Category Archives: Translations Reading Project 2022

Read 39 of 2022. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Title: Tomb of Sand
Author: Geetanjali Shree
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284611
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Literature
Pages: 730
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A book like Tomb of Sand comes once a while – encompassing everything – all of it – maybe all our stories, or some of our stories – intermingling, intertwining, greeting each other along the way, choosing whom to converse with, whom to ignore, and how to navigate life.  Stories that have a life of their own – breathing, living creations that only need an audience and Tomb of Sand will get its audience, and should – more than its fair share, because this book deserves it all.

I am gushing. I shall gush some more. So be it. Some novels do more than just provide entertainment or are more than means of passing time. They demand to be read, reread, reread some more, till they enter your consciousness and then refuse to leave. Sputnik Sweetheart is one such book for me. This one is definitely another.

Tomb of Sand on the surface seems like a book with a very simple plot-line. A mother of a family and her relationship with a transgender person, in the wake of her husband’s death. This causes some kind of confusion in her daughter who always thought of herself to be more progressive of the two. However, let this plot not fool you. This could very well be a book without a plot for the first two-hundred pages or so, and honestly it wouldn’t matter to the reader or deter the reading experience.

Tomb of Sand is so much more than just a story of a family or of a woman trying to come to terms with the past and the present as it shapes itself around her. Tomb of Sand is a book about families, about life lived in-between contemplating how to live it and the parts that you so want to live but cannot, and more than anything, it was for me – a novel about redemption, about so many what ifs, about the choices we make – intentionally and unintentionally, about empty spaces we choose to fill and sometimes the void is even more glaring than it was, and it is a novel about boundaries, about how we limit ourselves through identity and gender, about how we are much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Geetanjali Shree experiments with language, makes it her own, makes it fall flat on its head, and doesn’t bother with the rules of grammar. She makes her own rules as she goes along. I say this after also having read major portions of the book in Hindi as well. The translation by Daisy Rockwell is a different book – a unique entity, if I were to call it that. Daisy takes the book in Hindi and gives its English readers a new landscape to imagine and embrace. I do not mean the translation doesn’t do justice to the original, in fact, if anything it takes the playfulness of Hindi – makes it more than palpable to English and doesn’t transpose or transliterate, just for it to sound right, but gives it its own vocabulary, adding if I may call it the “Rockwell Touch”.  Her translation doesn’t miss a beat. It is lucid, clear, and gives the reader what they need, and also what they thought they didn’t need.

Tomb of Sand also seems like a rather simple novel, which again it isn’t. I do not mean only when it comes to structure or who is the narrator, or what is happening but also language that I have spoken about earlier. There is a sense of calm to the choice of words – both in Hindi and English – which makes the novel so relatable. I think that the “Indianness” of the novel is what lends it the added layer of appeal. For instance, the entire angle of the mother staying with the daughter in the daughter’s house while the son has his own family is something not permissible in an Indian household. The mother has to stay with the son. Shree breaks this mould and presents a new way of life. Rockwell takes that new way of life and brings to life the conversations between the two women (of course from the original) – without discussing a man – they discuss their bowel movements, they discuss childhood, life, what the mother thinks, what Beti feels, but not a man. This is perhaps intentional but does the job of meeting the Bechdel test than most other novels and movies.

Another instance that intrigued me the most was the class difference and the way Shree has highlighted it throughout the book. Domestic help have names attached – full names and personalities – from what they do to who they are and their role in the family. On the other hand, the members of the household are not known by names, except for one son called Sid. The rest are nameless, known by their roles and what they add to the plot.

Tomb of Sand also becomes a partition novel somewhere after four-hundred pages, and it didn’t surprise me at all, when that happened. I was so immersed in the world created by Shree and her magnificence, that I submitted myself more than happily to this plot-twist, if I can call it that. This again makes the novel even more profound and complex.

Tomb of Sand is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022. I hope it wins. I hope it is known widely. I hope because of this other Indian language books get their place in the sun. Tomb of Sand is a delight to read and reread. If you have already read it, I recommend you go back to it. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Please read it. NOW.

