The riots made this city famous. Well, not the riots themselves, but the glitter and glamor that most definitely resulted from the riots. Had the city not been so jammed and jumbled, chaos would not have broken out. And if chaos hadn’t broken out, there would never have been such a cleanup. The factions were divided so neatly the city shone. One faction this side of the river, one that side, and each clearly recognizable in its place. As though factories had been built on either side to manufacture each faction’s particular costumes and masks, and absolutely everyone appeared only in their respective attire. Everyone wore their assigned uniform, and everyone wore the same mask. This side wore theirs, that side wore theirs.
The outcome of this clear division was that you found yourself well protected in this city, surrounded for a great distance by your own kind. The sort of protection you feel in your own home, among your own pots and pans, your own familiar things. You’re pleased as you look around and see your own trees, your own fruits and vegetables, your own shit. And why wouldn’t you be? Your eyes ears nose are familiar with their fragrance and appearance, they go down easy, they slip softly over your skin.
It is certainly the case that if, due to error, or clueless bravado, or a moment of sleepwalking, you set out toward the other side . . . then oh my god and mercy me, this city will surely show you how tangible the feeling of vulnerability can be, how complete, and how pure! Nothing penetrates it, no cloud looms over it, no smoke obscures it. Clean, pure, blank, complete—this amazing feeling of vulnerability which will befall any traveler who might stray, changing his state and form in such a way that he’ll get goosebumps all over, his hair will jump in terror toward the sky, his eyes will roll back until they see not ahead but behind, and his gait will be divided in two as though by a knife: the upper half, a father, frightened and running; the lower half, a child, lethargic, dangling from the father’s finger, limping backwards.
But you’d only stray like this if you had a habit of sleepwalking. Generally this city has never been afflicted with that ailment, its people crisply brisk. Yes, some foreigners do indeed visit both here and there, but their case is unique.
Unique, and linked to another of the city’s specialties. That is, the great haste with which this city has not only adopted the look of Shanghai, but gone on to give it a run for its money.
What this run consists of is that all the old Sultanate and Mughal-era buildings, as well as all types of domestic style and foreign style vine-carved buildings are being demolished, and from their ruins have arisen blue glass-walled buildings, taller and taller still, that contain homes, offices, shopping malls, computers, escalators, fountains, hamburgers, and trees that aren’t really trees. And there are roofs that slice the sky into match-thin slivers and large quantities of foreigners both domestic and imported. Confounding the clean division of the city, just a bit.
This in itself is a wonder. Since it does seem that these foreign people have descended from the sky to climb down into these blue buildings, and the people below have burst from the earth, and that these, too, are two distinct streams through which the city is becoming new-old. But it’s as though a no-man’s-land surrounds them, so there’s no infiltration either from here or from there, and the two streams never collide, nor tangle, nor tussle. As though they too have a joint agreement to exist separately.
So, one crop with roots in the ground, another whose soil is the sky. Each in its own way is making the city a bazaar with its reasonable products, and Shanghai—peering over the malls and the multinationals and this and that side of the river, and taking in everything all together—is alarmed: Until now, there was only me! Who is this surpassing me? My god, woe is me, will their name be in the Guinness Book now? And then will all the foreigners want to go to them instead of coming to me?
There was already talk that this city would now be counted among the most beautiful in the world; global estimates were projecting such outcomes.
How could it be that foreigners would not flock to such a city? Sightseers came, businesspeople came. Foreign foreigners came and desi foreigners as well. Wearing corporate, ironed uniforms. The foreign foreigners had: pale eyes, pale hair, pale skin; the desi foreigners had: hybrid dress, hybrid diets, hybrid lifestyles, hybrid languages.
Of these two, both easily moved back and forth between the two sides of the river. However, it was the desi foreigners who looked more nervous at the thought, and their hair stood on end and their heads raced forward as their torsos tiptoed backwards. And they wondered, Do we belong on this side of the river, or that?
I am myself one of those desi foreigners. I want to stay away from the politics of Where do I belong / where do I come from, am I desi or am I a foreigner, and do I belong on this side of the river or that? I’ve come here to work, for a well-known Israeli company that sells insurance. They give me housing, phone, medical care, travel, everything, and send me on work trips all over the place where I stay in five-star hotels and work out in the gym after meetings, or splash about in the pool, or sweat it out in the sauna till I come out clean and fresh. It is not in my nature to fight and quarrel, nor do I wish to get in anyone’s way, or for anyone to get in mine. That’s all I want. I just want to be left alone with my work, with my dreams: I’ll become a CEO, I’ll live in a penthouse, and one day I’ll marry a model, but not really a model, she’ll just look like one, because I’m still young. Quite young.
And she was old. Very old.
It’s possible I wrote this entire introduction just to get to her. Because if you don’t properly understand who she was and where she came from, you won’t find a straight path—or a quick one—to reach her. It’s only by tacking here and there that you can reach her. Or come near her.
