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Book Review:
Tomb of Sand

The book is much more than a story about physical borders. It is a saga of the divide between tradition and modernity, between the ever-changing roles of human beings, between madness and ingenuity, between genders, between hard core feminism and progressiveness. As the novel ends, the border becomes an archetype for forces that are divisive but also embracing and unifying, forces that are mainly exemplified in the figures of Dadi and Beti. Dr Rachna Singh reviews the book.

All About Borders

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Translated by Daisy Rockwell


A novel that ebbs and flows like waves lapping a sandy beach. The story of an eighty-year-old woman, who has lost her husband and has taken to bed in a state of depressive stupor, eddies around the reader’s consciousness without intruding. The reader feels its desultory movement, its wetness but is not drawn into it at the beginning. The author’s omniscient statements like ‘once you have got women and a border, a story can write itself’ or ‘women are stories in themselves’ or ‘the tale has no need for a single stream’ or a soliloquy about the seasonal fruits, like jamuns in ‘saawan bhaddo’ or mangoes in ‘grisham’ creates a sense of detachment, a sense that the reader is a spectator watching the action unfurl on a distant stage. But slowly and steadily, the ‘Dadi’, aided by a colourful cane which she calls her ‘wishing tree’, her ‘kalpataru’, transitions from a squirming heap under the bedclothes to a woman who transcends all borders, physically and metaphorically. This transition of the main protagonist triggers a change in the perspective of the reader who transitions from being a distant viewer to a participant as the tale unravels, one seam at a time.

The story is of course structured around two women, ‘Dadi’ or ‘Ma’, call her what you will, an Octogenarian matriarch and ‘Beti’ her progressive daughter. Other female characters like the transgender ‘Rosie Bua’ or ‘Bahu’ come and go as do the male characters ‘Bade’ or ‘Sid’ or ‘KK’. But more than a story about these characters, it is the story of ‘Borders’ that takes centre stage. A border is not just symbolic of human boundaries but seems almost animate and human, like the door of Dadi’s house or the ‘window’ she often ‘leaped through’, the window of laughter and unfettered freedom.  In the initial pages of the novel, the writer expounds upon the nature of the border, which ‘opens out’ and ‘does not enclose’ or ‘tear apart’ or is the horizon where two worlds meet and embrace. The entire story is then woven to prove this postulate, as it were. So, Dadi begins to ‘dream new dreams,’ transcends the borders of depression and old age, swaps roles and becomes a ‘beti’ to her Beti. ‘Am I me or have I become Ma?’ wonders the Beti in confusion. Crossing over the geographical border of Wagah without a visa is another facet of the character of ‘border’, fleshed out with great care by the writer. Dadi tells Ali Anwar ‘I never left here.’ And finally, when a deadly bullet finds her, Dadi does not grovel into a dead earth but lies elegantly on her back, her face turned upwards to the coverlet of a blue sky, watching a horizon where two universes meet across a divide.

One thing that really stands out in this book is the lyrical quality of the language. The language has a poetic quality and a musical ambience. Bits of poems and songs ‘kahe karat ho maan’ or ‘ja ja Kaaga’ add to the poetic cadence of the book. Irreverent references like ‘is your coughing deep-mandra’ or ‘slow and drawn out-vilambit’ add to the unstructured framework of the language, raising the book above the stultifying and fettering framework of a traditional novel. Hats off to Daisy Rockwell’s translation, which maintains the essence of the language of the original. Not once does the reader feel that it is a translation. In fact, the language of the book reflects the language of contemporary India-English interspersed with Hindi.

Some critics claim that the book is ‘politically correct’ (whatever that means). Perhaps it is their skimming-the-surface response to the homily about how borders don’t tear apart. But the book is much more than a story about physical borders. It is a saga of the divide between tradition and modernity, between the ever-changing roles of human beings, between madness and ingenuity, between genders, between hard core feminism and progressiveness. The book, as I said before, gently laps at the reader’s consciousness and then obstinately draws him into the deep end, finally leaving him adrift, yet buoyed by the unusual images of borders and divides.  As the novel ends, the border becomes an archetype for forces that are divisive but also embracing and unifying, forces that are mainly exemplified in the figures of Dadi and Beti.

A must read for all those who can enjoy and appreciate a tale that is ‘free to turn, flowing into rivers’ and the musical intricacies of syntax.   

About the Author & Translator

Geetanjali Shree & Daisy Rockwell

Geetanjali Shree is a Hindi novelist and short-story writer based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of several short stories and five novels. Her novel 'Mai' (2000) was shortlited for the Crossword Book Award in 2001. In 2022, her novel 'Ret Samadhi' (2018), translated into English as  'Tomb of Sand' by Daisy Rockwell won the International Booker Prize

Daisy Rockwell is an American Hindi and Urdu languge translator and Artist. She has translated a number of classic works of Hindi and Urdu literature, including Upendranath Ashk's 'Falling Walls', Bhisham Sahni's 'Tamas' and Khadija Mastur's The Women's Courtyard. Her 2021 translation of Geetanjali Shree's Tomb of Sand was the first South Asian book to win the International Booker Prize. 

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Writing

A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than a decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano.

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