The Indian writer Geetanjali Shree has just won the International Booker Prize for a novel originally written in Hindi – a first for the prize – and translated into English as Tomb of Sand. Shree’s fifth novel, the book is, among other things, about a woman, recently widowed, finding a new lease of life in her ninth decade of life. It is a long book, a novel of enormous intelligence, often digressive and essay-istic rather than driven by plot. It is ambitious, trying a good many things with no guarantee they will come off. It asks the reader to be at ease with being puzzled. It demands your patience and – attention – and, for the most part, it earns them.

Tomb of Sand has three distinct parts. Shree’s main character, Ma – for much of the book, she is given no proper name - has been recently widowed after a life doing her (feminine, upper-middle-class) duties as the matriarch of an Indian family. After a long period of coping with her bereavement, she starts to surprise her family – even her proudly modern feminist daughter – with a new indifference to social convention. She befriends a hijra, a member of India’s long-standing “third gender” community. In the final section, where Shree offers her readers most in the way of event and action, mother and daughter find their way, illicitly, to Pakistan, for reasons that emerge slowly in the telling.

This plot, while engaging, serves also as scaffolding for a dizzying array of experiments. The narrator digresses into such subjects as mangoes and saris, and delivers reflections on Tolstoy and Borges, but turns out to be reserving her main subject for last: the still-present trauma of the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent, which left people such as Ma many miles and a hard-to-get visa away from the soil and loyalties of childhood.

Tomb of Sand cannot have been an easy book to translate. Shree’s Hindi is an instrument wielded with great dexterity, diverse in its diction, complex in its syntax, and free in its wordplay. Her translator, Daisy Rockwell, has rightly taken to heart the old maxim from Valery: to translate is “to reconstitute as nearly as possible the effect of a certain cause... by means of another”. Judged by this standard, many of Rockwell’s attempts are triumphs. The translator’s useful afterword ruefully acknowledges that a translation of so complex a text is bound to raise hackles: either she has made the text too English, stripped clean of its otherness, or failed to make it English enough.

One of Shree’s own digressions concerns exactly this problem: how to deal with the “moods and vibrations” of a literary work?

Rockwell copes manfully with Shree’s wordplay in a fantastic passage depicting a conversation between crows, each talking in its own “crowlect”. Other decisions struck me as distracting – the use of the distinctively American “dude” to render various colloquial Hindi labels for young men – or as simple errors, as when, in an attempt to add a helpful gloss to a reader who may not know the great Sanskrit work the “Meghaduta”, she adds (where the original Hindi does not) that it is a play; it is in fact a lyric poem.

Tomb of Sand, like any serious piece of literary fiction, does not yield all its secrets on a first reading. I found it hard to warm to all of Shree’s digressions, which range from the sharp and original (such as her remarks on the nature of translation) to the sententious and predictable: “The world is in dire need of literature because literature is a source of hope and life.” But even readers who share these reservations will be struck by just how gracious a writer Shree is, proud to speak up for her language and literary tradition.

Such readers may come away with the sense of a large body of Hindi writing waiting to be discovered – the Partition-era stories of Krishna Sobti and her Pakistani forerunner, the great Saadat Hasan Manto – all available, with only a little effort, in solid English translations. These writers have found in Shree an able advocate, and a worthy successor.

The Daily Telegraph

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