Do you ever wonder if the crows in your neighborhood attend meetings every evening and exchange bits of information and jokes with each other, or watch trivial arguments unfold between a husband and wife from slender windowsills? Do you think that it’s too much to expect from humans who’re too busy with living their daily lives behind computers, deadlines, pollution, home loans, headaches, heartbreaks, and whatnot?
Well, literature exists precisely to give wings to this experiment. Fiction and words, in various combinations, open up new worlds to us. They show us what is real and what is unreal, and sometimes mix the unreal with the real. Authors shape sentences and pollinate phrases in myriad ways to make it impossible for readers to differentiate between the two and, therefore, find no other way out other than to submit to the stories.
Geetanjali Shree’s excellent new novel Tomb of Sand (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) will shake your conscience and stir your imagination anew. It’ll do both because it takes upon the arduous task of taking you through the doors (real and metaphorical) of pain, separation, existential musings, and goodwill. Even though this is a book that moves upwards of 700 pages, you’ll encounter just a handful of characters for the most part and that might come as a surprise––Amma (mother), Bade (eldest son), Bahu (daughter-in-law), Beti (daughter), Sid (grandson), Serious Son (another grandson), and Rosie (friend).
Since Amma is the Sun around which everybody revolves, Tomb of Sand is defined through the lens of familial ties that she shares with others.
The real names of the characters don’t matter much, for the stand-in terms are the ones that steer the narrative. When Shree does drop names though, eminent authors descend on the pages. Here are a few examples: Paul Zacharia, Nirmal Verma, Bhisham Sahni, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Intizar Hussain. While some of them spring to life, many are mentioned in passing. Shree uses another trick, too. She refers to the memorable characters created by them and intertwines the happenings in her novel with theirs.
And the crows I mentioned above are also part of this landscape. They caw-caw a lot, but their birdly sounds aren’t used to merely signify hunger, or attract attention. They carry and deliver messages to people who’re divided by borders and time. But Shree doesn’t turn her pen towards the unboxed structure of magical realism wholly. And that, sadly, renders the language of the birds useless to humanfolk.
Tomb of Sand will quickly catch a strong place in the category that’s dedicated to the India-Pakistan partition, but there are many little things that are strung together carefully here, and they all shine splendidly. Shree plays with the language––as does Rockwell––and, through the assistance of her characters, with crucial memories and mundane observations, as well. Look at the manner in which Bade’s yelling is described, “Shouting is a tradition, an ancient custom upheld by eldest sons. In a masterful style. The practice is only superficial; it doesn’t matter if eldest sons truly feel such ferocity in their hearts, but whatever their feelings, they must be cloaked in this guise. It is said that Bade’s father shouted from the heart, whereas Bade’s real mood never reached boiling point.”
There’s plenty of humour in Tomb of Sand, but it’s clothed in multiple layers. And if, at first, the lines don’t jump at you, consume them slowly. There’s no need to rush unless there’s a plane to board, or a crow to pass a tennis ball to.
The tragedy arrives mostly in the final section, which encompasses about a third of the novel and, there, it changes gears for one last time. And with that, the meanings of doors and freedom change. And the ideas of home and home country drift apart. Now that there’s a war going on in Europe, how bad do you think the human cost will be? Have we not learnt anything from the previous wars?
Tomb of Sand can be read as an anti-war novel. It can be read as a novel where the sons are mainly interested in increasing their wealth, whereas the daughters are interested in taking care of their aging mothers. It can even be read, under the vast sky that has no borders, as a novel that highlights love, friendship, and the importance of forgiveness.
Tomb of Sand
- Translated by: Daisy Rockwell
- Publisher: Penguin
- Pages: 725
- Price: Rs 699