Much has been written about Ret Samadhi since Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize. For a novel published in 2018 and hailed by writers remarkable in their own right — such as Alka Saraogi, Mridula Garg, Mrinal Pande and others, but not taken-to by the vocal Hindi literary circles on Facebook — there is now a deluge of comments, criticism, sniping and sneering.
I could be accused of generalisation if I say that the Hindi literary world of writers and readers largely exists on, and perhaps, for Facebook. They are talking about Ret Samadhi, about the novel’s—and, I suspect, its author’s—inaccessibility. For Geetanjali Shree is one of the few authors of renown who is not on social media (the other that comes to mind is Anamika, a remarkable poet, critic, thinker and novelist who, like Shree, has not weighed her name down with a surname).
Neither the relative silence pre-International Booker nor the relentless chatter now takes away from the fact that Ret Samadhi is a remarkably original work, its language hovering between prose and poetry, its plot between real, surreal and absurd, its characters leaping in and out of symbols of class and culture.
To try to write about this novel-epic-poem-absurd-drama-in-stream-of-consciousness in the usual terms of craft and story would be like trying to paint a sunset in monochrome. Nonetheless, the plot, when shorn of the magic of Shree’s writing, is the story of an old woman submerging into and then emerging from the grief of losing first her husband and then Rosy/Raza, a transgender person with whom she forms an unlikely friendship. It is also about the struggle of the old woman’s family to confine her to the safety of conventional familial relationships, and her nonchalant refusal to comply. In this, Ret Samadhi and Tomb of Sand seem interchangeable, the mythical bird with two heads and one body. I can only marvel at the effort it would have taken Daisy Rockwell to keep the true meaning of Shree’s tale unrevealed, even as she translated the complex sentences in a way that comes across as both organic and robust.
Though the book is not plot-driven, saying any more about this story of an unlikely mother and a more-than-likely daughter will give the story away. Shree takes the narrator, the story and the readers to the border of two troubled nations, focusing on the absurdity of their fraught relationship.
The book is replete with a galaxy of Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani writers — some as characters in a surreal scene, and others quoted through the text — from Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti and Saadat Hasan Manto to Rahi Maasoom Raza, Intezar Husaain and Manzoor Ehteshaam. There are guards, officials, bureaucratic systems — fully fleshed out minor characters — and tussle over life, death and reason. The bewildering work is masterfully and appropriately met with a bewildering end-sequence.
Very few readers are likely to say that Ret Samadhi/Tomb of Sand is easy to read, a page-turner or unputdownable. It is a challenging work, brilliant, curious and transfixing in the way that solar flares, panoramic photos of approaching storms, and slow-motion videos of falling dewdrops are.
It stretches the reader in many ways: One has to accept the lack of a clear plot line in the beginning, the characters’ separate and unconnected musings, language that coils and uncoils and defies rules of punctuation. The jumps in time and upheavals in the plot, the imperious invitations to suspend disbelief when a gaggle of crows take up the story, all make for a strange ride.
Disorienting is a word that springs to mind for the first part of the novel. Then the story begins to collect itself and coalesce around the central figure of the mother seen through the eyes of a rather self-consciously liberal daughter. The niggle in an otherwise brilliant book is the frail storyline, that initially leaves the reader adrift, wondering whether there is a direction at all. For those who decide to stay the course, it yields rich rewards, for Ret Samadhi/Tomb of Sand is a piece of literature that works its slow magic.
Where Shree excels is in her use of language, in crafting new means of expression, new idioms and rhythms. She uses language like the tensile medium it is, drawing the sentences out, pulling them fine and strong, till that which needs to be conveyed slides along the words, like cable cars on metal ropes, the readers enjoying the panorama like astonished adventurers.
Those who tut and scold about grammar, punctuation and unity ought to step aside unless they want to drown into the powerful stream of Shree’s language. I am mixing metaphors but how else is one to describe it, this Hindi that is pliable and strong and innovative without striving to be modern or graspable, unapologetic in its exuberance.
It is this language and its clay-drum rhythm that Daisy Rockwell follows in her brilliant translation into English, keeping the cascading falls of Shree’s words intact in a language foreign to them and their context.
Rockwell has retained Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit words, poetry as well as references to Indian writers and quotes from their works. She does not even-out the Indian references in the English version, nor does she try to explain every Hindi word and its context.
A part of the translator’s job is to invoke curiosity in the reader about the language and culture they are opening a window to. Rockwell does this perfectly. In Tomb of Sand, urban India with its many contradictions of women’s emancipation and patriarchal structures, its troublesome questions of religion, gender, social privileges, traditions and struggles against them, patriotism and pacifism, all find representation. All through the three parts and almost 700 pages, Rockwell becomes an immaculate medium for Shree’s dense, intense, layered, lyrical prose and therein lies her power as a translator. Shree and Rockwell’s Ret Samadhi/Tomb of Sand is a work of intrepid experimentation that demands engagement and yields a unique reading experience.
Anukrti Upadhyay is a writer of Hindi and English prose and poetry. Her latest works include a Hindi novella, Neena Aunty and a third novel in English, Kintsugi, which won the Sushila Devi Award for Best Book of Fiction in 2021.