‘Tomb of Sand’ by Geetanjali Shree (Review – IBP 2022, Number Thirteen)

After the unsavoury events that went down in Mexico, it’s probably for the best that we move on, with the next leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey bringing this year’s vicarious wanderings to a close.  Our final stop for 2022 is India, where we’ll be spending some time with yet another formidable mother.  However, this time around, the story is less of a one-woman show than a colourful ensemble performance, as the whole family makes an appearance (even those overseas).  Be warned – this one may not be to the liking of those who enjoy a little peace and quiet.  In fact, in a book of abundance, quiet spaces for reflection are probably the one thing that’s in short supply…

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree
– Tilted Axis Press, translated by Daisy Rockwell
What’s it all about?
Somewhere in India, an old woman lies day after day in her bed at the home of her eldest son, Bade, having given up on life after the death of her husband.  The many members of her extended family try, in vain, to persuade her to turn away from the bedroom wall and back towards life – until, that is, the day she goes missing, and the family discover that Ma hasn’t quite crossed over the border between life and death just yet.

Once she’s back on feet, the old woman decides that it’s time for a change of scenery, and her daughter, Beti, a bohemian writer, is more than happy to take Ma under her wing.  However, if she imagined the new situation as a quiet period of mother-daughter time, she’s in for a rude awakening.  Now that her mother is living under her roof, the doorbell will never stop ringing – and Ma herself is going to cause quite a few headaches for her bewildered daughter.

Tomb of Sand is a lengthy, sprawling novel, both colourful and chaotic, making for an interesting final stop on the IBP journey.  Shree’s book is the first Hindi, and Indian, work to make the longlist, and it definitely adds a certain something to the mix with a style all of its own.  By the end of the first of the three main sections, some readers may be wondering if it’s ever going to get anywhere, but patience will be rewarded when many of the earlier diversions turn out to be pointing towards a dramatic conclusion.

At the heart of the book is an old woman with a new lease on life.  From the expected slow decline into death, she manages to return to daily life and develops a determination to enjoy what’s left of it.  The move to Beti’s home brings a brand new lifestyle involving friends, morning coffee and even the odd drink or two, as well as a sense of freedom at being away from her family, even if she can’t escape their attentions entirely.

Of course, a major feature of Tomb of Sand is the way it stresses the integrated, inextricable nature of the Indian family.  Beti and Ma are closely observed both by those who are there (Bade and his clan) and those who are not (Overseas Son and Sid, the grandson who’s always popping back and forth).  Whether it’s at the family home, Beti’s apartment or the local hospital, if something happens, then everyone invites themselves along to make sure things run smoothly, which isn’t easy with a dozen or so adults arguing passionately about the best course of action.

The one person who doesn’t really belong in this environment is Beti, a writer who fails to realise that by taking in Ma, she’s inviting the world into her quiet sanctuary:

But we can also ask how long it will take for Beti to grow accustomed to the fact that it’s common Indian behaviour for people to show up at any time, you may not recognise them all, and anyway they are coming more to see Ma than you.  If you don’t even say much of a hi hello to the people at your society, what would you know about relationships built on borrowing a cup of sugar and a daub of curd?  Or exchanging plantings and clippings?
p.344 (Tilted Axis Press, 2021)

She’s keen to help her mother, and does so, but in the process loses important aspects of her own life, such as her work, her freedom and even her partner.  Before Ma’s arrival at her apartment, Beti had always managed to maintain boundaries by keeping her distance (often literally) from her family, and now that she’s unable to do so, she finds herself floundering, wondering how she can get back to her previous way of life.

The other main character in Tomb of Sand is Rosie, a friend most of the family looks askance at.  Gradually we realise why when we find out they are a hijra (a third gender for intersex or transsexual people), and even Beti, more liberal than the rest of her family, is a little uneasy at Ma’s frequent visitor.  It’s not until the final third of the book that their relationship becomes more important, shown in a new light as we discover more about their shared past.

