that’s why we hear only caw and caw. Crows, splitting after a meeting, get to see the Saris that Bade dreams of, the Saris his mother once wore, hung on the branches of the tree. He and the reader are both surprised at how he can remember so many of them, complete with their names and types and colours and the places they came from. It takes the strange and magical dream for you to be assured of his love for Ma. This is not a tale where love flows only in one direction from Ma to the children. The book begins at a time when all the love, care, attention and pampering goes from the grownup children – so grownup one is nearing retirement – to the stubborn Ma, refusing to turn from the wall.

Beti looks at the upturned mother who kept saying no and wonders, “But it (the word) had belonged to me and only me, so how did Ma get her hands on it?”

It is not a straightforward narrative and the narrator, an unknown acquaintance of Sid who makes excuses to pop into the book, keeps wandering away to areas described as outside the scope of the book. Passages can be long and descriptive and out of reach if you have a small head like mine, but they come back and rest among the very interesting thoughts of Ma or Beti or Bade. Settling in, you realise that there really are no side characters. Bahu is not just a murmuring passerby, jealous and unhappy as she’s made out to be. She is another Ma in the waiting, feeling loved only by her son living in Australia, that the book without names calls Overseas Son. This son, like the crows, drops you into another fairytale; the book is almost like an amusement park with all these rides you get lost into. Overseas Son is a man who cannot laugh. Not because he doesn’t have time for it or he is too serious, but because he cannot – as a physical act. The poor guy contorts his face in every which way and makes weird noises, practising laughter in the night, only to scare away the newspaper boy the next morning when he tries it on him.

But like a loyal reader, you shake away these stories, after merrily soaking it up and letting your imagination have a field day, so you could focus on Ma, who had won your love merely by being there, as the woman growing so small she could fit into the crevices of her wall. Just when you think Ma will never get up and we will have to learn of her in flashbacks, she produces a cane that Sid gifted her and becomes a ‘wishing tree’ — people may flock under the tree, wish for something and have it granted. Ma being a human grants the wishes by giving away her possessions. Everything except a statue of Buddha, that’s going to travel with her through all the little journeys she begins to take. Starting from the big disappearing act.

Ma being so minuscule – Geetanjali makes her adorable every which way – Bade and the gang look for her under the sheets and inside the shelves when she disappears one day. She could fit in just anywhere. And when she is found, she begins to command her wishes—let’s go, she tells Beti. So the two of them reach the house of the independent daughter, where anything can be done, because Beti has grown to be feministic.

Geetanjali in 2010 / Courtesy - R schein / Wiki Commons

At multiple places, Geetanjali paints a clear moment of daughters leaving and entering homes. The moment when Bahu leaves the house is when Beti enters it, confusing her so much. Wasn’t she the one who left for a life of her own, and wasn’t Bahu the one staying inside. Her images, unlike the narrator, do not wander away—they keep coming back. Here, look at this doorway, the story keeps telling the most distracted reader (viz. me).

By now you should have learnt not to disregard any passing characters. Rosie, who had shown up in Bade’s house, comes back to Beti’s with rising frequency. Beti has to remind herself that she doesn’t mind any of it multiple times, but her restlessness gives her away. She becomes the mother and Ma becomes the daughter, and it is so organic the way Beti stays awake in the night, mindful of every step the old woman takes, that you wouldn’t notice the role reversal. That the woman who once let the daughter out through the window is now being ‘let’ to play with her friend Rosie, by her daughter.

You have to go back and wonder though, how did the mother become so broadminded about it. It is clear she’s always been so, the way she let Beti out into the wilderness of youth. That’s why nothing surprises you, even as the mother who is in her children’s mind the textbook version of the ideal Indian Ma, becomes a woman with opinions and desires you don’t understand. In contrast, the daughter who thinks herself progressive, is disturbed by the mother’s new friendships and ways of life. What you are not prepared for is the journey Ma is going to lead you to, more images coming along, more stories being unpacked and spilling all over the place.

It comes in the last leg, but the book, which has already made its stance clear on matters of gender and living situations, heads straight to the borders and questions the thickly drawn boundaries with a tale of old love.

Most likely an alien looking down from space would immediately notice Hindustan and Pakistan so clearly glutted with lights that, borders visible or no, it would observe that there’s always an air of celebration about that particular spot on that particular planet. How could it know that proclaiming divisions has become a celebration for some? A Jubilee of hatred. The joy of rifts.

Geetanjali has scattered snippets of the political scenario in the country, as Ma makes her journey forward. The references are thinly veiled. She missed getting congratulated by the Prime Minister of India even after becoming the first writer of an Indian language to win the Booker. 

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