Opinion | Comment

Where women make their way through the world as freely as men

Author Geetanjali Shree poses with the 2022 International Booker Prize award for her novel ‘Tomb of Sand’ in London, on May 26, 2022.

Author Geetanjali Shree poses with the 2022 International Booker Prize award for her novel ‘Tomb of Sand’ in London, on May 26, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

Geetanjali Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand is about women who want to make their way through the world as freely as men. This is clear right from the opening lines. In Daisy Rockwell’s deft translation (from the Hindi original  Ret Samadhi): “This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass.”

In history and fiction, women have always been confined within circumscribed spaces. Lines have been drawn around them, beyond which they have been told they must not cross — boundaries of gender, class, caste, sexuality, language, and more. When they have crossed boundaries, either by being pulled over or of their own will, it has led to feuds and wars. If they have spoken out, they have met with disapproval; and if they have asked a question, they have crossed an unspoken boundary. Women have been silenced and expected to remain silent.

More than anywhere else, these boundaries first appear within the family. Women are expected to play their fixed roles as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. The family has been the first and greatest pillar of patriarchal values.

Stepping across borders

Fortunately, there have always been some women who have not been able to resist speaking out or stepping across borders. They have shown the way for others. One such is Ma, the central protagonist of Tomb of Sand — eighty years old, frail, nearly invisible to others, like all elderly women, after a lifetime of caring for everyone else, but now, in the pages of the novel, returning to life, vocal, articulate, and fearless. Even as she diminishes in physical size, her yearning for liberty grows vast, and she slips out of the home, across geographies and history, and even back in time across an artificial border between nations and people — to ask fundamental questions about freedom and identity.    

Early in the novel, Ma makes a blunt remark about the everyday lives of families: “She pointed out that men always get the high-quality dal and women just get leftover mash, don’t they? Hmm? She spoke fearlessly. So? Does that make it right?”

All her life, her identity has been subsumed within the roles of wife and mother, and the task of caring for the family. “When Papa was alive, she had put her all into looking after him. She was alert, at the ready, no matter how tired. Busy getting ground to a pulp; very much alive. Irritable, upset, coping, faltering, breathing breath after breath after breath. Everyone’s breath flowed through her, and she breathed everyone’s breath.” It was really as if she lived for nothing else: “As though Papa was her only reason for living.”

Even in her old age, as she lies on a bed in her room, she is sensitive to the signs that indicate the presence and needs of others. “Ma’s well-trained ear recognises instantly, from a lifetime attuned to the sounds of others, that someone has just entered through the door.”

Patriarchy makes victims of men too

If the novel is about the desires and feelings of women, it is also about the ways in which patriarchy creates prisons for everyone, by casting them in rigid traditional roles. In the patriarchal ways of the family, the eldest son has a central responsibility. Whenever the daughter visits, her elder brother performs his role as the patriarch: “He shouts out loud when he sees her. Shouting is a tradition, an ancient custom upheld by eldest sons. In a masterful style.” The son has inherited this tendency from his father, as predictably as a charge formally handed over, and this is how the patriarchy carries on across generations: “The father had shouted until his retirement; then he’d handed the yelling over to his son and grown relatively peaceful himself.”

The light touch and joyous irreverence of the prose does not take away from the sharp pain that it describes. The patriarchal way of life makes victims of men, too: they are trapped within these ways of living, unable to express their feelings in any other manner. “Whatever their feelings, they must be cloaked in this guise.”

It is a part of the mother’s responsibility to manage everyone’s beliefs and agitations about social norms. She has drowned her own identity in the collective life of the family. “When Beti was growing up and Ma had not yet grown old, and the household was constantly roiled with controversies over social codes, traditions, culture, protection, and Ma would grow short of breath as she tried to calm everyone’s breathing.”

As mothers do

And yet, in the middle of it all, the mother manages to give her daughter the breathing space she needs to grow and blossom — as mothers do, for their daughters. This strategy is described in some of the loveliest lines in the novel: “But the funny thing was, amidst all the to-do, Ma managed to forge a path towards the forbidden. Like the window opening out into the guava orchard. It was Ma who had cleared this hidden path for Beti’s comings and goings. Inside, there was a constant uproar of  No, absolutely not, she won’t go out! And in the meantime, Beti leapt out through the open window and fluttered off like a bird. Only Ma knew.”

And in the course of time, as she encourages her daughter to be brave and fearless and to explore the world, the mother also begins to learn valuable skills herself: “The window had become so useful that Ma had also learned how to hoist herself up, pivot and jump out.”

Which is how she comes to the realisation that to do anything meaningful, one cannot be restricted by boundaries: “She chuckles. Anything worth doing transcends borders.” Nor is she apologetic about her great project for freedom: “Who’s asking for forgiveness? She roars with laughter.” Tomb of Sand is a powerful tribute to women’s unapologetic quest for freedom.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 9:43:41 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/where-women-make-their-way-through-the-world-as-freely-as-men/article65584742.ece