Monday, Aug 08, 2022
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Replug | Booker Prize

A Woman's Intimate World

Geetanjali Shree's 'Ret Samadhi', translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as 'Tomb of Sand', becomes the first Indian novel to win the International Booker Prize

A woman's intimate world.
A woman's intimate world. Shutterstock

Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi harks back to nostalgic times in a mad rush. It opens old doors and brings forth Amma in whose aged body nestles a 15-year-old. You become her mother and the mother transforms into a young skittish girl, and in all this upheaval and turmoil, the world begins to rewind and start afresh like a phoenix. It is as if many things went amiss in the first living—things done in hurry and in happenstance—and it is only now that you get another chance to live again and design a new grammar of existence.

Translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as Tomb of Sand, it’s a novel that makes a defined format redundant. The form of the narrative is beyond traditional storytelling and the characters, beyond events and dialogues. There are monologues reminiscent of the stream of consciousness, a technique American writer William Faulkner often used. Stream of consciousness is a way of presenting a viewpoint through an interior monologue of a character’s thought process.
And all these converge to create a serene harmony of mundane daily routine. An amazing imagery takes hold of your hands and leads you into an intimate interior landscape that has sometimes the blue sky, sometimes a home, sometimes it is dark and light-less, sometimes an intense restlessness and clamour, grief and pain and everything else that makes up your heart and mind. So, the book brings out an essence of our collective hearts and minds. As complete and wholesome and as empty as it should be to present a contrast so that the emptiness resonates with an unborn sound that echoes within the body swirling high like an eagle, soaring up in the sky.

Who is amma? The daughter? Rosie? These are the women, girls, maybe a man, like a male psyche within a women’s soul or even a man's physical presence within the woman. And the woman is a mother masquerading as a daughter, a wife more than the lover. In her mind, she is a 15-year-old playful girl. Sometimes, also a domineering defiant male who is not constrained to do as he wishes, a coy girl who can lay on Anwar’s chest and hum a Thumri, a person who wants to live again after having lived a life, a heart that wants to follow its own path. So much like Edith Piaf singing Je vois la vie en rose. 

In that sense it is also a plural mind, a yearning that represents the universal longing of women. The female emotional gender that is tuned more inwards than outwards. The taboos that trap us, the thoughts that binds us in a prison of centuries' old conditionings, which is mostly abstract yet obvious and then so often it still manages to escape and fly out from the window and expand so that it becomes boundary-less. This is Amma’s mind, her world, her heart and its longings. A woman’s intimate world. 

We have a consciousness of what life is, but in which direction it will steer, neither amma or the daughter knows. Within the boundary wall, they befriend the sky and the clouds and the moon and the wind, and because the flight of the mind is limitless, they take wings and soar out. This is the basic truth, and therefore, in spite of all the imaginary flight, being anchored to the ground is a reality that contrasts even more sharply even more painfully. Even after receiving assurances, it is clear that these assurances belong to a woman trapped within those parameters and all her desires are caged within those limits that she has to spend her entire life to break free.

The important thing is that an inquiry into existence is just as relevant as they have perhaps always been. When the layers of the mind are taken off like an onion peel, tears will come, but the miracle of finding something wondrous beneath them.

***

Ret Samadhi rises so richly and expansively on the foundation of abstraction. Extraordinary elements are seamlessly woven in ordinary everyday situations but the workmanship cannot be seen from close. Till that distance is formed to view the complete picture in its entirety, amma in her ordinariness appears to be possessed by a strange kind of naivete in her emotional entanglements and doubts. It is true that one does not always need an external structure or façade to tell a tale. Neither it is necessary that characters behave in a certain fashion guided always by situations or that every context or topic is immersed in emotional intensity. But it is also true that in the journey of the inner esoteric mysteries, there should be some shared wavelength, a common resonance. This happens many times in Ret Samadhi, but many times also just before igniting a spark it goes somewhere else and gets scattered. In spite of this, there is joy in reading, wonderment after coming across a sharp insight, the excitement of being inside the writer’s mind for a moment and the joy of sharing. 

***

Language is a medium of expression. There is art and skill required to use it in different ways. The sweetness of the tongue, the taste of uttering words, the pleasure of inventing a new sound in that recitation, the music of speaking it out loud. It has happened so many times while reading Renu, Rahi Masoom Raza, Qurratulain Haider, when one has to pause and recite it aloud and rejoice in its music. Something like this also happens with Ret Samadhi. There are many words that Geetanjali uses with such ease, as if by using them will help hold on to a nostalgic childhood image of those deep verandas, a homestead, a courtyard filled with the falling leaves of the Neem tree, an old happy fulfilled house that has come alive again. The strangeness of this new shining big city then disappears just like that. The warmth of the days gone by is the warm taste of an afternoon when language fell differently like music in your ears, but now that time is gone and those words have been lost. 

There is fluidity in her language. Her sentences lose their angularity to become short and rounded, stripped of grammar, steeped in emotions. They revolve from one end to the other in beautiful roundabouts. There is freshness and innocence in this movement. Words flow spontaneously, with an innocent naivete like a spinning wheel toy in a child's hand. Geetanjali uses the creative syntax with abundant joy. There is often a syntactical blending of verse.

It is the wonder of this language that many parts flow like water in the first read, its expressions float like flowers on the surface. But the texture of some parts, creating a world of abstraction at the beginning of some chapters is such that one pauses in introspection. A feeling of staying longer and sinking slowly in the depths, garnering and holding on to the visuals and the text, is extremely tempting. That is the marvel of reading a good book that it makes you pause, think, feel and connect.

Generally, the writings in Hindi have strived to keep the same old thread intact unlike writings in other Indian and foreign languages. There are very few forays towards new stimulating crafts, new structures or patterns, striving for some spectacular inner dialogue or restlessly yearning to find a context for self, for life, for existence. It is also expected that if there is no social context, ethical parable, or moral message, then that writing should be kept in the category of frivolous. As if the writer is not a writer but a moral preacher, social worker or activist. 

The author is an observer, a third who is seeing the second looking at the first. Yet their reference is not only to the external but also the inner world. I am reminded of the many books in Hindi which expose layer by layer the fine workmanship of this inner world like a vilambit alap. One that goes on whole day and whole night, 100 pages or for an entire life. There are writers like Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Jyotsna Milan, Qurratulain Haider, Vinod Kumar Shukla. These days, it appears the skill has disappeared. We find the same taste, restfulness, there's no play, pretence or rhetoric sanctimony in Geetanjali's writings. 

This novel is in that sense a non-story. It seems Geetanjali decided that this book won't have those traditional elements. She wrote as the mind thinks, flying from here to there, then elsewhere. Right in the beginning of the book one gets a sense a natural spontaneous flow. Then gradually becomes aware that this wild silk cotton seed like flight hides a dense and fine control. There is such a riyaz behind it that its sheer simplicity makes the complex work behind it invisible.

Further, the musings that Geetanjali has not written also present a sub textual narrative, which run like a subterranean river during the book's course. Like the daughter's relationship with Amma, which, despite annoyance, flows very fluidly, as if indulging a child. Or while not tolerating Rosie, yet having affection for Raza Master, or the elusive KK being and not being there, or accepting Amma and Anwar’s relation just as parents finally accept their wayward daughter who had eloped in love. The daughter who has lived her life according to her own will, Amma who suddenly became a bird while doing the will of others, Rosie who lived the life as she wanted for herself. All these women are feminists in a simple and covert way, as if this is a way of life. No revolution, no rebellion, no theatrics. Just life.

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