How do you begin to talk about Tomb of Sand? You might say, in some (misguided) attempt to explain it, that it’s about an octogenarian woman, hiding away after her husband’s death, eventually gaining “a new lease on life” in which she “flies in the face of convention,” whether by spending more time with Rosie Bua or shedding her sarees or reaching out to Pakistan. But what you really want to say is: this is nuts.

What you might be trying to say is: butterflies deposit stories in the air, wind blows and currents change, rainbows soar up from the eye’s nook, enigma emanates from the Buddha in the corner, antonyms grasp your expressions and “normal” leaves your senses, as Ma, the heroine of this tale, spins up from gloom and shocks you boom boom dhoom; she shocks you, the writer and the translator, with this prismatic loom – or is it a tomb, abloom?

What we’re trying to tell you is: this novel, written in Hindi by Geetanjali Shree and translated into English by Daisy Rockwell, does not believe in “100 percent exactness,” and cannot be described in its entirety with exactitude.

‘What else they had lost’

Here’s a family: Ma and her children, Bade, The Responsible, and Beti, the modern. Bade’s wife, Bahu, the daughter-in-law; and their children, Sid, whose abbreviated name is also a role rather than a name, and Overseas Son, who appears in a chapter’s cameo and on worried ISD calls. He’s worried about his mother, and everyone’s worried about Ma. She’s burrowed herself in a quilt and turned her back to everyone – their why-s and woes with Ma’s “noes” and poses make the prose of the first part “Ma’s Back.”

So you may think this is a family story. And never underestimate a family: “Anything we say about the Mahabharata could also be said about families: they contain all that exists in the world, and whatever they don’t contain doesn’t exist.” After all, isn’t the Mahabharata itself the great ancestral family story? This one is as well, even if the family is much smaller and life’s become more sequestered. Because, as the novel redefines for us, “the joint family is an invisible home.”

Move to a smaller household but that invisible binding remains – with it, its politics, its rules, the hierarchy, the anxieties of its roles, the entitlement of some people and the subordination by the same people, the snide remarks and gossip, and the surveillance. Especially that which is levied on the women: “if anyone lays a claim to [privacy], she is eyed with suspicion. What’s she hiding, after all?” The feminine pronoun is not arbitrary.

Is that why this feminist novel is centred around Ma and Beti, and Ma in particular? About how they “forged a path towards the forbidden” behind the scenes of family? How the mother gave the daughter at least some privacy by opening “the window wide for her to leap out” towards freedom. And how she found the privacy of her own stirrings – amidst family duties, “breathing for them, feeling for their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities” – in the lullabies and goodnight-stories with which she rocked Beti to sleep, continuing to sing them even after, as though they were more for herself than her daughter – or for the child to sleep, and the mother to dream. It is the eruption and fulfilment of these hidden and buried dreams that is Tomb of Sand.

Yet the pen cannot but stray to the family. When, to fulfil her dreams, Ma goes missing, at a point, briefly (or so we think – length is the least of Tomb of Sand’s concerns, running as it does for seven hundred and odd pages), the novel stays with the family. Shree follows Bahu’s psychic spiral and physical daze in the middle of the night, giving her complex panic a chapter of crisp and clear words: it’s not only that Bahu really cares for Ma, but also that everyone levies doubt on that care, opening up the years of neglect she faces in her role.

And Bade? In his panic-ridden mind, lost Ma shapeshifts into a kitten, a silver toe-ring, and a letter, gone “under the bed” maybe, or “behind the photo of his father,” or perhaps “in the toilet bowl.” These, Shree annotates, are the “shapes of the senses taking leave like the flight of the dove,” phrasing in words the affect and effect of the moment.

If realist prose can’t capture this, as when Beti’s memory-warp buckles past scars to ongoing scorns, Shree weaves disturbing imagery that parallels the fear desire injury pathos of the daughter’s mind. Later, bangle-jingles will irritate Beti, and Shree will tell us exactly why and how. Much later, the family itself will be irritating, because it “doesn’t give up its ways, and nor does it stop seeing itself as the great guardian of all,” but Shree will show us how we can, as Ma does, capitalise on that “self-gratifying super-sympathetic worry” to “get them to do things that they could never imagine in their wildest dreams.”

Whoever the character and whatever the scene, the novel writes us heightened and thickened descriptions of the conventional and unconventional business of being (in) a family. The Mahabharata of it all.

‘What makes a character important?’

But this isn’t some sort of a character-oriented, plot-driven novel. Family is only one character, and Tomb of Sand is a fable too. This story sprawls across “anything and everything” you could imagine, and also all the things you never could. Ma, her back to the world, faces a wall, and the narration intimately acquaints us with its “brick-and-cement” features and crevices, because the wall has a “special role in our story.”

Not just because Ma’s back becomes a wall that keeps out her family, but because “holding the ceiling, floor, window, and door together, with a network of pipes, wires and cables arrayed within,” the wall enfolds “the entire home in its wallfulness.” Sometimes these inanimate entities are full of life too: doors here ponder if something’s amiss.