Which was a bit strange. In a city where everyone’s place was fixed and it was crystal clear that you belong here and you don’t, there was one person for whom there was no clear fit. Or you could also say she fit in anywhere.
For she could easily appear anywhere.
Bizarre. Wherever she appeared she was an unusual sight, but at the same time she was supremely ordinary. The extraordinary became ordinary. Wherever she showed up was not her place, but it became her place. She could be anywhere, could belong anywhere. She belonged where she was today, and she’d belong where she appeared tomorrow. Whether this side, or that side.
Wherever she appeared, she was an unusual sight.
Completely ordinary too.
And yet: the extraordinary is ordinary.
Wherever she appeared, that wasn’t her place.
And yet: it became her place.
could be anywhere could
today she belonged where she was tomorrow
to belong there too
this side or that side.
It was indeed amazing that she seemed both out of place, yet not from another place. Even more amazing was that no one harassed her, nor told her to move along, whether due to indecisiveness, or out of carelessness, or run-of-the-mill anxiety?
Now how and what should we say about her? It’s so confusing! Should I describe her as belonging to this side or that side? Simply put: the whole city knew her, or at least recognized her, and thought, Oh, here comes that old lady, and as happens in such cases, innumerable tales were told about her, and as for which were imaginary, and which really real, and how could we listeners know how much was true, how much was embellishment?
For an elderly person to appear like this in this city, and so frequently, is unique. This city is for the new folk—like me—whose expertise is making it a global record. Tomorrow, expect it to be entered into the Guinness Book, and consider tomorrow to be here today. Here, all things old have been suppressed. Old memories beneath new hopes. Old phlegm in new paan spit. Old bricks in the gleaming new blue buildings where we work, live, eat drink sleep. It’s morning and everything is bright and shiny. I open the door of my thoroughly modern apartment, and I see, bright and shiny, the exact same thoroughly modern apartment of my neighbor, as if I’m looking into a mirror. But I’m not. And the person standing before me, wearing Fabindia shorts, is not me. We don’t know one another, but we recognize each other, which is similar to recognizing one’s own face. Between us runs a low wall, about three feet tall, like a plowed ridge, and he has built on his side, and I on mine, a wooden cupboard in which we stow shoes and old newspapers, and on top of which we place flowerpots and elders.
A wide cupboard made of strong wood. This is where you’ll find seated the home’s teetering elders, while the young people like me are ascending-descending in lifts as we rush off to the office. The elders bear a strong resemblance to the potted indoor plants that are put out morning and evening for a bit of air and sunlight.
That is where the elderly belong and you’ll find them all seated there, quite pleased, and memory-free.
But now that we’re on the subject, the thought occurs that memory may be an item in short supply in this city. We young people are busy. Right around the corner, the future is bright. We have no time for turning back, and back is where memory will be, if it exists at all. Rattling about in the rubble and the ruins. And in the remote gazes of these elderly flowerpots, which are worth what, really, in this Shanghaizing city, and anyway, since we are a family-minded people and lovingly look after our useless older-elders and dearly-departeds, we place them atop our cupboards to give them their daily air and sunshine.
So no one remembers in this city—no memories of anything, of how there were once villages on both sides of the river, and fields and elephants too, and how across the bridge a sign read ELEPHANTS LIVE HERE, and tender fresh vegetables were brought from the fields to the market along the river banks, and sometimes passersby stopped to buy fruit and have it cut open right away, and munch on it, or stow it in their baskets, and the children watched the elephants bathe and spew fountains from their trunks, and for weddings, people would read the sign that said ELEPHANTS LIVE HERE and climb over the bridge to fix a price with the mahout: of all these things there is no memory, not even in the form of tales or rumors.
And why would there be any memory, when all the villagers and the fields and the elephants and the elephant keepers are gone? Of course, it is possible they’ve turned into city people and the elephants have been stowed away in a locked cupboard, or they’ve been cut up into pieces and boiled into a soup. Whatever the case, all traces of the past have drowned in the river and now the banks are paved in cement and asphalt roads and lined with elephant-sized cement tubs overflowing with an abundance of city flowers. As you walk along that paved road by the side of the river, is there really anything there to remind you that here once lay a rugged sandy wetland and right where our fashionable feet are stepping, the river used to flood, and the corpses of elephants would float by in the surging waters!
Oh, was that long ago?
Because the meaning of long ago is not something that can be measured with a ruler, like 1,500 inches back equals long ago. The way these days you can stand two bigots, one from each side, side by side, but both will be fundamentally mired in the past. Or as the poet Firaq liked to say, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the poet Maithili Sharan Gupta lived only a mile or two apart, whilst Nehru and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan lived thousands of miles apart, but who was really whose contemporary? Philosophically, it was Nehru and MacMillan who were contemporaries, while according to Firaq, Gupta the poet was stuck in medieval times!
