Of Words and Worlds
Maya Joshi
TOMB OF SAND (RET SAMADHI) by Geetanjali Shree. Translated from the original Hindi by Daisy Rockwell Penguin Books, Gurugram , 2022, 696 pp., 699.00
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Reading Ret Samadhi and Tomb of Sand is exhilarating, challenging, even exasperating; such is its span and scope, its playful exuberance and idiosyncratic originality of style, playing out differently in the two versions. Given its more recent American/English avatar, one may evoke Whitman: it is vast, it contains multitudes. Given its incontrovertible rootedness in its Indian-subcontinental milieu, however, one must invoke the Mahabharata, the grand epic that it references at the very outset. The north Indian joint family is an institution that frames the narrative, with all its garrulousness and warmth, its politics and piques. But true to the epic analogy, it also stretches, through an exercise of a capacious, liberating imagination, the narrow meaning of family to include in its sensuous, joyful, wise, witty, and compassionate embrace, a larger human and non-human world, crossing all manner of borders and boundaries. It is easy to see how diverse traditions of storytelling—the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra, and qissagoi—animate the narrative with its mix of rambling family saga, a late-life female bildungsroman, scathing satire, literary/philosophical meditation, magic realism. In this hold-all of a novel—and this homely analogy from an older India is quite as apposite as any avant-garde literary referent for a novel that immerses one in the cacophony that a postcolonial India simultaneously inhabits—words and worlds collide, sing, and dance, sliding from and looping upon themselves and defying any effort, any plot, to move swiftly, efficiently, predictably from point A to point B. This digressive, recursive strain, when accompanied by a range of linguistic registers, can also strain the eye and mind expecting a quick read or sparse prose. Given enough time and leisure, it performs the deepest purpose of art: to delight and to illuminate.

Indeed, the novel demands leisure and effort in equal parts; it would settle for nothing less. It wishes to slow us down to savour its peculiar rasa: the earthiness of the soil, the flavour of gali-koocha, the intimate, winding by lanes of life vividly observed, casually interspersed with philosophical and literary musings and self-delighting flights of fancy. Its stream of consciousness, as the liquid metaphor more befits its fluidity, seeks to stir the stagnant air, birthing numinous butterflies with its word-wands, leela given full play. Incidentally, birds and butterflies and wands are ‘characters’ in this suprahuman and yet all-too-human novel, at its heart the octogenarian Amma/Daadi, her biological and extended family, including the ‘servant class’ who mill around her, and a sparkling transgender character who embodies transgressiveness itself. In this novel of many transgressions, the novelty in the genre’s very name comes alive, returning it to its etymological roots even as it opens new windows and doors, breaching walls.

To respond to the book, its speeches and silences, is to start at the beginning, with the title, which calls attention to itself, not least in the translation from Ret Samadhi to Tomb of Sand, which to this reader, at least, seemed odd at the very outset. For a samadhi is not a tomb. Samadhi is suggestive of both an act or state of being (samadhista hona: to enter samadhi as a stage of deep meditation) or a place that commemorates the dead, one typically associated with a yogi. It carries strong suggestions of a renunciatory ethos, a kind of interiority that is a potentiality, if at all connoting death. A tomb, on the other hand, commemorates the dead, especially those deemed great—in terms either sacred or secular; the irony of this secular commemorative impulse is evoked so powerfully by so much literature that dwells on time and mortality, such as Tagore’s poem ‘Shahjehan’. One suggests a deepening of inner experience, the other a burial and monumentalization. Perhaps to capture this polyphony of samadhi, Daisy Rockwell’s translation gives it three different translations on just one page: ‘meditation’, ‘trance’, and ‘tomb’ (‘tomb’ is also used for translating mazaar). But, of these, ‘tomb’ gains ascendancy to make it to the title, and one could speculate on the consequences of that for a novel that sees even death as a border crossing.

So samadhi is not quite a tomb, not even a tomb of sand, which is rather less stable. The meditative suggestions get reinforced by the broken statue of the fasting Bodhisattva Siddhartha from Gandhara that forms a leitmotif in a novel that draws upon the subcontinent’s philosophical traditions, but places those traditions within a bustling domestic context, filtered through an often ironic gaze that simultaneously questions all domestication. Amma, who literally turns her back to her loving though squabbling family upon being widowed, could even be seen as a latter-day, non-ascetic type of theri, around whom a joyful non-filial family, a sangha if you will, congeals as she sheds the familial. Interestingly, those first Buddhist nuns wrote gathas (in some of its many metafictional moments, the novel refers to itself as gatha) that have been resurrected as early examples of female autobiography. Though there is a mysterious male speaking ‘I’ who appears briefly, it is a thoughtfully engaged female gaze, and an overflowing female pen, so to speak, that writes this text, carrying on a strain that one finds in other works of Geetanjali Shree such as Mai and Tirohit. The novel carries powerful resonances of orality—a qissagoi marked not by visibly structured artistry so much as a challenge to structures, language flowing abundantly in a kind of excess, an ecriture feminine that rejects a masculinist ‘economy’ in more senses than one.

