International Booker Winner: Tomb of Sand

After hearing the author Geetanjali Shree and the translator Daisy Rockwell speak about this book at the Southbank Centre a few days before the International Booker Prize was announced, I immediately bought it. It sounded really different, unexpected and fun. Now that I have finally read it (for the London Reads the World Book Club), I can confirm that it was surprising, not at all what I expected, and funny in parts, although ultimately a serious and sad novel.

The cover was designed by translator Daisy Rockwell, who is also a painter and a descendant of American painter Norman Rockwell

It is a shapeshifter of a novel. Just when you think you have grasped in what direction it is going, it suddenly chops and changes. It’s a family saga, a story of friendship, a political novel, a mystery, a quest for freedom, a parable about ageing and loneliness, all of the above and none of them. To me, it seems to be predominantly about storytelling. What is the border between fiction and non-fiction, between tradition and modernity, between Western and Eastern literary paradigms? Is there ever one single way to tell a story? How can we incorporate all of the additional variants and interpretations?

A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are… Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings an dwhisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass… The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.

Although the tale has no need for a single stream. It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters. But for now, we must insist on not straying, so for the time being we simply won’t.

This approach to the story – as a living being, who can always surprise us, take us on diversions, refuse to budge at certain points – is so different from what we expect of a novel in the Western literary tradition – or at least not in the present-day (I can think of some 18th and 19th-century novels that are all about the digressions). It is also full of cultural and linguistic references (including untranslated terms) which probably went completely over my head. This maximalist approach to storytelling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At times, it defies close reading, and I will need to return to some passages to grasp their full meaning.

It takes 190 pages for Amma, the beloved grandmother mourning the death of her husband, to leave her bed, as one of our book club members pointed out indignantly. I enjoyed the family visits, contradictory opinions, squabbles and rivalries, which reminded me so much of Romanian families too, but I can see how many readers might feel the story is taking too long to get started.

The middle part is told more from the point of view of Amma/Ma’s daughter, Beti, who prides herself on her modern, tolerant, bohemian attitudes and lifestyle, but finds herself occasionally at odds with her mother, especially when her friend Rosie starts having what she considers a disproportionate amount of influence on her. Rose is a hijra (third gender) person and is yet another example of Ma (and the author, probably) protesting against the artificial, destructive, small-minded erection of borders where none existed before.

The final part is about a road trip to Pakistan, perhaps the most mysterious, brutally unexpected, but also satisfying section of the book. It also features butterflies and a crow, but it’s extremely hard to explain how it all hangs together. The prose throughout the book is vivacious, funny, perfect at capturing different voices, but in the last part it becomes very poetical, colourful, imbued with the qualities of a fairytale or legend. And throughout, we have the political engagement of Ma (and the author, I believe), although this could apply to the distance between two people too. As someone who was once living in a closed-in country, this passage on borders was particularly meaningful to me (it goes on for a few pages, but I will just quote from the first couple of paragraphs):

A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape. It adorns an edge… It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish… A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts. Between night and day. Life and death. Finding and losing… A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

I’m still not quite sure how this book ended up nearly twice as long in English as it is in the original Hindi, but it is an amazing and unforgettable book, one that challenges all our preconceived notions of ageing, Indian families, Partition history and, above all, what makes for compelling storytelling.

By complete coincidence, I finally read Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner this weekend and realised that the premise reminded me a lot of Tomb of Sand. That too is about an older woman (was 47 in the 1920s the equivalent of 80 nowadays?) who turns her back on her family and decides to pursue her own interests and find new friendships and passions.

