Gentle no more

In Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi, 2018), Geetanjali Shree presents us with an iconoclastic, taboo-destroying eighty-year-old protagonist, destined to challenge one of her ancient culture’s central premisses: that a widow should be hidden, isolated and shrouded in white. There is no one quite like what in contemporary literature, which is perhaps one reason why Shree, along with her translator, Daisy Rockwell, won this year’s International Booker prize for her novel – the first Indian-language author to do so.

There is a palpable freshness to Shree’s world-building. Her India is a place where walls glide, snakes talk, butterflies know their worth and people are too insignificant to have names. Indeed, in its boldness and experimentation – and in its likelihood of influencing a new generation of authors – this novel breakthrough recalls Shree’s fellow Indian-born Booker laureates, Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things (1997) and Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children (1981). But while Roy and Rushdie write in English, Shree (who is fluent in English) writes in Hindi. Much credit must go to Rockwell for keeping pace with a writer who said at last month’s Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library: “there are stories inside me, all around me, everywhere.”

When the book opens, the recently widowed Chandraprabha (Ma) has taken to her bed in Delhi. It is winter and she is deeply depressed. Holed up inside her quilt, she refuses to communicate. “When footsteps near the room, she’d turn her back, she’d stick to the wall. She’d play dead, eyes and nose closed, ears shut, mouth sewn, mind numb, desires extinct; her bird had flown.” What belongs to a well-off upper-class family. Her son Bade is a retired civil servant; her daughter Beti is a successful writer who travels the world, has a string of lovers and appears on television to talk about sex. Ma also has two grandsons (from Bade). Her favorite is Siddharth, who teases, swaggers and plays the guitar and cricket. Siddharth’s brother is “Serious Son”, who transforms into “Overseas Son” when he moves abroad. He loathes children and cannot bring himself to laugh. “The fear that he didn’t know how to laugh became Serious Son’s constant companion, and to laugh became his most fervent wish. He began to practice whenever he could: sometimes alone, sometimes when there was someone else around.”

Shree’s approach to the family setup is Tolstoyan:

Anything we say about the Mahabharata could also be said about families: they contain all that exists in the world, and whatever they don’t contain doesn’t exist. Not even in the imagination of a poet. That is, the gone-astray terrorist, the hot-headed leftist, the female and the feminist, the everythingist and the opti-pessimist, all in the family. Or in the Mahabharata; whichever you prefer.

Ma’s family may be metropolitan, but this has little impact on how much freedom she is permitted. And now the men are determined that she acted her age. For Ma has “turned selfish” in her dotage. Shree seems to approve. Having spent decades catering to her husband’s every need, her heroine has become “a shapeshifter with so many names homes tongues”. And, having already decided against rendering herself invisible, she breaks a further taboo by moving in with Beti rather than remaining with her son. Away from the gaze of men the two women discover their best lives. They watch English films together, laughing awkwardly at the kissing scenes. “How can they mix their spit like that?” What wonders. She experiments with new food and new clothes, and develops her friendship with the enigmatic transgender hijra Rosie (also known as Raza Tailor Master). In short, she burns, raves, rages and refuses to go gentle.

Shree also plunges her protagonist into the political moment. As India continues its descent into authoritarianism and majoritarianism, with far-right forces keener than ever to demonize Pakistan, Ma decides to slip west across the border. It would be a spoiler to reveal her motive, but few readers will see this delicious plot twist coming. With this change of setting Shree’s novel ventures into the rich tradition of partition literature. Shree has some of the great partition authors – Krishna Sobti, Saadat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh – come alive at the border, where they gather in a bewildered group, wondering which way to go and where they belong. Why, the author asks, must they choose between India or Pakistan?

“When I read Tomb of Sand I knew I was reading a once-in-a-lifetime book”, the Bengali-English translator Arunava Sinha told me when I spoke to him at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “You can’t write it a second time. It’s like Shree was possessed.” Sinha brought Shree’s novel – her fifth – to the attention of Rockwell and the independent publisher Tilted Axis Press, which was founded by Deborah Smith, herself a winner of the International Booker prize, in 2016, for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Smith told me that she read only a few pages of Rockwell’s sample translation before making an offer.

Shree’s win follows a pattern of recent success for Indian literature in English translation. Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi (translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman) was longlisted for the American National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020; and Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur) was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2017. Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha), which concerns the 1970s Naxal uprising in Calcutta, has had a huge impact, both in India and abroad. Whereas Indian writing in English tends to speak for the upwardly mobile and aspirational middle class, translated works more often represent another kind of dreamer: the one who knows they can never truly stray from home. Additionally, as Sinha remarked to me, they tend to be rooted in “the lived experiences… [of] different spaces. Places that most of us don’t live in. I’m not calling them exotic, but they are certainly foreign, and that’s important.”

Geetanjali Shree’s novel – which thoroughly deserves its Booker triumph – also seeks to ask who India belongs to. Is it to people like Bade, who well understand how the old ways benefit them and are thus determined to preserve them? Or is it to people like Ma, relegated because of their sex or social status and faced with a few choices, unless they revolt? As Shree told the New Statesman (May 27, 2022): “It’s often within the family that big political echoes reverberate … I don’t think one has to try to be terribly political. I think it just comes.” And that is perhaps the chief lesson of this splendid addition to the Indian literary canon: the revolution must begin at home.

Sonia Faleirois the author ofThe Good Girls: An ordinary killing2021

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