I begin with a confession and an apology to the non-Hindi readers of Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell into English as Tomb of Sand. I have resisted reading the translated version, the winner of the International Booker Prize, because even though it must be very good, it may not replicate for me the resonance of the original. Writers in languages other than English face tough choices today. But the sheer brilliance of Geetanjali’s art leaps over a digital world that is forever pushing us to settle for a uniform, universally-understood voice: Loud, full of hyperbole and easy comparables. Her protagonist defies all efforts to generalise — language, gender, mother-daughter relationships and the partition of nations. Throughout, she speaks in one voice to her rambling, widowed mother Chandra Prabha, in another to her bureaucrat brother, yet another to his wife and, of course, the working classes who visit the home.
Then, suddenly, the novel playfully decides to defy linear time. It leaps back some eight decades to when the Subcontinent was partitioned. At this point, she casually informs readers that her mother was married to a man from another community, before she married the one who was their father and whose death plunged her deep into depression. In comes Rosie, a transwoman, who coaxes Ma out of her bed and reintroduces her to her daughter’s world. As she moves out of her son’s house to her daughter’s, Ma crosses a boundary and begins to speak. Together, through rambling conversation, the mother and daughter travel back and forth in time, occasionally even stepping onto the Silk Route, where tribes from all over Asia met and traded goods, and tales, and smoked their hookah in companionable silence.
What this brilliant piece of time travel is reminding us of is that if a writer wishes to find his or her own voice, she/he must refuse to stay put. A creative mind must remain nomadic, so that art remains polyphonic, unpredictable and porous, just like the human race. Life, the little tales and sub-tales in Ret Samadhi tell us, is not a linear, predictable progression of events. Time implicates both the oppressor and the oppressed, brutalising men and the nations they build through violent acts. Life poses harsh questions here about the monuments that history will create and erase mercilessly.
But racial memories don’t die easily. Ret Samadhi leaps over the current dominance of a hard political Hindutva when the Mother’s memories transport her and her daughter to a dusty no man’s land. The ret samadhi or the burial mound blends with ancient lore about Indra (in Aitareya Brahmana): “Behold, I am The Truth. Study me closely for your own good. I have killed Tvashtra, the creator of the Vajra. I fed the band of Aroormaga monks to Salavrik (dogs or wolves). I have broken up countless treaties made on earth, in the sky and further up in the heavens. But not a hair on my head was disturbed. If after receiving this wisdom from me, you can fathom the whys and wherefores of my acts, even if you go and murder your kin, you shall cease to hesitate and not allow any emotions to cross your face ever again.”
We have yet to understand fully the peculiar past of a polyphone Hindi heartland of north India where multiple races came and fought and mingled. In the last seven decades, English as the language of rulers has slowly been losing much of its authority in the Delhi Durbar, which is today presided over by those who loudly proclaim they are all for Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. But the Hindi they are opting for has ignited fratricidal, regional rages against India’s proposed rashtra bhasha (national language).
Geetanjali Shree’s has always been a strong and vibrant voice against homogenisation. In her earlier works, too, her language pulls readers in various directions and eras and their unsettled debts. In Mai, she writes of three generations of women spanning well over a century. In Hamara Shahr, she writes about small towns convulsed by communal fires that have raged underneath and erupted suddenly like lava gushing out. Ret Samadhi arrives like a resonant fugue, summing up its various kinds of histories, without denying the centrality of doubt and duality in life.
All writers in Indian languages harbour many languages within themselves by the time they come of age. There is the simple mother tongue. Then comes college, with classes taught uniformly in English. Here, a writer is faced with a choice — do a straight swap with English, the language of the well-educated in India’s upwardly mobile, or say that not all of the well-educated must speak in a received voice. Geetanjali has chosen the latter. In India, it is an act of bravery to write in what is your natural voice without apologising for its rusticity, varied tonal registers or reducing it to an exotica or a political weapon or to win superficial, feminist brownie points.
Ret Samadhi brings to us honest, even if painful, glimpses of life in non-English speaking India. It is not one flat land but a series of cultural republics. The mother and daughter in the novel appear in this landscape. Together they turn into birds and flowers, move with Rosie and are reunited with Anwar, the lost lover, through music. All around them heaves and fades the Anglophile, upper-crust India, a land that still writes and administers unequal laws into what they consider a savage society.
The novel crosses frontiers of caste, race, gender, and languages as easily as migratory birds do. Their lives and conversations cut across time: When thumris and khayals were created by rulers who were losing power to marauding Marathas and the East India Company, but remained secular and discerning patrons of hybridised arts. Nothing in their world is erased. Nothing in it spells permanence. That is human life for you, according to Ret Samadhi where even memorial tombs are destined to turn to dust one day. It reminded me of my mother’s favourite couplet by Nazeer Akbarabadi, an 18th-century fakir who witnessed the fall of empires:
Flowers, dust, fire, wind, water and mud, we’ve seen them all/ And eventually, that’s all there is to this deceitful mirage you call your world.
(Gul, shor, bagula, aag, hawa, aur keechad pani mitti hai/ Hum dekh chuke iss duniya ko, duniya dhokhe ki tatti hai)
The writer is former chairperson Prasar Bharati