translated by Daisy Rockwell
The older I get and the more I travel, the more I realise how many people hate the English. Not individual English people, you understand, but The English, with a capital T capital E.
I can see why. TE have done some good in places (ask the Maltese, ask the Greeks – especially the Corfiots – they like TE) but mostly they’ve sown discord and chaos in whichever countries they’ve meddled in. (See how I’m trying to distance myself from my own nationality by using “they”. My great-great-grandfather was Irish; Hubby’s too-numerous-greats-to-count-grandfather was possibly French, etc. etc. Some of TE go even further and vouchsafe to support a different national football / rugby team, usually Ireland. It’s to no avail – we are still TE.)
But back to the countries TE have messed up. Like the ‘greats’ in Hubby’s French grandfather they are too numerous to list but I’ll name a few. The island of Ireland, obviously, which TE arbitrarily partitioned in 1921 into Northern Ireland (ours) and Southern Ireland (Eire / theirs) – my childhood was played out to a background of news reports of the “Troubles” in Ireland and bomb scares back home; Argentina, where TE invested heavily then pulled out come the depression – the resulting resentment finally boiled over into the Falklands war and still bubbles away to this day (which is why Argentine football referees are still not allowed to officiate an England football match and vice versa); Sri Lanka, where TE imported Muslim workers from India to work in the tea plantations – cue intermittent violence between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority (when I visited in 2018 a state of emergency was declared literally as my plane touched down for that very reason); and India, where TE’s parting ‘gift’ in 1947 was to partition the sub-continent into India and Pakistan based on religious affiliation (hey, it worked so well in Ireland, why not try it again?) leading to mass migration, communal violence and massacres.
Tomb of Sand is a novel rooted in India’s partition. In India, an 80-year old widow gives up on life after her husband’s death and refuses to leave her bed. Thinking she needs a change of scene her daughter, Beti, moves her out of brother Bade’s house and into her own flat. A revitalised Ma decides to visit Pakistan and orders Beti to go with her. It’s only after they arrive in Pakistan that Beti learns her mother has been there before…
Shree’s novel can’t easily be reduced to a plot line, though, and nor is its exploration of borders confined to India / Pakistan or borders between countries. This is a book where various boundaries shift and change: inside and outside when Ma takes to her bed; feminine and masculine in Ma’s friend Rosie / Raza; freedom and internment – and mother and daughter – when Ma and Beti are gaoled for exceeding their visa permissions; and (ultimately) the boundary between life and death.
There are magical or mystical elements, too. Butterflies manifest themselves from Ma’s butterfly decorated walking stick and fly around it. Crows meet in a tree and read Bade’s thoughts.
There’s also humour. For example, Ma insists on being knocked over and so she can practice landing on her back when she falls.
I’ve never read a book like it.
…my paperback copy (Tilted Axis Press) runs to 739 pages, divided into three parts plus an epilogue. To my mind part one really seemed to drag and the story only got going in part two. But part one is 236 pages long – or more than half a ‘normal’ sized novel (if there is such a thing). So you’ll need to be fairly committed to finishing this book to stick with it to that point. Harsh, but I can’t help thinking an editor should have stepped in.
Still, Tomb of Sand won the 2022 International Booker Prize, so what do I know?
Rating: ** Worth reading.