“Tomb Of Sand” by Geetanjali Shri is a story of an eighty year old woman of northern india who slips into a deep depression after the death of her husband , and then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life . Her determination in the face of convention – including striking up a friendship with a transgender person – confuses her bohemian daughter , who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘ modern ‘ of the two .
The story brings a turn when to her family’s consternation , old woman insists on travelling to Pakistan , simultaneously confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition , and re – evaluating what it means to be a mother , a daughter , a woman , a feminist .
Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness , Geetanjali Shree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging , funny , and utterly original , at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries , whether between religions , countries , or genders which resulted the book winning of Booker Prize 2022.
The novel strains toward this unreal world which was presumably breathing glory in some distant past; more specifically before the line was drawn between India and Pakistan. The future that the novel aspires to in the bubbly and mischievous character of Ma, then, is the past when life was defined by feelings, not by ideology or identity politics. In this respect, the novel, as many seem to vicariously celebrate as an endorsement of feminism, is not feminist at all. It is a celebration of the exuberant, paper-less life of individualism.
Tomb of Sand centers around — in as much as the chaotic universe of the novel has a center at all — the 80-year-old Chanda, who has lost her husband (on page 1) and is in mourning, a kind of bedridden samadhi, from which she wakes and sits up.
The unending monologues of the characters, are often circular and as often pointless in their irritable piling up of details. Perhaps, that is an indication of the chaos we live and die in, the endless possibilities we cannot ever know because we cannot live them all except in obsessive internal talks.
The author’s omniscience spares nothing. She is privy to the innermost feelings of walls, doors, walking sticks, and crows. Her intimacy with people, animals, and objects is unapologetic, and the resultant logorrhea is celebratory, but not necessarily funny. In chapter 62, the author mentions Borges in passing — on how similar stories are to dreams.
At the same time, there is a Tolstoy-like ruthless streak in Shree in dismissing a character that may threaten to take over the mainline of the plot. Rosie the Hijra is one such. Just as we weigh anchor with Rosie, we get the telegram in two words in a cryptic chapter (74) wholly devoted to her: ‘Rosie died.’ The death of Rosie summed up and dismissed in two words is pretty much the hook point of the plot. Only we are almost hovering on the 500th page. Shree takes her time to get you to the real thing.
From here on, after Rosie’s death, events take on a definite momentum, and a direction: Pakistan, where Chanda (‘Ma’) heads for in the company of her liberated/feminist daughter, Beti, who learns more of what really liberation and feminism means as she is pitchforked into her mother’s past in an enemy country, which was once friendly, because it did not exist because there was no border because it was all India. It is a kind of colonialism in reverse, but never mind: Tomb of Sand is still the nearest that the Indo-Pak People to People exchange program has come to their favourite nostalgia moment, a return to a people in a time and place before the Partition.
There are many virtues to the book. It does not judge. It does not condemn. It does not sentimentalize. It is wise. And it does not care if the reader is bored — which he often is. Indeed, its very great strength is the risk it is willing to take in paying the least attention to the western idea of the structured novel.
Geetanjali Shri is a deeply thinking, fiercely intelligent writer. And one who is disturbed by the course of the events. That the ship has further steered off the compass is pretty much in evidence all around us. This book tries passionately to steer her back to the chart. Tomb of Sand is correct and reconciliatory literature. Just right for our times. And for no other.