A celebration of language

November 20, 2022

Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize winner is a powerful novel about the perseverance of hope in the face of adversity

A celebration of language

Every once in a while, a literary event occurs, nudging the readers, critics and writers to accord it extra weight. Whether that imagined estimation is accurate or not, that judgment falls inside the domain of time. Having read one-third of Ret Smadhi in Hindi and the rest of Tomb of Sand in English, I assume that the publication of the novel in Hindi might have been a watershed moment, whether the Hindi literary establishment saw it that way or not. I am also somewhat on shaky ground regarding the health of the modern Hindi novel, but my general impression remains that though the novel in Hindi is stronger than in Urdu - one language separated by two scripts primarily and by a bit of artistically and/or politically imposed word choice - it still has a bit of distance to cover. Still, it’s generally acknowledged that the Hindi novel, compared to its counterpart in Urdu, experiments more with language, its grammar and syntax, stretching and snipping words, I suppose because of its contested terrain, a jolt I received when I read my first ever novel in Hindi, Dil-o-Danish by the great Krishna Sobti. Ret Smadhi/Tomb of Sand is dedicated to Krishnaji.

Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize in 2022. The credit goes equally to Geetanjali Shree’s vision, wordplay and language experimentation and Daisy Rockwell’s nearly flawless translation of the complex and layered work. The task of translating a work that continuously shrivels and bloats itself up of its own volition summons a unique hurdle as the translator has to constantly stay in sync with the shift in the novel’s moods and pace to keep her ear attuned to the multiplicity of voices jostling for attention. For example, when a non-character suddenly injects her/ his ‘I’ into the narrative, a lesser translator could easily fall into the faulty assumption about the writer’s clumsiness. As an aside, Dostoevsky pulls the ‘I’ trick on his readers in his Brothers Karamazov. An excerpt to share Rockwell’s challenge and mastery:

‘And what is understanding, anyway - no one really gets that - where does it dwell? In the brain, which plays its tune as we smite our brows? This is what we’ve all been taught. That the rest of our mind and body and soul just hang loose like goop from that jalebi-shaped brain. You’re like Alice and you go missing, and only your brain remains, suspended in the air as a smile? Nose eyes lips neck shoulder elbow knee ankle fist thigh runny funny tummy back plague sac, all of it knavish slavish, all of it clueless mindless useless. If only we knew that all our other parts were so much finer than the tiny curly jalebis.’

As translation is an act of flattening and bloating the original into the target language text, how well a translator accomplishes that task will make or break the translation. Rockwell’s translation reads smoothly in English, is often imaginative and succeeds in keeping its Hindi milieu simmering beneath the surface. For example, in a sentence where Geetanjali offers a play between the words baji and baazi, Rockwell recognises the need and finds a way to keep the Urdu/ Hindi words in the English version without making them appear awkward. Concerning how the elder son of the central character, Ma, should be referred to in English, she makes a risky, complicated yet necessary choice by retaining the Bade of Hindi instead of opting for elder or senior. Rockwell comprehends the weight of its use when the name of the music maestro, such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, is mentioned in English print. True that native English speakers might be tempted to read it as the past tense of the English verb ‘to bid’, but I admire the fact that she takes a risk, recognising that Geetanjali Shree’s novel ushers itself onto the world stage as a challenge to the non-Hindi reader and, as some have noticed, some reviewers as well. The decision to go for the uneasy, complements the original Hindi novel, which is full of risks – both in terms of the plot (or the lack of it) with its post-modern structure and its rootedness to local, non-Western literary references. The author is equally at home with invoking Western allusions also. For instance, when she pays homage to Attar’s The Conference of the Birds and Calvino’s The Baron in the Tree as Ma’s son climbs up a tree to spy.

