“Sometimes when we read literature as literature, we realise that stories and tales and lore don’t always seek to blend themselves with the world. Sometimes they march to their own blend,” says one of the narrators in Tomb of Sand, as if to describe the narrative choices made by Geetanjali Shree in a novel which recognises no limits to the references, allusions and diversions that can be deployed to elaborate on any given subject.
This is of great benefit to a novel which is much concerned with the notion of boundaries and borders, whether it be the simple crossing of a domestic threshold, the instability of gender or the fervent wish of the central character that national borders be meeting places rather than areas of divisive demarcation. That central character is Amma/Ma, 80 years old and recently widowed when we first meet her in a depressed, uncommunicative state. In time she is persuaded to live with her daughter Beti — a woman who has determinedly pursued an independent life — beginning a period of great change for both women as well as a reversal of their former roles, with Beti frequently having to act like a parent.
When Amma is befriended by a person who is sometimes Rosie and sometimes Raza, she discovers both a future and a past, each equally filled with both adventure and anguish. Around these events swirl a multitude of observations, intrigue and wildly imaginative happenings that often become more significant than plot details.
The immensely inventive quality of the novel reaches an extravagantly bizarre point when Amma’s son is asleep in a tree filled with crows discussing the saris which he is dreaming about. That such a scene is quite plausible within the context of the novel tells a lot about the unorthodox reach of Shree’s writing, which is aided greatly by an exuberant translation from the original Hindi, by Daisy Rockwell who takes every opportunity she is given to introduce witty, unconventional word combinations.
In a year when the judges of the International Booker prize chose, by common consensus, a very strong long and shortlist, the 2022 winner needed to be a book of exceptional quality. In choosing Tomb of Sand, they awarded the prize to just such a book.