The novel’s tone is in turn rambunctious, intimate, irreverent, reflective; the narrator ventriloquizes diametrically opposed characters, referencing a wide variety of public discourses, intellectual positions, and aesthetic traditions: mostly but not limited to the Indian. Like Amma, and, it is suggested, like India, it hides and seeks, chafing against the muting formalities of closed systems. The family here is a space of affection, possessive care, judgmental constriction and quotidian irritation. The breaching of its line of control starts with the mother aiding and abetting Beti’s escaping via the window to taste freedom, before herself boring holes into the wall and taking wing. Bade, the bureaucrat son, himself a hapless inheritor of tradition, gapes and gasps as he makes futile attempts at retaining control. Sons may also be the over-serious Overseas Son, disgusted with the middle class and sole confidant and saviour-liberator to his mother, the Bahu, or Sid, whose intimacy with ‘granny’ is delightfully evoked. And then there may be the KKs of the world, the progressive male partner to the independent Beti.

One of its most refreshing breaches is that of the binary gender divide via the charismatic Rosie, the Hijra that the grandmother befriends who threatens to walk away not only with mother (stealing the thunder and control from the ‘radical’ Beti) but the novel itself. It is not clear who is the ‘guide’ here, but the song from that eponymous film ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai’ sung by Waheeda Rehman’s Rosie springs to mind, albeit with multiple twists. Before Rosie’s arrival and the death of her husband, Amma has gestated for a while in self-imposed isolation and denial of life: she progresses from a sad, sulky ‘No’ to a louder, more determined ‘Nooo’ to a daring, mischievous, ‘Anew,’ the translation catching with perfect ease the transition from ‘Nahin’ to ‘Naheeen’ to ‘Nayee hi’ in the wordplay of the original. Sound, embodied and sensuous, becomes sense, and inaugurates the old woman’s leap into an adventurous future beyond borders, even those separating the real and the unreal. Walls move, becoming ambivalent allies, as her walking stick transforms magically into a kalpataru, a Wishing Tree, joyfully dispensing gifts big and small, giving Amma, the dependant widow, a second lease on life. While Amma, Beti, and Rosie form an energetic transgressive trio, the magical mobility the Reebok sneakers provide to the traditional Bahu also suggest micro freedoms enabled by certain forms of globalized modernity, a phenomenon that the novel elsewhere seems critical of.

This novel of border crossings is also ‘Partition Fiction’ as the nomadic protagonist in dervish-gear reaches Lahore and the sandy stretches beyond, pursuing buried memories of other loves and lives, even as Bhisham Sahni,  Joginder Paul, Intizar Hussein, Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Krishna Sobti, Khushwant Singh—an entire canon of litterateurs who have written the Partition for us—make an appearance. Bishen Singh from ‘Toba Tek Singh’ gets to have his say, and the wall between nations is breached with verve and a spontaneous, anarchic gusto.

Since translation is also a border crossing, Daisy Rockwell takes advantage of the freedom to transcreate, but in collaboration with the writer, as both have acknowledged. Ret Samadhi dances to the cadence and music of an idiomatic Hindi-Hindustani resonant of UP, not formal school-taught uptight sarkari Hindi, but one with long-neglected words rooted in non-metropolitan experience, and abundant word play. This coexists with the realist demand for multiple linguistic registers that its shifting milieu calls for—the ruralisms of the underclass that the mother of the ‘civil servant’ happily embraces, the family’s mixed use of English and Hindi, or the chaste(r) Urdu of some of the characters in Pakistan. One of the joys of the Hindi original is to see in print a rich idiom that seems to survive only in intimate orality, if that.  One can also hear in its cadences the author’s experience with writing for the theatre. In places, Rockwell flies like Nike, not just run in metaphorical Reeboks, in an attempt to create prose that catapults us through language itself.  Here’s an example: ‘Sitpitaye se sitpit sitpit’ describes a scene of Beti’s bewilderment at airports, but one laden with metaphorical meanings. Rockwell renders it creatively as ‘From confusion to Confucian’ keeping the wordplay but also importing China and Confucius in the process. Encouraged by the sprinkling of Hindi movie references in the novel, the reader who has also read the original might see this as a case of  ‘jaate they Japan [Hindustan?], pahunch gaye Cheen…’ But then, as the song concludes, ‘pyar ho gaya.’ Rockwell’s is a labour of love, and it works. As then, as the title of the film goes, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi… Samajh gaye na?

