#DesiReads: Geetanjali Shree reads from her novel, Ret Samadhi, and Daisy Rockwell reads from her translation of it, Tomb of Sand

Geetanjali Shree at the 3.54 minute mark; Daisy Rockwell at the 15.88 minute mark

Desi Books Ep 54 w/ Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 54 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Geetanjali Shree reading from her Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi, and Daisy Rockwell reading from her English translation of it, Tomb of Sand.

#DESIREADS WITH GEETANJALI SHREE AND DAISY ROCKWELLINTRODUCTION

Geetanjali Shree has written five novels, several story collections, and works of criticism on, especially, the Hindi writer, Premchand. Her work has been translated into English, French, German, Serbian, and Korean. She has received and been shortlisted for a number of awards and fellowships, and lives in New Delhi. She also works with Vivadi, a theater group of writers, artists, and dancers.

Daisy Rockwell is a writer, translator, and artist. She has published a novel, Taste, and numerous translations from Hindi and Urdu, including Upendra Ashk’s  Falling Walls (2015), Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (2016), and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard. Her 2019 translation of Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize. Rockwell’s artwork—her grandfather was the legendary painter (and author and illustrator) Norman Rockwell—has been shown widely. Her essays on literature and art have appeared in Bookslut, Caravan, Outlook Magazine, and The Sunday Guardian.

Tomb of Sand is about an eighty-year-old woman in northern India who slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention–including striking up a friendship with a hijra person–confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma insists on traveling to Pakistan, simultaneously confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman, a feminist. Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness, Geetanjali Sree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging, funny, and utterly original, while also being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders.

The transcript of the English excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here are Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell.

Cover of the Hindi original

Tomb of Sand is about an 80-year-old woman in northern India who slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. An excerpt by Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell in #DesiReads @DesiBooks

DESIREADS WITH GEETANJALI SHREE AND DAISY ROCKWELL

[Excerpted with permission from Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell. Copyright © 2021 Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell.]

You can become anything if the time is right. It’s also helpful to be in the right place. We can talk ourselves hoarse discussing the failure of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s ahead-of-his-time ideas, versus the success of Mahatma Gandhi’s right-on-time revolution. Wrong time for one, right time for the other. The same can be said for writers—like G.V. Desani vs. Salman Rushdie. Or film stars! Consider Dilip Kumar vs. Amitabh Bachchan. But this much is indisputable, that if the woman in this story hadn’t used her new cane in a new manner, i.e., at a ninety degree angle, at that very moment, or had done it somewhere else at some other time, then what happened next wouldn’t have happened, perhaps, and what occurred after the thing that happened, that wouldn’t have happened either.

For example, had Bade or Bahu been home when Ma had become the Wishing Tree, then they’d never have allowed this whole tree-nightmare to come to fruition. It’s just a cane; doesn’t matter if it’s new or old, everyone go home now and us too. The other thing is that if they’d been home, it wouldn’t have been the time for all the other neighborhood bureaucrats to be away, and the servant community would have been hard at work inside under the watchful eyes of their masters, not at the gate, or at the bend in the road, or at various favorite spots, or busy chatting intensely, or reclining in the style of their masters, taking sips of tea, and a couple of them sipping coffee and gossiping freely.

So when Prince came rushing out like a whirlwind, snapping and popping all about like a bunch of Diwali crackers, the rest of the children and their mothers and fathers heard him, and the right place and the right time arrived simultaneously, and presented itself to all. Then everyone got excited and clustered and clumped about, brows furrowed, and asked Leelavati, what is this tree thingy that’s happening?

You’ve never heard of the Wishing Tree?

What’s that?

It’s a Wishing Tree.

Prince lay down full length right there and holding a stick high in the air, he intoned:

It’s this.

Sparks of laughter shot up like flower-pot fireworks, and the whole crowd was about to dissolve into mirth when suddenly Leelavati’s face turned red with rage.

This is no laughing matter, she spluttered. This is a matter of great religious significance, do you hear? She dusted the flour off her hands into the bowl, covered the kneaded dough with another bowl, washed her hands, and wiped them on the border of her sari. Then she slapped down a seat between the flowerpots and the private vehicles—the officers had driven away to the office in government cars—and sat down and began to expound deeply on the topic. To whit:

The Wishing Tree stands where I come from in Chamoli—Joshimati. It’s always green—not a single leaf dries up or falls to the ground. People come from every corner of the world to worship it, great holy men have observed their austerities in its shade, and the sage Durvasa embarked on his meditation beneath the Wishing Tree.

