Tomb of Sand is a tale woven of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history, folklore, feminism, global warming, Buddhism, and much more. It features an octogenarian heroine. It pays homage to the rich tradition of subcontinental literature inspired by the 1947 Partition. It is an experimental take that plays with language and form and structure, but it’s also a classic page-turner, complete with cliff-hangers and plot twists.
To the translator, however, Tomb of Sand is above all a love letter to the Hindi language.
Geetanjali Shree writes fluently in English, but chooses to write in Hindi, her mother tongue. She relishes the sound of words, and how they echo one another, frequently showcasing their dhwani – a word that she points to over the course of the novel as among the hardest to translate.
But let’s try. Dhwani is an echo, a vibration, a resonance. It is alliteration and assonance. Dhwani could be deliberate and playful, as in double entendre and punning, an accidental mishmash of sameness, or a mystical reverberation. Geentanjali often makes word choices that prioritise dhwani over dictionary meaning. Word play takes on a life of its own in many passages and sometimes even drives the narrative.
What is a translator to do with a text that is focused on its own linguicity (not a real word, I know)? I have striven throughout my translation to recreate the text as an English dhwani of the Hindi, seeking out wordplays, echoes, etymologies and coinages that feel Hindi-esque. I have also included many fragments of poetry, prayer, prose, songs in the original language, alongside their English renderings, and even the occasional fragment of the original that was too good to leave behind.
Readers who are not familiar with the South Asian linguistic landscape will find the text packed with words and phrases from Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Sanskrit. What they may not realise is that the original text was similarly packed with English.
In fact, a household of the kind around which the narrative revolves is a polyphonous ecosystem in which no language is likely spoken in an “unadulterated” form. Those who speak mostly English will liberally pepper their speech with Hindi words and phrases, and thosew who speak mostly Hindi will do the reverse. In fact, the original novel is artificially Hindi-centric, just as the translation is artificially English-centric.
The true linguistic hybridity of such a milieu is difficult to capture in writing, and has more often been conveyed in film. The readership of the translation will likewise come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, with some feeling the book is not translated into English enough, and others feeling it has been translated too much.
For those who feel overwhelmed by all the Hindi, you will find it’s all there on the internet, often with accompanying images and videos. If you have no idea what Arre o Sambha, kitne aadmi thhe? means, and wonder why I didn’t translate it, simply enter it into a search field and you will get pulled headlong into the classic action film Sholay, along with its sinister villain Gabbar Singh.
Conversely, for those who feel there is altogether too much English for their liking, who feel the Hindi reaching out to them through the English, but want the English out of the way, there’s always the option of reading Ret Samadhi itself (and you could even use the English version as a crib).
And finally, a note on Partition literature: the traumatic events surrounding the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan have led to an entire literary genre, written primarily in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bangla and English. Throughout Tomb of Sand, reference is made to the great Partition authors in Hindu and Urdu, especially in the chapter that introduces the third section, when many of these writers come alive at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan.
In all cases, I have given the titles of their published translations. Virtually all these classic works to in fact exist in excellent English translations, many of which are in print. The Partition of the Subcontinent was an epochal event with far-reaching global consequences, and as such, Partition literature has much to teach us.
Dhwanis of 1947 echo through our present moment, a chain reaction of divisions and delusions. Tomb of Sand’s heroine, eighty-year-old Man, and her friend, the hijra Rosie, defy boundaries and classifications and invite us to to fly over borders and smash divisions.
The ‘Translator’s Note’, excerpted with permission from The Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.