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the complete review - fiction
Tomb of Sand
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A- : a simple-seeming story made impressively far-reaching and large-scale
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "It is a thing of limitless beauty to find a voice this sure, to read a writer who says so much by indirection. There are layers within that reveal more than the characters, reveal how we are as people and how many of our normative behaviours must be held more open to scrutiny. So much of art, literature and culture flit unselfconsciously through these pages. (...) What Geetanjali Shree has achieved is mastery of language such that it is amorphous yet indelible. (...) (T)he experimental writing begins to feel a little bizarre as its canvas is too large to submit to the author's control. All the other choices made by the author are on point and seem to flout every conventional novel norm. The inventiveness alone sets this novel apart." - Nandita Bose, Deccan Herald
- "Shree’s buoyant sentences draw you into a novel that is both richly domestic and universal. A chorus of voices compete to tell you the story -- instead of a conventional plot, the novel reveals old family secrets through a series of digressions -- and even the doors, the walls, the birds and crows join in at different points. Some chapters are as short as a crisply ironed sentence, and some sentences as broad and meandering as a river. (...) In so many ways this playful but serious novel, Shree’s fifth, challenges borders -- not just national, but also the rigid limits to human relationships. (...) In English, Tomb of Sand is almost twice the length of the original 376-page novel. By introducing pauses and resting places in the text, Rockwell has also transformed the reading experience." - Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times
- "All of human history, literature, art, thought, politics have been at the service of this tale that’s telling itself -- and while it may often appear that Shree is playing with words for the sake of word play, and that her digressions are asides, in the end nothing turns out to be self-indulgent or extraneous. (...) So it is that with Tomb of Sand, Shree claims space among the Partition writers she so vividly pays her dues to. Because as with the best literature, it speaks most urgently to the present." - Mini Kapoor, The Hindu
- "The timelessness to which the title alludes is that of a woman’s interiority, as well as the timelessness of the Indian story, especially the ones in Hindi and Urdu. The journey that Ma embarks upon is a journey millions have taken before. (...) But this is also the story of an upper-class family in the Hindi cow belt, where people debate the safeguarding of mothers at lunches. Men yell and speak to women indirectly, and women refuse to comply. Shree writes sarcastically about Indian men and she is at her sharpest in these scenes. (...) Without Rockwell, there would be no Booker for Shree, but I find the translation to be excessively loyal to the Hindi version." - Ankita Chakraborty, The Observer
- "(I)t's a novel that makes a defined format redundant. The form of the narrative is beyond traditional storytelling and the characters, beyond events and dialogues. (...) Ret Samadhi rises so richly and expansively on the foundation of abstraction. Extraordinary elements are seamlessly woven in ordinary everyday situations but the workmanship cannot be seen from close. (...) There is such a riyaz behind it that its sheer simplicity makes the complex work behind it invisible." - Pratyaksha, Outlook
- "It is a long book, a novel of enormous intelligence, often digressive and essayistic rather than driven by plot. It is ambitious, trying a good many things with no guarantee they will come off. It asks the reader to be at ease with being puzzled. It demands your patience and -- attention -- and, for the most part, it earns them. (…) Tomb of Sand, like any serious piece of literary fiction, does not yield all its secrets on a first reading. I found it hard to warm to all of Shree’s digressions, which range from the sharp and original (such as her remarks on the nature of translation) to the sententious and predictable" - Nikhil Krishnan, The Telegraph
- "The short chapters, often a mere paragraph, crafted by Shree in lyrical prose and translated equally lovingly by the book's American translator Daisy Rockwell, build the story bit by bit, tens of pages sometimes letting in just one new turn. When the book was first released in Hindi in 2019, the critics and readers had felt buoyed by its audacity to challenge the set structures of storytelling in Hindi literature. From mundane things like a cane and chrysanthemums to life-changing events like searching for a missing object (in this case, the mother) in a quilt, Shree's imagination and wordplay make it special." - Sarika Sharma, The Tribune
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Tomb of Sand is a three-part novel that begins with the near-octogenarian family matriarch seeming to withdraw from life after her husband's death.
