“A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are.” With these opening lines, Geetanjali Shree provides the key to embracing her ever-sprawling and stunningly powerful novel.
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We read the story of Ma, the 80-year-old at its heart, from the perspectives of various characters — humans, birds, butterflies, even doors; some of them we get to know so well that we start seeing in them facets of ourselves and of those in our intimate circle; a few of them come and then leave swiftly after having said their parts, with us learning not much about them and not caring. We get despatches from the future to aid in the telling of the tale; and we have an ancient Buddha statue to remind us of stories that are almost as old as time.
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By the novel’s end, the various strands of this tale come together, with Ma’s caper across the border into Pakistan looping back to the opening pages. Thereafter, the last pages of Shree’s novel are unnumbered, like the spare candle on a birthday cake perhaps, for no story ever stops growing.
As for the clues in the opening pages, by the time we have finished this shapeshifting novel, they feel a lifetime ago and a universe away. 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.
The bare bones of the tale that’s telling itself are simple enough. Ma, at 80 a recent widow, has turned her back on the world. Literally. She lies on the bed, face to the wall, unresponsive to the Delhi winter bloom and to the entreaties of her rather functional upper-middle-class family. It takes her grandson’s strange affliction, the inability to laugh, to be addressed for one thing to lead to another, for Ma to be not just up and about but also for her to disappear — and in the time that she’s away from her family, to leave a clue about her forthcoming adventures.
Upon being found, if not found out, she decides to move in with her bohemian daughter (Beti), to the growing consternation of her retiring civil-servant son (Bade, or the older one) and his much misunderstood wife (well, Bahu). But Ma is on a roll, deepening her friendship with the transgender Rosie Bua, changing her style of dressing, throwing open Beti’s home to people, foods and remedies, and plotting a trip to Pakistan. There too one thing leads to another, and finally it’s with Beti that Ma sets off for Pakistan.
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It is at this point, when they are making the border crossing, that Shree really lays out her cards: “Here we are at Wagah, where the tale is drama and the story is partition. Is this the chronicle of the getting-smaller woman [ageing Ma] or is every story really a Partition tale — love romance longing courage pain-in-separation bloodshed?” She summons “Partition writers”, from Manto to Krishna Sobti, into attendance, so that they too help in this tale telling itself. There they will remain “even after Wagah is gone” because they don’t know whether they belong to this side or that.
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Two worlds meet
Ma has a 1947 storyline to pursue, and does so heroically, opening the trapdoors to her adolescent past. But her message is not just about Partition and all that was left behind. In this epic account of her 81st year, her message holds good for every aspect of the lived life: “A border does not enclose, it opens out… A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.” It is a message that binds Ma’s past and present, and the future too of so many who’ve helped along her story.
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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.
Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, trs Daisy Rockwell, Penguin, ₹699