Towards the end of Tomb of Sand, Shree does start to expand the scope and explore certain social issues, but for many readers the enjoyment lies less in the what of the tale and far more in the how.  In fact, the true focus of the novel may well be the language:

But there is wind and rain, and the puff of no that flies up between them and takes the form of a snippet.  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 knot.  A new knot.  A new desire.  New.  Nyoo.  Becoming.  The new refusal of no.  Flutter, flitter, flap flap flap. (p.23)

The story abounds in puns, alliteration and rhyming, and it’s only right to acknowledge Rockwell’s excellent work here.  In an online meeting with the Shadow Panel a couple of weeks back (one I sadly missed), Rockwell discussed her approach to the book, stressing her determination to keep as much of the original effect as possible, even inserting her own puns where a direct translation wasn’t possible.  The effort definitely shows, and it’s her hard work that makes the book such a success in English.

The only issue I’d raise with Tomb of Sand is that it’s rather slow to get going.  In a novel of around 730 pages, it takes Ma almost 250 to get out of bed, which is basically the starting point for the story proper.  There’s a nice, tongue-in-cheek sentiment I noted early on:

Enough.  Let’s get back.
     Although the tale has no need for a single stream.  It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters.  But for now, we must insist on not straying, so for the time being we simply won’t. (p.43)

Yeah, that doesn’t last long…  This love of tangents is, of course, deliberate, with Shree focusing just as much on what’s going on around Ma with the rest of the family as on her bedridden heroine.  While I wasn’t always on board with her choices, wishing she’d stick to the main strand and move the story along a little more quickly, not all of the diversions are quite as tangential as they may initially appear, with several ideas reappearing later on to great effect.

Overall, Tomb of Sand is an excellent read, and the longer it goes, the better the book becomes.  It’s a tale of a woman given one last chance of happiness, and of the family who reluctantly allow it, little knowing that the journey is just as much about her past as her future.  It can be seen as a noisy, friendly party of a book, befitting a celebration – and a suitable way to end our journey around the bookish world 🙂

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  It’s definitely one of the best translation efforts on the longlist, with Rockwell working overtime to preserve the playful nature of Shree’s prose, and it never feels flat or dull.  As mentioned above, the story does meander a little too much for my liking early on, but that’s all forgiven once you get to the final section and realise where those digressions have taken us.

Why did it make the shortlist?
One of the main objectives of this year’s panel of judges was to expand the global nature of the prize, and they’ve certainly been successful in that quest, with just four European titles on the longlist and only two of those making the shortlist.  The biggest beneficiary of this has been Tilted Axis Press, and it was almost inevitable that one of their three longlisted works would be chosen for the shortlist.  Shree’s novel was (for me) easily the best of these (the judges obviously agreed), and if I were to risk a little wager, I think this is the book the judges may well announce as their winner…

And that’s it for our journey around the literary world, but it’s far from the end of my posts for this year’s IBP.  For one thing, as you may have noticed, our Shadow Panel has yet to announce its own shortlist, having taken an extra couple of weeks to ensure we all had enough time to sample the delights of the longlist.  That will be rectified this week, with the announcement of the Shadow Shortlist at 9 a.m. (British Summer Time) on Thursday, the 21st of April.  Will it be similar to the official list, or do we have a couple of surprises up our sleeves?  You’ll find out then – do join us 😉

7 thoughts on “‘Tomb of Sand’ by Geetanjali Shree (Review – IBP 2022, Number Thirteen)

  1. So happy to read this review! I found the writing absolutely stunning, an ode to language by the writer and the translator. As for the pace, as I was approaching the end, I was deliberately reading it slowly, to fully enjoy its beauty…
    I really hope it wins!


    1. Angela – The writing was excellent – I just found it a little overwritten and slow in the first part. Definitely a contender, though 🙂


  2. I’m glad I read your review as I was one of those readers wondering if anything was ever going to happen! I like the style but have found it gets a bit too much at times – so much so I’m currently stalled at 500 pages. You’ve convinced me to read the rest!


    1. Grant – Did you ever make it to the end? I think that third part does redeem the slow nature of the earlier sections 🙂


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