Read 37 of 2022. Paradais by Fernanda Melchor. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor

Title: Paradais
Author: Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Publisher: New Directions
ISBN: ‎978-0811231329
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

My mind is numb, and my heart is a mess. The latest offering by Melchor is dark, overwhelming, rustic, punches you in the gut, devastating to say the least, and more than anything else, in a very nuanced manner touches on the class differences in society and what happens thereof.

Paradais is a shorter compared to her previous work Hurricane Season, and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Its 125 pages are packed with unsettling language, doesn’t play to the reader’s expectations, and definitely does not believe in toning it down.

We meet Polo, a 16-year-old school drop-out who works as a gardener in a luxury residential complex called “Paradise” in Progreso, Mexico.  The title comes from the fact that he cannot pronounce it, and his boss teaches him to pronounce this way. Even in language, he cannot have a piece of paradise.

Polo is the narrator and all he wants to do is get out. He is not rich like the other teenager he introduces us to – Franco Andrade – who is overweight, addicted to porn, only fantasizes about his neighbour and the ways in which he will have sex with her – who is an attractive married woman and a mother of two.

Polo just wants to escape his overbearing mother, thinks of his dead grandfather, waits for a phone call from his cousin to get him out, and drinks with Franco (whom he calls Fatboy) so he can forget his existence for a while. It is in such moments of desperation, they hatch a plan, which might go either way for them.

Melchor’s writing is not easy to digest. It is bleak, it is angry, it wants to tell so much, and it does, even in so little prose. The anguish, the frustration, and the idea to do better through worse is so ironic and yet the only thing that seems right to Polo. We only see Franco through Polo’s perspective, so at some parts I was also doubting that, but Melchor’s writing convinced me about that as well – that perhaps all Polo says is in fact the gospel truth.

The darkness that runs through the town and into the lives of Franco and Polo is palpable. Most of the novel takes place at night – some also during the day, but that’s when the ridicule happens, the discrimination is made clear, the anger is seething – only to appear at night when drunk and find escape by imagining various ways to find an exit. All of this is conjured through Hughes’ fantastic translation that doesn’t miss a beat.

When Melchor writes about the Mexican society – whether it is the wealth gap and gang violence, she does it as a matter of fact attitude. It doesn’t preach, nor does it seek pity or empathy. What it also does at some point is scary – it gives agency to the naïve, to the fatalistic teenagers who have no clue what life has in store for them or how will it all turn out and make the most horrific choices.

Paradais works on so many levels, and for so many reasons. It is built on the shoulders of toxic masculinity through and through, and you know that world will not last long. The casualness, the most nonchalant manner in which people are thrown about in the book says a lot about the societies we inhabit. Melchor just brings it to fore, and a lot more. Reading this book also repulsed me a lot of times, yet with the constant nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this is the truth – whether I like it or not.

Read 34 of 2022. Our Santiniketan by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Radha Chakravarty

Our Santiniketan by Mahasweta Devi

Title: Our Santiniketan
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Radha Chakravarty
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-0857429018
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Pages: 124
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I think Bedanabala was my introduction to Mahasweta Devi’s works. That was way back in 2006, and since then I haven’t stopped reading whatever she had to offer. I think my extreme fan boy moment happened when I got to meet her briefly at Jaipur Literature Festival in 2013. As a writer, if there’s anyone that has made an impact on me, it would be her.

Our Santiniketan is a short memoir of her days spent at Santiniketan of course and how what she learned there and unlearned shaped her entire life – her thoughts, ideologies, and even her writing to a large extent.

This book is also about ageing and what you choose to remember in the form of a memoir. Mahasweta Devi brings that up in so many places in the book – subtly, and sometimes not so. It hovers throughout. But as a reader you believe it all, because that’s her writing and conviction of what she recalls.

You know as a reader that your childhood was not like the one Mahasweta Devi spent at Santiniketan and will never be. Yet, you relate when she speaks of nature and trees, the food eaten there, the friendships forged, the lessons taught, and idyllic evenings which one wouldn’t think of as the case, given the place.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing goes back and forth in time – there is the past and the present, in which she speaks to the reader as well about time being what it is and doing what it does to the nature of memory. Radha Chakravarty’s translation serves the original the way it is (you can tell a little by the tone adopted), but also adds her own element to it – I think when it comes to dialogue and some descriptions to make it easier for the reader.