And Tomb of Sand cares for every story it encounters, giving generous attention to sunlight, glimpsing conversations, canes, the friendship of garudas and parrots, party chatter – all tailing into the wandering river of the tale and blending in. People intertwine with things intertwine with ideas: Bade frets over shifting his beloved chrysanthemums to a post-retirement home, their uncertain future an extension of his.

Not once does it seem like these connections are contrived. The novel’s roving eye instead picks up all the infinite ways in which the world intersects, and its wild tendency toward free association loosens the borders with which we frame the world, inviting us to open up new possibilities of contact between its anythings and everythings. We flicker from a bickering couple to a crow’s moving backstory, to a mention of “so” and the linguists who study it – with a special mention of Annie Montaut, Tomb of Sand’s French translator; Bahu’s Reeboks turn her into an outgoing salsa dancer and yoga guru, while the story traces the ancestral lineage of the shoes, their previous “incarnation” as the poisonous Reebok snake that a daring man once wrapped around his foot to gain courage; airport anxiety swirls in Beti, for the “suspicious, interrogating” eyes of crowds, cameras, security tracking “every particularity” are congruent to the familiarity of familial scrutiny and social hierarchy.

The links are tenuous, volatile, and unpredictable – even in their unpredictability: will the next one take us to a tree that sheltered two young boys on Grand Trunk Road or Ma-as-Wishing-Tree with cane-as-trunk?

‘The tale has no need for a single stream’

All zig, all zag, those are the styles of the novel. The modes and the moods change together. As Ma shifts into the care of Beti in the opening segment of the second part “Sunlight,” the narrative sinks from the fluctuating chaos of “Ma’s Back” into quiet, sparser prose. She slowly discovers space for herself to exist; chapters become shorter and shorter, leaving more blank space on the page, as if for Ma to move around more freely.

She builds a routine for recovery; the tale abandons leaping, and instead eases into new offshoots, and dwells on describing the patterns in the daily life of Ma and Beti. The two have swapped roles along the way. Beti cares, again and (sometimes needlessly) again, for a carefree Ma in various iterations across episodes. The sense of unexpected predictability is restorative and yet foreboding in its insistent repetition. And soon enough, the gentle warmth gradually ups the heat for Beti, whose space retracts as Ma’s expands.

The razzmatazz of the novel is not in the drastic alterations of its style across the three parts, but the brazen amendments of its voice with every chapter and sometimes within the very chapter. The story, that is, is not delivered to us in a single genre or approach. There is a speech, two monologues, a complaint, a mental letter (ie, “written in the mind,” not “crazy”, but maybe both), a single-sentence paragraph running for pages – apart from all the other bizarre approaches through which the novel unravels its ideas.

Like the parliament of crows, who are excellent narrators (and better feminists than humans, too): through them, we get language politics (featuring “regional crowlects”), tirades on climate change (generated by the “wingless community”), and humorous political commentary, all as Bade disrupts their meeting in their tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ma in Beti’s house and check if All Is Well. Then, when he falls asleep midwatch, the crows read us his dreams: we saree-shop through India as he recollects the varieties he has bought for her, underscoring how well He Has Looked After Ma.

Crows can not only talk, but perceive human thoughts too? Ridiculous and absurd, maybe, yet we let them fly: that’s the magic of the novel. Tomb of Sand cares little to ask: “which is reality and which is make-believe?” Butterflies listen to stories here, and a dog can diagnose the lack-of-laughter illness.

And a strange “I” enters again and again and again (that is, thrice), Sid’s unnamed friend, who casually takes over from the third-person omniscient narrator like a breeze flips a curtain, scattering an insight here and a comment there in first-person. No justifications, no explanations, and we never question why. Probability and relevance are irrelevant; irreverence reigns (in and over) the narration.

In fact, there are more or less no straightforward narratives. We reach Ma’s first transformation into a Wishing Tree through the account of Sid’s forage for something to eat. Thwarted at every turn by the prayers and religiosities of everyone who could feed him, he resorts to Granny’s room for refuge, and lo and behold, Ma is herself a deity!

Pages later, when we stop at a cliffhanger in a prison in Pakistan, the next chapter jumps forward a few years to Sri Lanka, where the jailer-now-turned-cricketer shares an anecdote about his prison times with his teammates – and another piece slots into place. Slowly, a crow and a partridge come together, as do newspaper reports in the Nehru museum, chapter after chapter, to complete the puzzle. Shree is a great withholder of plot in Tomb of Sand, giving us instead snippets from associated events that aid us to glean an impression of what might have transpired.

‘The back-to-front of related relationships’

Perhaps that is why metaphors are so central to the novel: the simplest of details are delivered through them. Beti’s inability to work becomes: “The Goddess of Work peers in. She is frightened. Here’s a party in full swing. But I am the Goddess of Solitude. She slips away.” Or, the metamorphosis of Ma’s body in Beti’s house: “A body is also a home…when you open the windows after they’ve been closed, the direction of the wind changes and new types of wind begin to stir up new ragas. The walls become instruments and resound like the musical pillars at the temple in Hampi.”