Even though it is a much shorter book, it has a similar structure: the first part might be perceived as boring and stultifying by some readers, as it describes the dull, prescribed and circumscribed life that Laura leads, losing her own name (becoming Aunt Lolly, just like the main protagonist in Tomb of Sand becomes Amma or Ma), having the family talk about her rather than addressing her directly, making decisions on her behalf. The second part describes the move to the village of Great Mop, an unsuccessful attempt at freedom initially, when her much-loved but stifling nephew Titus shows up. This is very similar to the occasionally pleasurable but often tense living together of Ma and her daughter. The third part describes the release at last, in what should perhaps be as dramatic a moment as in the Indian book (after all, what could be more dramatic than making a pact with the devil? Goethe got lots of mileage out of that!), but is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact, even amusing way, yet you sense real passion lurking underneath (Laura’s speech about women being active yet invisible, sticks of dynamite ready to ignite). I felt the same hair rising on the back of my neck moment there as I did when reading the scene where Ma asks the soldiers to hit her so she can learn how to fall – and then realise why she is doing that.

I am perhaps too prone to see parallels here, but these two books worked perfectly in tandem for me, and both left me with an explosion of joy but also a deep sadness that freedom has come so late for these women, and that for many it does not come at all:

In vain she had tried to escape, transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform… They had let her run a little way – that was all – for they knew they could get her back when they chose.

No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of¬†Tristes Tropiques¬†by Claude L√©vi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways¬†Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog¬†and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.

Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from¬†(or¬†set in)¬†each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and¬†planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally)¬†before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten¬†what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

Crime Fiction in Countries Where the Police Is Reviled

Kishwar Desai and Dror Mishani in Lyon, 2015.
Kishwar Desai and Dror Mishani in Lyon, 2015.

Crime fiction seems to be most popular in the countries where crime rates are low – perhaps because it is easier to read about terrible things happening when the truth around you is not stranger and more horrible than fiction. But what about those countries where the police is treated with suspicion, where there is no tradition of private detectives and where there is little hope of real justice (as opposed to vengeance)?

There was a panel at Quais du Polar in Lyon about this very subject, with authors from Russia, Costa Rica, Israel and India represented. I bought both of these books in Lyon: Liad Shoham was there in 2014, while Kishwar Desai was there this year.

TelAvivSuspectsLiad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

No conventional crime novel, this is a story of guilt and fears, of mistrust, of crossed wires in communication, misunderstanding, prejudices, jumping to conclusions and… the weaknesses of the police and justice system. Not an overtly political book (which is saying something, set as it is in Israel), but a very interesting look at the larger picture surrounding a crime, the impact it has on everyone involved.

Every single one of the characters has a flawed reasoning, although some of them have good intentions. Elie Nahoum is a middle-aged, old-school police detective who begins to fear he may have arrested the wrong person in a rape case. The ‘rapist’ has something more serious to hide and is being coerced by his conspirators to plead guilty to the crime. The rape victim’s father is keen to accuse somebody and give his daughter back her peace of mind. The police, the prosecutor, potential witnesses all look to their own petty interests, try to save face, face their own fears and refuse to admit their own guilt. When Elie voices his concerns, he is suspended from active duty (and his greatest fear with that is that his wife will expect him to do something more around the house, instead of their traditional gender division of labour – just to show you how old-school he is, and how the author gently mocks him).

Liad Shoham and yours truly in Lyon, 2014.
Liad Shoham and yours truly in Lyon, 2014.

So not at all what I expected, but a rich, enlightening read. Shoham has a more laid-back and chatty style than the other Israeli crime fiction writer I’ve read, ¬†the rather minimalist Dror Mishani.

#TBR7 in a change to the plan, because Raven waxed lyrical about another of Shoham’s books, which I now also want to read. He’s also a really lovely, humorous man, so here’s another picture of him at the Quais du Polar.

 

WitnesstheNightKishwar Desai: Witness the Night

This could be a very depressing book, given the subject matter (the murder of an entire extended family, a traumatised young girl as a possible suspect, female infanticide and political corruption). But Desai has a deft, lively style and a thoroughly likeable, unconventional, disobedient middle-aged heroine in Simran Singh. A delight to read, but also a great debate about social issues in a country of great contrasts. My full review is on Crime Fiction Lover.

#TBR6

(So, yes, the #TBR20 is going reasonably well, have read 9 to date, but have a few books barging in now for immediate reviews.)