Our Santiniketan is a book that must be read slowly, to be savoured really, to know more about Mahasweta Devi, her writing that came later, more importantly her family and her relationship with them, and the place that came to be second-home to her.

Read 31 of 2022. Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu. Translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao

Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu

Title: Happy Stories, Mostly
Author: Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284635
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 173
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Another queer read from the International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist and I couldn’t be happier. I am so glad that queer voices are finally getting the attention and space, we have been jostling for since forever.

This collection of short stories is a punch to the gut, but perhaps quietly, more aware of what the stories are going to do to the reader, so they go gentle into the night, and spring up on you, astonishing you with their might and power.

There is a lot going on in this collection of short stories – intersection is key – from religion to gender identity to sexual orientation – they all intersect with each other and with marginalized lives, always striving and hoping for more to materialize.

All of the stories though come to the point of dealing with homosexuality – the isolation and what it means to be queer. Whether it is a mother in mourning for her son who took his life, or a friendship at a crossroads when a man discovers his best friend (well, sort of) is gay or when a woman discovers something about her husband, all these stories are on the periphery of the seen and the unseen.

I could connect with some stories a lot more than the others, as is the case with any short-story collection. Not all work for most people. But the ones that stood out the most for me was “So What’s Your Name, Sandra?”.

These stories speak to each other in an uncanny manner. The stories aren’t interconnected and yet it feels that way, maybe because of all the queer people navigating the straight world – with also religion playing such an important role throughout the book.

The writing is raw, vivid, and sparse in most parts, which makes the translation by Tiffany Tsao even more delicious -to see the lengths she has gone through to keep the prose intact. You can tell that as a reader.

The idea to break away from heteronormativity and how difficult that is, is explored through all these stories. The jealousies, the misunderstandings, the anguish of the other is seen so starkly, along with the stigma of coming out in a society that just will not notice you.

I hope more such voices get published and promoted. The LGBTQIA+ community could do with all these voices and more, telling our stories, the way we see them, feel them, and live them every single day.

Read 29 of 2022. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Title: Heaven
Author: Mieko Kawakami Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509898244
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Heaven triggered memories that should’ve been left alone and not touched. The memories of being bullied at school, by four boys who called me their friend, and yet would bully me every single day for five years.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami is perhaps all our story – of the ones who were bullied at high-school, the monstrosity of it all, the nightmare, and the solace found in unexpected people.

The book isn’t an easy read. Kawakami will not make it easy and redemptive. The bullies will bully and will think of innovative ways of doing so, for instance, taking the unnamed narrator’s head and using it as a football. The description isn’t nice. It isn’t meant to be. It is raw and gritty.

The unnamed fourteen-year-old (who also has a lazy eye) goes through all of this and more, till he meets someone at school – Kojima – a kindred spirit, a classmate who is also being bullied by a bunch of vicious girls, through exchange of notes, their friendship blossoming, and they rarely meet. Over a summer break, they visit an art museum, where Kojima plans to show him her favourite painting about men and women who have discovered harmony and joy after immense suffering. She calls the painting “Heaven”.

The book is set in early 1990s in Japan and to me it was the most beautiful meditation on the nature of suffering, coming of age, and what it is like to perhaps overcome in some manner or the other. They aren’t lovers. They will never be. But they are bound by their suffering and constantly asking questions around it: What is it? When will it end? Why are they going through it?

The translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is concise and to the point. Having read Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami, also translated by them, I can say that the tone is spot-on. The atmosphere of the school world of Japan in the 90s is clearly communicated. I loved how the translation does not ramble away to explain anything – it lets the prose be for people to see and doesn’t tell anything.

Heaven is a book that might seem YA as it did to me when I started off but worked on so many other levels. The poignancy of growing up, but to have to do so when being exposed to bullying made me go through all of my school life in my head, and it wasn’t easy at all. Perhaps it was extremely cathartic as I did find myself not reading after a point and tearing up, but it was also needed to revisit it all, for life like fiction to transform.