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Note: This excerpt was originally published on April 8, 2022 and is being republished on May 27, 2022, in light of Tomb of Sand winning the International Booker Prize.
Just as a tiny seed grows into a giant tree that talks to the sky, Geetanjali Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand starts with a specific – but not uncommon – event that takes place in a family living in a north Indian city, and that event unfurls into a sprawling universe where all the certitudes that we anchor our identities in, are revealed to be stunting and destructive boundaries – between genders, religions and as the thorny border of Partition between two nations. As the author writes, understanding is not about establishing meanings; it is about displacing meanings – ossified, labelled meanings.
The protagonist at the centre of this swirling narrative is an 80-year-old woman, Ma, who is lying, back to the world, after her husband’s death, sunk in depression. Will the arrival of Ma’s bohemian daughter Beti – Ma used to be her biggest support – bring her back to life? The excerpt below sets the context for the mother-daughter, parent-child relationship. The reader can glimpse translator Rockwell’s grasp of Shree’s exultant word play and also hear the original Hindi cadence of the novelist.
Something must be said about the daughter. We’ll call her Beti. After all, she’s one of the two main women in this tale, and will make her presence felt throughout. Both women are integral to the family and so are bound by a love that both fattens and starves. Whatever fattening and starving hasn’t already happened will surely occur in due course.
Let’s not bring up all the past moments and stories here, since we have no need for them at present. They’re over now, and we don’t need to remember everything all the time. Like when Beti was growing up and Ma had not yet grown old, and the household was constantly roiled with controversies over social codes, traditions, culture, protection, and Ma would grow short of breath as she tried to calm everyone else’s breathing.
But the funny thing was, amidst all the to-do, Ma managed to forge a path towards the forbidden.
Like the window opening out into the guava orchard. It was Ma who had cleared this hidden path for Beti’s comings and goings. Inside, there was a constant uproar of No, absolutely not, she won’t go out! And in the meantime, Beti leapt through the open window and fluttered off like a bird. Only Ma knew. For the rest of them, by the time they heard she wasn’t in her room, Beti was busy playing antakshari, singing at the top of her lungs on the train chug chug chug with her posse. 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.
The window had become so useful that Ma had also learned how to hoist herself up, pivot and jump out. She came out in the silence of night with snacks—shakkarpara, mathri, bati chokha, tied up in bundles—and she’d meet up with Beti, banished from home, hidden away in the dense karonda bushes along the boundary wall, where they’d giggle like little girls.
And let’s not forget the day Ma handed a bright green Banarsi sari over the bushes to her banished or runaway daughter for the wedding of one of her girlfriends, and measured her while getting pricked by thorns all the while, so she could alter the matching blouse for the occasion. And the way those two women hid at such times, frightened, chatting, glancing about anxiously, bursting with laughter: it was like the forbidden romance of the century—enough to bring tears to the eyes.
But we shall not allow our tale to stray through bygone days.
The present context is this: Beti, who lived alone, had come to uplift Ma, lying alone. But there was no open window yet. It was winter.
Beti. Daughters are made of wind and air. Invisible even in moments of stillness, when only the very sensitive perceive them. But if not still, then stirring…and oh, how they stir…and the sky bows down so low you could reach out and touch it with your hand. Dry earth cracks nightingales rise gurgling springs surface. Hillocks peek out. The unique expanse of nature unfurls on all sides and suddenly you realize your perceptions of distance and depth have got mixed up. A breath falls on hair like a soft petal, feels like a boulder in the roaring sea. That which you had imagined from a distance to be a snow-covered peak, is, up close, her finger, and will not melt. The wick of your wits dissolves and the overshadowing darkness remains a mere shadow. As when night falls and it keeps on being night, or if it’s daytime, and day stretches ceaselessly on. And the wind blows as the soul sighs, whipping everywhere tossing and turning into a witch, and flinging itself on everyone, everything.
Daughter. You love her. You fear her. Now you see her. Now you don’t.
All women, don’t forget, are daughters.
Once upon a time there was a childhood. A clear white light filled the air and earth seemed to join the sky. You swayed in the sky, your tiny arms upraised, and you took your first steps.
Then the wind began to blow and the clouds began to sway. Silver dust rained through the air. A distant mountain was concealed by a cloud, lending it the appearance of an enormous lounging elephant. A tree peered in at the window and rustled in the breeze and every leaf showered down like rain.
Beti’s lower lip trembled with weeping and Ma picked her up. What happened next was that Ma became the trembling lip. She rested Beti’s head on her shoulder and began to hum to soothe her. She told her that the large elephant was waiting for Beti to come and ride it, and the two of them would sway together, and the leaves gossiped: listen, listen, they’re telling stories.
And Beti smiled. And this made Ma smile too.
Beti’s weeping gradually stilled and turned to sighing, and Ma too switched from sobbing to sighing.
Beti fell asleep and Ma draped her imagination in gorgeous dreams.
And at that moment, love took the form of a body. Ma’s breathing calmed, Beti’s turned to gurgling, and the elephant’s back shouted for joy.
The leaves said love is not good for the health.
Either it’s unselfish and you would gladly give your breath to another, or it’s egotistical and you will devour another’s breath.
In love’s struggle
one withers, as the other blossoms
one is shaded, the other illuminated
one’s a sheep, the other a shepherd
one’s the feet, the other a towering head
one’s a glutton as the other starves
one rides the winds as the other is trampled underfoot
one blossoms, the other fades
This was the custom in the time of this tale, and this was the room where one arrived by walking through the door, and this was where Ma lay, back to the world, as though dead.
She had grown tired of breathing for them, feeling their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities. She was tired of all of them, and she wanted to glide into the wall with a tremor; if a bug slipped into a crevice would the crevice itself start breathing?
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. The difference between thrum and flame is erased and it neither stops for anyone, nor hesitates at any boundary. Its gleam spreads in every direction, casting the world in magic. So magical that the air shimmers. A palace of mirrors. A mirage.
Now who is real, and who is the reflection?
That God hustles out of the way.
The love between a parent and a child can make God fade into the background, and effusive love makes the breath run from here to there, so one might collapse for loss of breath, and the other puff up with the breaths of both. One completely disappears, while the other grows so bloated it could burst, discharging a filthy, foul-smelling essence.
Excerpted with permission from Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Random House India.