Breaking a glass ceiling: Rave reviews for the ‘Tomb of Sand’

While the book has been variously described as a Partition novel and a political novel, such straitjackets do not quite do justice to the first Hindi novel shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize

Breaking a glass ceiling: Rave reviews for the ‘Tomb of Sand’

Pragati Saxena

Why must a book be easy to read, asks Geetanjali Shree in one of her recent interviews. ‘Often language is treated as just a carrier of ideas, of a story. For me, language has its own presence and independent personality…I enjoy the audio quality and turns of phrase,” she went on to add.

She was answering one of the two frequently asked questions put to her. Why is her work difficult to read and why doesn’t she write in English? Her four-year-old novel in Hindi, “Ret Samadhi” (Tomb of Sand) was believed by critics to be untranslatable and difficult. But it has been translated and got into the Booker longlist and then the shortlist this year, one of the six books from across the world shortlisted for this year’s prize to be announced in May.

Daughter of an IAS officer and having studied History in Delhi University and with a Ph.D. in the subject, she could have written as easily in English. But she wisely opted to write in Hindi, the language spoken all around her. It did not come in the way of gaining an international audience as her works have been translated into not just English, French and German but also in Serbian and Korean !

“Here, people can say, ‘Oh, I can’t read Hindi’ or ‘Hindi is so difficult,’ without being embarrassed or ashamed in the least. In fact, some say it with pride,” she said disarmingly.

Shree, as her readers in the West like to call her, has just completed her sixth novel Sah-Sa, a play on the words sahsa or suddenly; sah also means‘together’ while sahaisto endure; sa is also used for comparisons as in “badasaghar”).

Even before Daisy Rockwell (an American who lives in North Bennington, Vermont, US) decided to translate ‘Ret Samadhi’ into English, Annie Montaut had translated it into French. Both were clearly fascinated by the work. Rockwell, who has previously translated works by titans like Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Upendranath Ashk, Usha Priyamvada and the Pakistani writer Khadija Mastur, is delighted at the book getting into the Booker shortlist.

At a hefty 700-plus pages, Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand) is the story of an 80-year-old Indian woman who loses her husband, turns her back on her life and her family, and travels to Pakistan, to her pre-Partition past.

The writer, who acknowledges the influence of social realism she encountered in Russian and Victorian English literature while growing up, describes the core idea of the book as rejection of borders and the human being’s right to be free and feel exuberant.

The novel’s unique literary style with some chapters comprising just a single sentence while in another chapter a single sentence stretches over three pages, has intrigued readers. But notwithstanding the complexities, readers seem to have found it ‘engaging, funny and utterly original’. While the plot’s basic premise is tragic, it is playful. It also strikes a contemporary chord by highlighting the destructive impact of borders and boundaries between countries, religions and even gender.

While several remarkable works in Hindi, notably by Srilal Shukla, Krishna Sobti, Mridula Garg and Alka Saraogi among others, have been translated into English, the Booker shortlist is expected to generate renewed interest in the other vibrant works of Hindi and regional literature from India.

Eminent Hindi writer and poet Prayag Shukla eloquently described that 'Ret Samadhi' is built on the wall of language…Geetanjali Shree treats words like children- naughty, young and restless at some time while silent, serious and mature at others.” In a handsome tribute to style he compared the novel with the unique style of such Hindi classics as “Usne Kaha Tha” by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri and “Parati Pari Katha” by Phanishwar Nath Renu.

Another revered Hindi writer Mridula Garg is struck by the distinct portrayal of relationships in the novel. Geetanjali Shree’s treatment of the relationship between mother and son, she wrote, is unique. The son is fond of buying sarees for his mother. It’s like an obsession for him, and when he misses her, he remembers those sarees. When the mother, after the death of her husband, starts living with her daughter, the son pries into their home and recalls in great detail-the many sarees which he had bought for her!

The friendship that the old woman develops with a transgender is handled deftly and delicately. The transgender is treated as an individual and not as a representative of the third gender. Their relationship is free of all judgments and preconceived notions. It is in fact this friendship that nurtures a longing for freedom in the 80-year-old protagonist. Her memories of an undivided India form an important segment. For her, love and longing have no borders, writes Mridula Garg in her post in the popular website ‘Streedarpan’.

“If you want to recognise and understand the constant building and shattering of the layers between the noise outside and the deep silence inside, then her writing may be helpful,” wrote writer and journalist Priyadarshan.

Hers is not the first or the most brilliant work in Hindi, points out a very grounded Geetanjali Shree in her interviews. She has been lucky with translators and recalls how the translators engaged with her in understanding the nuances. Remarkably, she has not met Daisy Rockwell but admires the translations she had done earlier.

A dialogue between languages holds the key to understand today’s complexities, she believes.

The six books that made the cut to the International Booker Prize 2022 shortlist:

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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