Ma, as she is generally called, only had two children, and at the beginning of the novel the older, son Bade, is also at a point of transition, as he is on the verge of retiring from his job.
Bade and his wife, Bahu, have two sons, Siddharth -- called Sid -- and the one who was first known as Serious Son and then, made CEO of the overseas office of the company he works for, as Overseas Son (and who remains at some remove basically throughout the novel).
Ma's other child is the independent Beti, ten years younger than Bade and a contrarian from earliest childhood ("As a child she was made of no").
While building a successful life for herself as a journalist, Beti has not settled down into marriage (it didn't work for her) -- leaving older brother Bade to pity her: "She might be all set in terms of home, money, work, but when all said and done, she is still alone".
(In fact, Beti does have a boyfriend, KK, and they are in a fairly serious relationship, though as the novel proceeds he is largely kept at some distance; near the conclusion, in the rather extreme position she finds herself in with Ma, Beti does also lament repeatedly: "How alone I am".)
The extended family fusses over aged Ma, but for quite a while she can't be moved to rouse herself.
She barely takes any interest in anything any longer: "she's not into anything. That's the problem".
A cane that Overseas Son had brought back home -- expensive, colorful, lightweight -- helps bring about change when Ma raises it.
First -- still prone, but with the cane raised at an angle -- she takes a spell as Wishing Tree, attracting petitioners hoping for blessings and miracles.
And then the old woman goes mysteriously missing -- "poof, she'd disappeared into thin air", it seems to the family -- as does a Buddha-figure that had long been part of the household.
With Bade retiring, he's moving on to a new stage in life -- one that is still expected to include Ma, as tradition would have the now-widowed mother live with him and Bahu.
Instead, when Ma does return (as she does), she insists on moving in with Beti.
The dutiful daughter naturally takes in her mother, but the role reversal -- "Beti became the mother and made Ma the daughter" -- throws her for something of a loop, upsetting the independent lifestyle she had gotten so used to.
At Beti's, Ma is in much better shape and more active; as Beti later also realizes: "When Ma came to my home she began to dream new dreams".
Ma also has frequent visitors -- most notably Rosie Bua, a hijra (combining male and female), who was a familiar figure to the family but is now again even more of a presence in Ma's life.
Only much later in the novel do we learn that the history between Ma and Rosie goes back much further than anyone had known, to when Rosie was just a young child.
Rosie had intended to go to Pakistan; when she is no longer able to, Ma becomes determined to do so in her stead.
The family doesn't think this is a great idea, but ultimately Beti is supportive and willing to accompany her, too.
The final part of the novel -- 'Back to the Front' -- then sees the two women travel to Pakistan.
They encounter some difficulties -- not least because they are traveling without visas, head to areas that are generally off-limits in any case, and have in their possession the family-Buddha, which turns out to be an historic relic.
All this, however, matters little to Ma who, we see, is reëncountering her past: she grew up here, and fled during the catastrophe that was Partition, in 1947.
In summary, there is not that much action in the novel, and it moves forward with a fairly simple trajectory.
At time, progress can even seem halting -- but, as the (main) narrator observes: "If a story is stuck somewhere, it becomes evident that there's more it to be told", and if Tomb of Sand might seem repeatedly stuck, there's always a lot more coming.
There are a variety of smaller episodes of note -- not least some of Ma's health issues, which, for a while, include an unusual growth, suggesting an even greater transformation -- but in its outlines Tomb of Sand is a family-portrait, centered around an eighty-year-old woman who shifts from turning her back on the world to reïmmersing herself in it, going very much her own way -- not least into her and her countries' pasts.
Within this story, however, Shree ranges far and wide, in everything from perspective to language.
It's as much about the telling of the tale, with the novel's opening insisting that: "A tale tells itself" and with discussion about the nature of narrative -- generally, and this one specifically -- woven into the narrative itself at various points.
(Among the many clever little bits is one that has a friend of Sid's make a brief appearance as one of the first-person narrators that pop up, describing his perspective as: "Even more neutral than Nirmal Verma's famously detached characters".)
Many themes are addressed, beginning with tradition, including of gender-roles.