“[The Wishing Tree is] always green—not a single leaf dries up or falls to the ground. People come from every corner of the world to worship it . . .” Daisy Rockwell reading from her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand #DesiReads @DesiBooks

So is Mata ji the sage Durvasa? Prince had stopped laughing by now.

The passersby who had paused their walking or cycling to listen waxed serious as well.

Wouldn’t she get angry at everyone’s giggles? She wasted her life on everyone. Look at her age! And there they are snorting and bickering.

Look, one elder reasoned. Make sure not to wish for anything bad, because she’s going to give everyone whatever they wish for. And he told the tale of a man who had got tired and unknowingly fallen asleep beneath the Wishing Tree. When he awoke, he was beside himself with hunger and thirst. And so, yes, a wish arose in him to receive something to eat and drink.

And lo, food and drink were laid out before him. What’s this! He felt dizzy but delighted, and ate and drank his fill. After this, he was overpowered by the urge to sleep. If only I had an old string bed to stretch out on. An old string bed immediately popped up before him. The man lay down, but now he felt a bit fearful. What’s going on? He looked up at the tree overshadowing him and shrank back. I hope a demon isn’t hidden in there, he’ll fatten me up, then leap down and open up his maw and swallow me whole. And so it came to pass! A demon hopped down from the branches and gobbled him up.

A little girl began to cry.

There’s a demon inside and he’ll eat me up, gulp gulp!

No, sweetie, no, nothing like that will happen.

People began to whisper.

Along with calming the little girl, many more stories were told about the Wishing Tree. Everyone learned it had been born of the Great Churning of the Ocean, and the children looked up and down and peered inside the house. A tree whose roots are spread out in heaven, and those who stand beneath it will have all their wishes fulfilled! And listen, Mata ji has become the Wishing Tree!

“Everyone learned [the Wishing Tree] had been born of the Great Churning of the Ocean . . .” Daisy Rockwell reading from her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand #DesiReads @DesiBooks

She has enormous power. You must touch her feet.

*

People formed a queue. They stood with their palms pressed together and went inside one at a time to bow before Mata ji’s feet. She remained lying down, cane held high, though now it had drooped to a thirty-five degree angle, more like a branch.

Mata ji, please arrange her marriage. Her complexion isn’t that fair, but no one’s her equal when it comes to housework, and if the in-laws agree, she can visit the homes of rich ladies and dye their hair with henna and massage their faces and wax their legs, and all those sorts of things. No harm done if a bit of money comes in!

Mata ji, please give him blessings. He’s slow at computers, so he wasn’t hired, but now he’s taking a course for nine thousand rupees. Anything is possible if you give blessings: it will definitely help his hands move more quickly.

My uncle has got his hands on the shop. Please kick him out.

Please bring electricity to our village.

Please give Dhanno a son.

Please let me jump into the Jamuna, right where the new bridge is, Mata ji, and make it so that I learn how to swim the moment I jump in, just like dogs do, so I can swim from one side to the other, and everyone will be amazed. Just once.

Please install a tube well at Laltoo’s house.

Mata ji, would you be able to bring us the kind of TV that looks like a wall, at some point before we die?

Please make him speak amazing English. We’re having him tutored. Please turn his luck around.

May your blessings continue. May I continue to have the opportunity to serve you.

Great Grandmother, my Sirri Chacha, no Acche Chacha, no, no, it was Sirri Chacha, he brought me such a pretty parrot from the village. Pramod told me to put it on my shoulder and go up to the roof. The parrot flew away, Great Grandmother. I can’t find it anywhere. I looked on the roofs of all the other houses. How will I find it? It flew so high, right in front of me! High as a plane! Can you please just call out to it once? Its name is Ram Lal.

May peace and happiness prevail, Mata ji, please give a blessing.

Make the rains come at the right time in the village, Mata ji. Last year the whole crop got washed away when it stood ripe in the field. Our home also collapsed in the flood. We’re still paying the interest.

Okay, so, I’ve never seen snow fall. Only on TV. Please make it so I wake up one morning and see the snow falling outside my window.

Please just bless me so I’ll live a long prosperous life, I have no other wish.