The title itself houses many metaphors: stories as a tomb of sand, “surviving from one lifetime to another”; Ma as a tomb of sand, “shifting” from her static dying position on the bed into the Wishing Tree that runs away to flourish; motherhood itself as a tomb of sand: what lies encased under layers of “Ma,” waiting to burst through?

The novel plays havoc even with metaphors, lest they become too static. The opening pages wax lyrical about how all roads lead to Rome, or in this case, how that lane and this street “in turns joins the historic Grand Trunk Road.” A perfect metaphor, for everything does meet on the Grand Trunk Road: myth and history, Kurukshetra and Panipat, India and Pakistan. Until we do end up on Grand Trunk Road, with Ma and Beti, towards Lahore.

Or our favourite example: when we hear of the very British-mannered Julius Caesar whose sudden “bark bark bark” seems a metaphorical expression of frustration – but we’re barking up the wrong tree and he’s just a dog. The novel taunts the reader: is it a metaphor, is it literal? Ma’s whistling “as though…in a desert”: is that a metaphor for another event, with very real whistles and a very real desert? And the title? Or the beginning? You figure it out. The story moves on.

‘The limits of the imagination have yet to be discovered’

Or we move on. To another metaphor. Ma and Beti, writer and translator, Hindi and English. One old-fashioned and unadventurous, or so they think, and the other modern and burgeoning. But Ma “forges a path towards the forbidden through an open window” towards Ret Samadhi. There she meets Beti; they giggle like girls and play antakshari. Or should we say anuvadakshari?

Writer says,

“Ab to main nahin uthoongi. Abb to main nai uthoongi. Abb to main naiii uthoongi. Ab main nayi uthoongi. Ab to main nayi hi uthoongi.”

Translator plays,

“Noooooo, I won’t rise nowwww. Nooo rising nyooww. Nyoo riiise nyoooo. Now rise new. Now, I’ll rise anew.”

Did someone say untranslatable? If language is a strict house, men and linguists and lost-in-translation advocates guarding its doors, writer and translator clandestinely jump out of the window – is it just coincidence that in this case they are women too? – and with imagination as hands and languages as toys give us “the forbidden romance of the century”: Tomb of Sand. “Now, who is real, and who is the reflection?”

This Beti does not flinch from Ma’s somersaults; she daringly somersaults after. Is there wordplay in Hindi? Fear not. “Lord Ram ram-bles into our hearts” in English too. And “Gaya bhi gaya – Gaya is also gone,” so why not mix the two? It’s not “confusion,” it’s “Confucian”! When all else is lost, invent a word or two. The language guards are “omni-absent” here, and the “crowthority” approves.

Shuffle the language characteristics, grammar will bend its rules. Capitals For Mock-Greatness. And best of all, remove commas between words when their differing meanings are but costumes: “Wind changes its disguise again and again. Memory pain desire faith beauty imagination fragrance.” See? Writer is genius, translator ingenious. Daisy Rockwell: grazie, rockstar!

‘If we don’t accept, this boundary won’t stay’

Now the novel is on the International Booker Prize shortlist. So let’s talk about the beginning of the third part, which stars its own longlist of Partition authors from both sites of the border, grieving the Partition together at Wagah. It’s a beautiful setup, as though on one side are them, and on the other are all soldiers.

But they run into a problem here: in the midst of the “roars of patriotism,” the Vande Matarams and the Pakistan Zindabads, the “crisp martial dance” of swords and flags, nobody listens to them. Intizar Hussain delivers his tugging monologue, but “who sees him, hears him?” Instead this crowd with “time and money to burn” pulls the writers’ chairs from under them and clap-clap at the show.

This is Shree’s novel though. Magic must happen, no? So Bishan Singh rises from no man’s sand into the scene, and “reads aloud at the top of his lungs” lines from his story “Toba Tek Singh,” from Sukha Bargad, from Sobti and Raza, “cutting through the shouts” of nationalism. These writers and their words of literature interrupt, as ever, national slogans that legitimate borders. It’s this list and legacy that Tomb of Sand joins. Bishan Singh could as easily read out from its pages instead: “Border to what? Do we belong here or there?”

To try and chime its name, now, with phrases that may unwittingly align with the nationalist pride of Mera Bharat Mahan – the first Indian, the Great Indian Novel, from Our Land, Indian Literature – is to divide literature along the borderlines that the novel refuses. The International Booker nomination is a celebration of border crossing; literature bordering as a bridge; an English “love letter to the Hindi language”; the “line of meeting” of Hindi English Crowlese; this story that twists and turns and slips away from fixture.

Tomb of Sand asks us to cross borders ceaselessly, like Ma, even after “The End,” which, beginning on a new blank page with a solid border underlining it, tempts us: come, play hopscotch, cross the line and fill me up, I’m “a place where a plethora of new stories and characters await the moment they will take shape.”

Tomb of Sand

Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Tilted Axis (UK), Penguin Books (India).