Ma's decision to move in with Beti rather than her son is already a striking one in this culture, but just one example in this time where: "all of nature is plagued with confusion".
One can hark back to a simple old order:
There was a time, they say, when all was fixed, and there was no zig, no zag.
At least that's what they say, it's up to you and me to decide whether or not to believe it.
That each human was safely ensconced in his or her own role in society and knew how to behave with whom.
Even if that was ever the case, Ma no longer feels the need to play by the old rules.
(Her children, meanwhile, have more difficulty in making the adjustments they face in their new roles -- Bahu in retirement, and Beti finding herself as Ma's caretaker.)
As Shree notes, so frequently: "The custom carries on, even after the rationale has ended", a state of affairs she exposes in a variety of forms in the novel.
Male and female (and in-between) roles figure prominently, too -- including Shree's aside that: "this is not a history, just a herstory".
Family roles and relationships figure in this as well, including well-turned observations such as:
Everything will be fine, said Bahu, not directly to her husband, but for him, which was their usual style of speaking with one another: half-turned away.
Independent Beti, in particular, comes to question the more or less lone identity she has assumed, both reässessing her relationship with KK and
Beti sits among her books pretending to work, and when she lifts her pen the bangles on her wrists jangle, the ones Amma had given her, and at this, the question jingles afresh: When did I become me, and am I me, or have I become Ma ?
Walls, doors, and borders also feature throughout, the characters confronted with the borders and walls that have been raised and Ma, in particular, no longer accepting them, and insisting: "there have never been borders in human relationships and there never will be".
In Pakistan, Ma has an exchange with a local interrogator who points out:
Your address is in India, which is very far from here.
She has a lot more to say about borders - not least: "A border, gentlemen, is for crossing", and Tomb of Sand is full of the crossing and breaking through, physically and metaphorically, of borders, barriers, conventions, and tradition.
It is where it is, you're the one who's far, son.
I'm from here, you've travelled here.
No, son, I didn't come here.
I left here.
Tomb of Sand also plays extensively with narrative and language, and challenges more than few of their usual bounds.
This also presents a considerable challenge in translation.
Unsurprisingly, the far-reaching text acknowledges that, too, pointing out, for example, that: "Translation is a tricky business".
In a brief Translator's Note Daisy Rockwell discusses: "seeking out wordplays, echoes, etymologies, and coinages that feel Hindi-esque".
She clearly has to take a fairly free approach to much of the translation, as suggested, for example, already early on in a passage such as:
A scrap, that flutters and flaps and flit-flit-flitters and swirls about the branch into a ribbon of desire that wind and rain unite to bind there.
Each time they tie another knot.
One more knot.
A no, not.
A know not.
A knew not.
A new desire.
The new refusal of no.
Flutter, flitter, flap flap flap.
The playfulness, which includes a liberal if carefully dosed use of Indian-language words and phrases, works well.
So also, for a narrative that often swirls around its bits and pieces rather than simply unfolding it is nevertheless fairly easy to follow (or at least to get sufficiently caught up in, as it isn't always meant to be entirely clear).
Its ramblings don't get too sententious, with Shree, and Rockwell, maintaining a light, bright touch even in its darker parts.
The pace, in often very short chapters, also helps -- with the page-count of the novel certainly misleading: as large-scale as it is, it is no respect (beyond that page-count) such a long novel.
There's a great deal here, even as some of what readers might expect or hope for isn't, with even this limited cast of characters largely not developed in the way one expects in big family novels.
The supporting cast -- basically everyone other than Ma and Beti -- serve their purposes but little more; for better and worse -- mostly better --, Shree is very much after a deeper and more universal story, circumscribing the lesser roles.
It's a very creative take, playing with form and voice(s) that makes for a heady, enjoyable, and also moving read.
It is a contemporary work -- also in its references and setting -- that nevertheless has a timeless feel.
And it is, in its sum and especially its third act, a strong addition to the literature about Partition.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2022
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Tomb of Sand:
Other books by Geetanjali Shree under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Hindi-writing Indian author Geetanjali Shree (गीतांजलि श्री) was born in 1957.
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© 2022 the complete review
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