Geetanjali Shree with the books English translator Daisy Rockwell. ---Photo courtesy Twitter
Geetanjali Shree with the book's English translator Daisy Rockwell. ---Photo courtesy Twitter

Those who have access to the Hindi version may detect Geetanjali Shree’s deliberate use of words that inflect the novel towards Urdu - words like baji, baazi (although baazi too becomes baji if the sound ja in devnagri doesn’t carry a bindi underneath it) shauhar and khavand among others, and even though the word Bade belongs to both registers, it’s use is more prominent when concerning Muslim musicians. As the novel, or to put it more appropriately, its interiority progresses, it becomes evident that the author, via Ma intends to reclaim her connection to Urdu, the land that exiled her and the Muslim-ness of being an Indian – pre- and post-Partition – even if it dares her to visit Pakistan at the age of 80, at the risk of her life. But Ma defeats death, symbolically speaking – a very different vision than Bergman’s in his classic The Seventh Seal – because, before her death, she has achieved her goal: to reunite with her first love, whose memory had caused the old woman, after getting lost in New Delhi, to utter a Freudian slip: telling the police that her shauhar’s name is Anwar, meaning luminous; and die, face up, looking at the sky, in the land she was born in.

It’s not an easy novel to engage with. That’s why its delightful language is necessary to keep the reader engaged. Under a different style, the reader could lose interest while waiting for Ma, who, after the passing of her husband, keeps her back towards her family members and the readers for close to a hundred pages. Thankfully, the chameleon-like narrator keeps a tight grip on the reader (sometimes by keeping chapters as short as a quarter page) and before Ma finally slips out of the house, gets stranded, is found, moves in with her daughter, hurting her son and daughter-in-law’s feelings, the novel has turned into a python forcing the reader to wrestle with it. In the process, several doubles have been created. Two husbands, one Hindu, the other Muslim, friendship with Rosie bua who can at times metamorphose into a tailor with a Muslim background, the reversal of traits between Ma and Beti, the invocation of Urdu and Hindi writers throughout the text, from Sara Rai to Krishna Sobti to Manto to Intezar Husain to Mohan Rakesh to Jogindar Pal to Faiz to Ghalib to Mir just to name a few; and finally herself mutating into Manto’s Bishan Singh, who wreaks total havoc at the Wagha border as the writers from both sides meet amid the vacuous exchange of military guards buffoonery.

Geetanjali Shree deftly and loudly does away with what some associate with the a male writing of novel. Hers is a feminist structure, full of patience, call it oceanic, with cyclical highs and lows.

Geetanjali Shree deftly and loudly does away with what some associate with the male writing of a novel. Hers is a feminist structure, full of patience, call it oceanic, cyclical highs and lows, chapters devoted to action and non-action, characters and omnipresence, dialogues and ruminations. The author turns Ma’s back into her canvas, and it’s not just a canvas where the stories of her and her relative’s lives unfold. It’s also the back of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved carrying scars unleashed by patriarchy, religious bigotry and nationalism. One cannot read Tomb of Sand without noting meta-fictional hints and nods.

Along with meta-fictional sounds that add to the chamber music of Tomb of Sand, the novel defies a single narrative style. Instead, on the bedrock of non-Western feminism, the story tests black comedy, magic realism, romance, post-colonialism and Buddha’s jataka tales, among others.

Amid a nascent critique of South Asian English writers in the US and UK unwittingly indulging in neo-Orientalism, I’d advise my fellow writers to read Tomb of Sand in Rockwell’s excellent translation to recognise the dangers of simplifying a complex culture for Western consumption. Even Rockwell flirts with something similar when in two places, she inserts the names of two authors, Faiz and Joginder Paul, not found in the Hindi version, but she withholds Iqbal, assuming, rightfully, that everyone in India knows the poet. The author herself limits her embrace of ganga-jamani to Urdu/ Hindi authors without summoning Punjabi authors, although the ghost meeting of authors takes place in the Punjab. These are minor issues, though, when reading a mammoth work of art rendered into English so wonderfully.

I have always maintained that there should be a vibrant presence of Hindi fiction in Pakistan. Ajmal Kamal of Aaj has done a remarkable job in introducing Urdu readers to Hindi fiction and writers like Nirmal Verma, Alka Saraogi and Uday Prakash. But one person alone is not enough to bridge the gap. In the same vein, I believe unfamiliar Hindi words should be retained while transliterating from Hindi into Urdu so that the Urdu readers, especially the writers, have a shot at increasing their brain muscles.

I look forward to the availability of Ret Smadhi and/or Tomb of Sand, not to mention other works by Geetanjali Shree in Pakistan.

Tomb of Sand

Author: Geetanjali Shree (translated by Daisy Rockwell)

Publisher: Tilted Axis Press, 2021

Pages: Paperback, 739

The reviewer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com

A celebration of language