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.