At 732 pages, the English version is hefty, though the visibly shorter Hindi version is compressed largely due to font and spacing. The book’s having just made literary history demands attention, as that fact now mediates all acts of reading it, in either language. The win has caused both jubilation at ‘our’ collective subcontinental success and a slew of questions originating precisely from that geographical and linguistic location. Literary history has been made: it is the first work in any South Asian language (not just Hindi, as is being narrowly claimed) to be so distinguished. It is also not the first novel by an Indian to win any Booker, as has hastily been claimed:  Indians writing in English—from Rushdie to Roy—have preceded it. Going by the heat generated in some quarters (and the preternatural silence in others!) in the wake of the International Booker Prize, one expects seminars and books to address this phenomenon. Even a newsmagazine like Outlook has commissioned a special issue on translation in its wake. Concerns about the politics of metropolitan vs. margin/English vs. Hindi, ill-informed quibbling on whether the prize went to the original text or the translation, the kind of Hindi used and its difficulty, and the literary merit of the novel, have all been voiced in the post-award buzz.  One does not have to be a student of Translation Studies or Postcolonial Theory to note that literary awards and recognition both shape and mark flows of power—linguistic, discursive, and material—that may well seem to reproduce the old in the new. Geetanjali Shree has an interesting relationship with this dynamic. It is clear that her decision to write in Hindi, a language that is quite literally her ‘mother tongue’ rather than the English she was formally schooled in as a member of the middle class, aligned her with the underdog of the two languages, though affection for Hindi or Hindis (abundantly evident in Ret Samadhi) rather than dry political statement seems to have been the catalyst. The novel has at its core questions of power and hierarchy, its heart quite evidently beating for the marginalized, though it consistently evades binary politics, choosing ironic juxtaposition and inflection over stentorian stances.  As literary phenomenon, it now works these themes of old and new, margin and centre, at the macro level, of the Hindi being rendered anew into English as Tomb of Sand to be recognized in new ways via an international anglophone jury. After all, it is in its English avatar, published in the UK, that it qualified for and went on to gloriously win the International Booker Prize, a branch of the Booker that, it is necessary to clarify, is reserved for literature that has been translated into English and published in UK and Ireland.

It is not that Ret Samadhi*[1] published in 2018 did not have a life before Tomb of Sand worked its magic. Coming from an acclaimed and much-translated writer—her works have been translated into Bangla, English, Czech, French, German, Gujarati, Japanese, Malayalam, Oriya, Serbian, and Urdu and she’s been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Prize, among others—not only was it recognized as original and experimental by its Hindi publishers and discerning readers, its blurb including a generous encomium from Krishna Sobti to whom the book is dedicated as guru and inspiration; it had had a national tour, a session at the JLF, and international exposure through a French translation by Annie Montaut who, besides reporting being ‘hypnotised’ by its language, astutely described it ‘as a cultural encyclopaedia of modern India’  (‘Found In Translation’, May 28, 2022, Scroll.in). But, as the author said in her acceptance speech, the International Booker will enable a new kind of visibility for a rich literary tradition. Does this re-establish the hegemony of English as the medium for large-scale acceptance? Perhaps. Does it automatically ensure a more receptive readership for it in India across political/linguistic divides? Perhaps not. And thereby hang other tales of  politics, and not just of the linguistic or literary kind, in India today.

The novel begins with talk of two women and a death. Tomb of Sand involves two women and a rebirth. Ret Samadhi may well have been happy in the more meditative bliss of its quieter Hindi incarnation; via English it enjoys a rather more visible monumentality in a glitzier, globalized context. For many readers of Hindi, a significant part of the verbal magic and social ‘feel’ of  Ret  Samadhi is entombed in its English rendering; for others,  including ironically some native Hindi readers, English has proved to be a necessary medium to render the original more legible. For now, if publishing buzz is to be heeded, Tomb of Sand will be ironically enabling bhasha literatures to flourish and for translations to be valued. For this award acknowledges the role translators have played in creating, as Jose Saramago has said and was quoted at the award ceremony, ‘universal literature,’ not just ‘national literature’. That celebration and recognition of translators’ labour is entirely welcome, though its Eurocentric assumptions about the relationship between nations, languages, and literatures may not fit our linguistic diversity. But that’s another debate, for another day. Meanwhile, we can celebrate this jugalbandi between the effervescence of  Daisy Rockwell who took on this challenge and the soberer note Geetanjali Shree struck in her poised acceptance speech against the blinding lights—of larger and deeper literary histories, traditions, and truths that precede and will succeed this well-deserved serendipitous moment on the global stage.

Maya Joshi teaches English at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, Delhi.

[1]*See pp.11-12, for review of Ret Samadhi.