Geetanjali Shree's 'Tomb Of Sand': Transcending Boundaries To Find New Meanings
The 80-year-old protagonist becomes an inspiration as she embarks on a journey to find new meanings to life.
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Geetanjali Shree's Ret Samadhi, a novel that traverses the nooks of partition and becomes a lesson in seeking identity and meaning, is now the first Hindi novel translated in English to win the International Booker Prize.
The acclaimed novel has been translated by Daisy Rockwell as Tomb of Sand.
On the surface, the book is about Ma/Amma, who is a few years shy of 80, suffering from pangs of depression after the loss of her husband, and looking forward to her death. But as the reader turns the pages, the story exhibits varied colours and undertones.
The unnamed narrator uses stream of consciousness to tell the tale, littered with metaphors and each chapter introduces a new character, living or non-living, describing the troubles that burden their minds' recesses.
'Ma' As the Tie That Binds Everyone
The novel introduces a highly affluent family, members of which include an elder son (Bade), a younger, estranged daughter (Beti), Bade’s wife (Bahu), and their children (Overseas or Serious Son and Sid). They have countless servants at their disposal and many relatives frequenting their visits to see the old and ailing Ma.
Bade and Beti never see eye to eye, with Beti being the rebellious and modern woman who had only one choice – to abandon the family. She is the independent character living afar, a price she pays for not wanting to be subjugated by her brother.
Bade and Bahu are also constantly engaging in the more 'acceptable' husband-wife verbal brawls. The two address each other as D, which was initially an acronym for 'darling' but eventually got substituted with 'duffer'.
However, "whether or not they get along, Ma is the tie that binds them," the narrator explains.
Everything aside, the bottom line is that the bedridden Ma is cared for. Everyone wants her to move out of the bed, converse, and regain health.
However, little does anyone know that Ma has plans of her own. She has decided on taking samadhi (an in-between state of being). The tale takes a turn to magical realism when Ma uses her golden cane, a gift from her grandson, as a tool to becoming 'The Wishing Tree' or Kalpataru.
"Granny had... picked up the new cane and lay flat on the back, holding it in the air at a ninety degree angle, eyes closed, still a statue, looking every inch an other-worldly idol," a bewildered Sid describes.
People begin to flock to Bade's house, asking Ma for anything they want as Leelavati tells everyone that Ma becoming the Kalpataru is "a matter of great religious significance”.
Despite this, however, Ma does not progress towards getting better.
And one day, when she goes missing, chaos ensues. It becomes the 'blackest night' for Bade, Beti turns almost delusional, and even Bahu becomes paranoid. Everyone is terrified, till days later, Ma is found by the police with the little Buddha idol she took with herself.
The Relationship Between Ma and Beti
After tending to her for a while, Bade sends Ma to Beti's house for a change in atmosphere. And this is when Ma embarks on a new journey.
A whole circle of life scene ensues as Ma turns into a child being nursed to health by Beti. "Beti became the mother, and made Ma the daughter," the narrator notes.
While taking care of her, Beti loses sleep and health but the fact that Ma's health is improving is enough for her to keep going – exactly something that Ma would've felt if Beti was young and unwell.
As she nurses Ma back to health, it becomes Beti's turn to return the freedom once gifted to her by her mother. Once, Ma had helped Beti start a new and independent life, allowing her to forge a path towards the 'forbidden'. Now, Beti would aid Ma to cross the border to let her face her inhibitions and live her dreams.
“This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself," Shree writes.
Now transformed into Ma's mother, Beti begins to turn towards the "conventional", while Ma becomes more and more modern. Ma is, as if, finding herself anew, as she learns about gender, identity, age, and so much more.
Shree also touches on the dilemma of mental health taboo in the country. Ma, suffering from depression and lonely even in a room full of people, finds herself lonely. However, she cannot dare express herself because of the stigma and the fear of being termed 'mad'.
A New Journey
Nevertheless, Ma's new journey begins as sunshine spreads through Beti's home, propelling her golden cane, enabling her to transform into a metaphorical goddess.
"Now, when she wakes from sleep, there will be a new life. After that, it's every woman for herself," Beti prays.
At Beti’s house, Ma pours herself into the crevices. Her feet can’t touch the ground there as the bed is high and so it seems like she is flying – a feeling Ma loves.
After leading a life based on choices made by others, she is finally embarking on a path she wants, to a world she needs.
Ma is, as if, becoming one with nature. One with air, the bird, and the rainbow. "Let her slip... she will be freed... as from a tomb-like trance," the narrator says.
A Vital Friendship
Ma's metamorphosis would not be possible without her vital friendship with Rosie Bua, a 'hijra'. Rosie stands outside the totality of law, on the margins, where the centre is occupied by men and women. Perhaps, this is what empowers Rosie or Tailor Master Raza, the disguise of whom she gracefully dons as and when she wants.
Even though Beti is uncomfortable with Rosie's closeness to Ma, it is this friendship that takes Ma to Pakistan, and to her past.
Rosie is murdered and Ma wants to fulfil her last wish which is to deliver chironji to the former's relatives in Pakistan. And the obedient Beti decides to accompany Ma to the country that was once her home.
Ma wants to go back through the sands of time, unfurl and heal the unresolved trauma of her past and emerge a new and victorious person, almost ready for a new beginning.
Shree writes: “Anything worth doing transcends borders.” And so, Ma crosses the border, along with her daughter.
The story becomes a partition tale, as Ma relives her past, her heartbreaks and dreams that she had left behind long ago. Her wounds lie open again, as her sufferings, and that of so many others who saw the horrendous truth that partition was, are exposed by the author.
Ma is now about to face her biggest secret that she has kept hidden from the world – a love lost to the pressures of religion amid the partition.
The protagonist becomes an inspiration for all, as she finally finds meaning to life after completing 80 years.
With Shree lucidly describing the events and tales-within-tales, Tomb of Sand is a slow journey to deep messages and ruminations, urging the reader to engross in the journey and ponder.
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