When we meet her at the beginning of the book, eighty-year-old Ma (Hindi for mother) appears to have given up on life. The recently widowed Ma is the central protagonist 730-page-long, languorous tale that begins with a middle-class family in Delhi.
Ma’s entire family is greatly concerned about her refusal to leave her bed. All efforts and exhortations come to naught as Ma literally turns her back on them, “getting closer and closer to the wall, and her back became a wall itself, keeping at bay those who came to coax and cajole: Get up, Ma, Get up!”
Ma has an adult daughter, Beti, (Hindi for daughter) who makes the convention- and family-defying choice of living a single, independent life, instead of settling into marriage and domesticity. Interestingly, Shree chooses to identify the family members only via their relationships to Ma, never once revealing their names. Perhaps, this is to emphasize how Ma’s identity has been wrapped up with those for whom she’s lived her life.
Then, one day, Ma walks out of the house and for a harrowing few days, is nowhere to be found. Eventually she is recovered in a terrible state—of both mind and body—by Beti, who takes her to her home, much to the chagrin of her family. They see Ma’s residence with Beti as an endorsement of Beti’s wayward choices. To compound the scandal, Ma deepens her friendship with Rosie, a hijra (trans-woman), and Rosie becomes a regular at Beti’s house.
The story takes a dramatic turn when disaster strikes Rosie, and Ma declares her intention to travel to Pakistan. The family is not thrilled about this idea. But Beti and Ma set off to Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, which is among the more dangerous regions due to terrorist activity. On the journey, Ma’s tragic past, rooted in India’s 1947 Partition, is revealed.
Ma, whose name is Chandraprabha, was a 16-year-old in 1947. Her journey into Khyber, and the revelation of her life and fate before and during Partition, comprise perhaps the most compelling part of the book. That story is ultimately one of romantic love torn asunder by Partition.
Original Work and Translation: Both Masterful
Geetanjali Shree is clearly an accomplished writer with a masterful command of both Hindi and English, and she takes many artistic liberties with style and storytelling. Her original work, and Daisy Rockwell’s masterful translation, are literary endeavors worth examining in service of both unconventional storytelling, and making vast literatures across languages more broadly accessible.
While I didn’t read the Hindi version, I did refer to it, and in reading Rockwell’s translation, there were many points where I could “hear” the Hindi original. Hindi couldn’t be more different from English in script, sound and sensibility, so this feat is all the more remarkable.
Command Over Language
A word about the title, where Shree’s command of metaphor shines again. The original Hindi title is Ret Samadhi, and ret means “sand.” Samadhi, however, has two meanings: “tomb,” and “a deep meditative state.” A tomb encircles death, from which one may not return. In contrast, in a meditative state, one may not be reachable, but one can return from it.
Ma, who has spent a lifetime dutifully giving to her family, eventually rises from her samadhi to pursue something for herself—closure for a romantic love that has lain buried in the sandy tomb of an unfulfilled past. Her journey leads her from one samadhi to the next.
In the first three-quarters of the book, the somewhat thin story-line seems stretched, while it seems equally rushed in the last quarter. Some characters are unevenly treated. For example, Rosie occupies a central place in the story up until the journey to Pakistan, at which point there is an explosive revelation related to Partition and then … nothing. That left several unanswered questions for this reader.
A Book About The Partition?
Having worked as a citizen historian for over a decade with The 1947 Partition Archive (an initiative devoted to recording and archiving the oral histories of witnesses of Partition), I found this perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book. I was hoping for a more fleshed out story about that tragic chapter in my native country’s history.
This mismatch is probably a result of the publisher’s marketing (Partition is in!) and not the author’s intent, especially given that 2022 is the 75th anniversary of both India’s independence and its botched Partition.
Interestingly, while Shree does not explicitly venture into the politics of the region, the book’s theme carries some weight in the Indian political context today, both along the perpetually fraught border with Pakistan even 75 years after Partition and within India, where, given the rise of Hindu nationalism, interfaith marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are now routinely stamped with pronouncements of love jihad.
Shree’s book is clearly a call for ending hostilities in the Indian subcontinent. However, she never once directly calls out the politics of the region or—more importantly—the current right-wing regime in India, which actively promotes Hindu fanaticism in a country that promised its citizens a secular democracy upon its birth 75 years ago.
I can’t know if Shree’s choice is an artistic or a pragmatic one—already her work is coming under fire for perceived religious infractions against Hindu deities by an increasingly politicized citizenry. But I do know that art often works in subversive ways, first by making us feel—and then compelling us to question—our prejudices.
This reviewer hopes that this book will do the same for the region’s citizens.
A longer version of this review first appeared on Unpopulist.