Mata ji, I’m secretly whispering this into your ear; this isn’t anything to say to anyone else, but I’m very upset, Mata ji. You see, my mister, right, whose missus I am, Mata ji, this wart that’s above my lip, he doesn’t like it at all, and I don’t either, and we have a love marriage, so he says, I’ll lick it and make it dissolve, and sometimes he kind of bites it, but I don’t like it, so, Mata ji, if you’ll get rid of my wart, please, I’ll be so grateful and we’ll be an adoring mister and missus, thank you very much.

“. . . Mata ji, if you’ll get rid of my wart, please, I’ll be so grateful and we’ll be an adoring mister and missus . . .” Daisy Rockwell reading from her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand #DesiReads @DesiBooks

May greed disappear, may all be well and good.

Mujtaba wants me to come to Sharjah, but I want to go to America.

May I continue to fear the Almighty in my heart, may I be satisfied with what I get, may I remain happy, may your hand always rest upon my head, and nothing else, Mata ji, that’s it.

It was a very holy atmosphere, everything was extremely genuine, when Prince, impressed by the prayers, said, Daadi, can I have a toffee? and right at that very second, his eye fell upon a silver bowl, where three toffees lay among a collection of buttons, bindis, and safety pins. His request had been heard.

Daadi? Now he turned towards Leelavati. Peace had spread about this room that had been touched by a miracle.

Then Gudiya requested the nail cutter set which lay beneath the engraved brass dish from Muradabad, the one that Papa had had retouched with fresh paint, and when she’d come to put away once in that same drawer of the dressing table, she’d seen it had every size of nail cutter in it and a flat little stick with a rough surface you could use to file your nails into a rounded shape. The cane waved in agreement. Gudiya reached out and took the set, gazed gratefully at the Wishing Tree, and pressed it to her forehead as she bowed respectfully.

By late afternoon, quite a few pieces of clothing, old shawls, sweaters, saris, blouses, petticoats, and other sundry items, including a somewhat lumpy but still very warm sleeping bag filled with goose down, and an iron wok and chapati pan that nonstick versions had shoved aside and had been stowed on the top shelf in Ma’s room, and various other things that had Ma’s name on them, which truth be told was the case for every single other thing, because they weren’t needed anymore; but who throws out a new thing that’s grown old, or something from long ago that one has held on to, like the spiky stem holder for sticking in flowers and leaves and twigs in an Ikebana flower arrangement, or something brought for her, like a crescent-shaped inflatable airplane neck pillow, or two thick
photo albums which are no longer necessary for arranging pictures in nowadays but who throws out a new thing just because it’s getting old, and all the things packed away in Ma ji’s room in special spots because they might come in handy some day, but not right now. The cane agreed to all requests, and the people picked up their boons with grateful hands.

And so it was that when sky had turned to twilight, and Beti entered the house, Leelavati told her with deep reverence, Beti, the Wishing Tree even gave the boon of a daughter to whom? To none other than the Goddess Parvati, who in her loneliness found much joy with such an auspicious companion.

It’s not clear what Beti understood from this conversation, or if she thought the whole thing was just idle banter, but as she walked swiftly over to her mother, she glanced at the wardrobe, and something occurred to her. She opened it and leaned over, muttering, My Buddha…

Listening all day to everyone’s prayers and supplications would make anyone tired, and thus, the tree, or the branch, a.k.a. the cane, fell down upon the floor. With a clatter. Then Kanthe Ram cried out, No, no, Bibi ji! as though stopping Beti from picking up the Buddha. As though the Wishing Tree had expressed this with its clatter.

No, no! Just then, Bade entered the room. He’d heard everything.

He’d also seen his sister standing before the Buddha.

That cracked thing would go for millions if I sold it to a museum! It’ll break, he added sternly. Not looking at anyone in particular.

In the absence of direct communication between brother and sister, who would inquire whether he spoke of the Buddha, the cane, or what? Now that the entire household was in a disarray as they prepared to move, the beat and the melody of every single interaction was inevitably scrambled.

*

Tomb of Sand is about an 80-year-old woman in northern India who slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. An excerpt by Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell in #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 54 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was with Geetanjali Shree reading from her Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi, and Daisy Rockwell reading from her English translation of it, Tomb of Sand.

Episode 55 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. And please share this on via social media to support the writer and the translator and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
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