How do you begin to wrestle with a story like this? It is not just its size, which is indeed hefty, or scope, which starts in deceptive confinement but widens to engulf whole lives, histories and sub-continents, but its suppleness. You try to grasp it, and it flits away like one of the glittery butterflies on the fabulously kitsch plastic cane that a certain character uses to stand herself up. That cane is a prop, but it is also a kind of story stick, and at one point it even tranforms its carrier into a Wishing Tree simply by being held vertically above her as she lies supine below. What do you even do with a story like that?
“Once you’ve got a woman and a border, a story can write itself,” the narrator of Tomb Of Sand declares as they open this novel, a provocation that you may wish to linger over, but the novel is pushing ahead, and now there are two women, one big, one small, one old, one younger, and now one of them seems to have been shot, and now she’s flying through air and landing on her back, a trick which she’s practiced at length …
Then the novel pauses, or at least seems to. We’re introduced properly to Ma, nearly 80, and her household in Delhi. There’s her eldest son Bade, about to retire from the public service, and his wife Bahu. There are their children, Sid, an easy going joker, and Overseas Son, the serious one who’s gone away to make a life. And then there’s Ma’s daughter Beti, who lives a modern, progressive life alone in an apartment, the author of “totally-incomprehensible-to-everyone books” and a darling of the cultural scene, doing TV interviews about “women’s consciousness, sexuality, the female orgasm, what gibberish, good God”. Ma’s husband has recently died, and in her grief she has confined herself to her room, her face turned to the wall. Her family fret and try to coax her up from the bed, but she refuses to budge. This continues, for nearly a third of this nearly 800-page tome, and then Ma does get up, and goes missing, found hours, days, weeks later by the local police station saying that a man named Anwar is her husband.
In part two, Ma goes to live with Beti in her apartment. This section is almost as confined as the first, but there are increasing signs of life. Visitors come and go, like Beti’s boyfriend KK, and Rosie Bua, a hijra or transperson that Ma befriended many years ago. Slowly Ma’s self-confinement loosens further. Then, in the third section, the story spins off into a totally new world, out of home, out of city, out of country. The tomb of sand refers to a Buddhist concept, in which Gautam Buddha became buried when practising austerity. The book’s epigraph alludes to samadhi, a state of meditation, an act of immolation, a place for a tomb. This seems to be Ma’s literal state at the start of the novel, but the concept has far-reaching meaning in this shifting sands story. Indeed, there is a Buddhist icon that appears and goes on its own wandering.
It is actually a fairly straightforward plot, could be summarised in a couple of tweets, but that would be to miss the vastness of the consciousness that’s living in here. Apart from the tricksy teller who insists they are irrelevant to the story (are they, really? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that) this is a narrative that digresses to everything it can lay its eyes on. In the first section, there are long and wonderful passages about doors and walls and how they’re always on the move, so that they come with us as we move (isn’t that a wonderful idea?), in the second a flock of crows comes to sit in the tree outside Beti’s window to argue about what they’re seeing, led by a formidably wise Crowess, and in the third section writers of stories of Partition dead and alive come to perform at the border checkpoint at Wagah. Amitav Ghosh has written recently about the need to allow for the agency of the more-than-human in order to face global challenges such as climate change; I suppose Tomb Of Sand is what that might look like. Here Shree feels as if she has handed over the reigns to the words themselves. They skip over the page, multiplying and playing, forming absurd puns, just for the point of it, they don’t often even make sense. Take for instance early on, a tree (read: Ma) that feels bound by its circumstances, feels knotted (ha!) in by its family and starts to cry “no”:
Each time they tie another knot. One more knot. A no, not. A know knot. A knew knot. A new knot. A new desire. New. Nyoo. Becoming. The new refusal of no. Flutter, flitter, flap flap flap.
And so a word as simple as no takes life, begins to transform. Read enough pages like this and you just might start to feel the boundedness of things coming loose. I haven’t read much other writing as alive as this; Australia’s Alexis Wright comes close, perhaps Ali Smith’s wordplay. There’s a little of James Joyce’s Ulysses in its richness and intertextuality (at least, the bits I’ve managed to read), but it is not as demanding, much more generously welcoming. Daisy Rockwell’s feat of translation from Hindi to English, which effectively doubled the length of the original text, is rather awe-inspiring.
Despite, or rather because of, its playfulness, Tomb Of Sand ultimately has serious things on its mind. At times it seems to take aim at the kind of discourse prevalent on social media and in populist politics:
Understanding has become a much eroded, much abused word, to the point that its sense has come to mean to establish meaning, when its real sense is to displace meaning. To give you such a shock you see lightning. And that shock is so clear pointed wounding shiny sharp, and earth and sky get swept into that and between them, the sea, flowing like conversation, to make sense of each other, to keep trying, without coming to an end.
I think you could read that paragraph as an instruction for how to read this book. Us non-Indian English readers come at it two from degrees of separation. The text is full of Hindi, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Urdu phrases, and then there are words for food, animals and objects that need no equivalent. You could conceivably Google them all seeking to establish the meaning, or, as Shree might suggest, you could accept that it introduces ambiguity and enjoy how it displaces the familiar.
Tomb Of Sand’s heart is in the past, in Partition, the 1947 rent between India and Pakistan engineered by the British that split friends and neighbours by religion and led to the displacement of 10-20 million people and the deaths of up to 2 million. As Shree notes playfully and ironically it is ground well trodden by Indian writing (in English-Indian writing Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the archetypical example), but there is also something compulsive about the novel’s need to investigate this aching history. In this last section of the novel borders, or at least this misuse and misunderstanding of them, are what comes under Ma’s ire. As she explains to a group of befuddled soldiers:
A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape. It adorns an edge. This side of the edging blossoms, as does that. Embroider the border with a shimmering vine. Stud it with precious stones. What is a border? It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish. A border ornaments their meeting.
In Shree’s writing, even a border can come loose and become something playful. Borders between countries, religions, gender, age, people. Borders, Harsha Walia writes, “create migration and conscript mobility” to benefit capitalist elite. “A world without borders is world where everyone can find, make and belong at home,” she says. Tomb Of Sand dares to imagine that world, and give us a little taste of what it might mean to live unbounded.
Gay rating: 3/5 for a major hijra character. I also have a queer theory the narrator…