If we consider a different metaphor, long ago becomes meaningless. Like non-resident Indians and their mother tongues. For the first generation, the mother tongue is worth speaking; for the second, worth remembering; for the third, a museum relic. The most you can do is toss off a word or two you’ve heard from your grandmothers, smile, move on, and get back to work, where such words are meaningless obstacles.
The crux of the matter is this: that when the indoor plant-esque older generation appears outside to take the sun and get some air, the reason they seem to be memory-free is that there’s not a single hole piercing the time spread out all around them through which a memory might accidently slip. They with their air and sun, we with our lift buttons, are each, according to our age, occupied. What do they know; do they even happen to know anything about that old woman? There’s no thread of time that connects one person to another.
So if anyone old knew anything about this woman, who was also old, it did not reach our ears.
What did reach our ears were other types of things. Silly words that popped into the air and swam about carelessly, going in one ear and out the other, sometimes turning into a bird and hopping away. And we would lift our heads for a moment from our important work and relish their hop-hop cheep-cheep.
That she had died, and some said they’d seen her funeral.
That she was a chakka, intersex, neither man nor woman, and s/he preyed on both kinds, so watch out, my pretty, look, here she comes!
That she’s crazy, has been ever since the riots that happened at some point.
That she’s a murderer, thirsty for the blood of those who have messed with her people and cut them up into bits and pieces, and the unclaimed corpses and unsolved murders you hear about—her murderous attacks are behind them.
That she does detective work for a terrorist cell.
That she’s a Gandhian, which is a perfectly fine type of person in and of itself, but not of any use to this side, nor to that side, and no harm really, leaving them to wander to whichever side they will.
That she’s a robot, armed with a Chinese bomb, and if anyone touches her, she’ll explode and the dominance of Shanghai will be preserved.
Whatever she was, she definitely existed—to this I can attest. Whether smoke, which wafted in the form of a woman, or a being made of flesh and bone, or a machine, these eyes have seen her again and again. Continuously, repeatedly, ubiquitously. Mobile, at times, immobile at others. At times crossing the bridge over the river, or crossing the street, or tottering slowly down the lane. Sometimes standing on a pile of bricks staring at something far off, or walking steadily through the city, or vainly promenading amid all the road and building construction.
I had a view of the river and the bridge from my window. I’d pushed my table right next to it so when I raised my head from the laptop, I could see the view outside. The bridge, the river, the bustle of the city.
And she appeared as well.
A tall, sturdy person was advancing across the bridge. Man or woman? Flying or walking? Skating? In a simple cotton sari, that anyone might wear, here or there, the pallu flapping behind like a hawk or a vulture flapping its wings, a cane in hand that she tapped little, and waved about more like a staff, slicing through the air with a swish as though tilting at unseen moments or the insinuations of olden tales . . . she advanced . . . she was advancing . . . as her steps advanced, so too did her age, making her seem sometimes meek, sometimes dangerous, and always there was something about her that if you looked at her, you would doubtless feel like cracking a joke or making fun of her secretly, but beyond that, she wouldn’t let it bother her, nor would you feel like bothering her.
She’d come and she’d sit on the bench and take on a tangible form.
As though before this, she hadn’t been real! She was a butterfly, a bird, smoke! Flap flap flutter flutter crinkle crackle, a mere trembling.
She arrived and transformed into a rock.
All the questions you might have gathered in the moments before and after arrived at the bench and turned to stone. Wordless and motionless. Ever-still.
Could it be that she only became real when she became one with the bench? When she rose again—more smoke, finding shape in the air, wafting through the city lanes and over the bridge—and then returned to stone?
Or perhaps this is the power of image. That when an image sticks in your mind, it really stays there. It pushes aside all the other images so that even when you see them, they leave no impression.
So, the old woman was on the bench; that was all. Wherever else she appeared, she was a mirage, but when she was on the bench, she was simply that old woman.
In fact, even when she wasn’t there, she was still there. And even we began to say that the old woman was always sitting on the bench.
It’s kind of a funny thing, but whenever I saw her outside my office window, she was right there, right outside the window, by the side of the river, as though she had appeared there at that very instant.
And she had!
Anyway, essentially, the thing is that here we had a city which stood astride blood, conflict, cruelty, ticking along beautifully in its clear divisions—like a new clock—and in it lived, wandered, sat, an old woman who did what she pleased, who existed outside of everything else, be it customs, life, gender, weather, color, outfit or get-up, and no one bothered her at all.
But this was all beginning to seem a bit strange. In a city where everything was programmed and everyone’s time and place and motives were fixed, and we were pleased when we saw that when the clock said twelve, the twelve o’clock bus had departed, and if it said 3:15, the 3:15 train began to chug away, amid this, there was a woman who was crossing the street when the pedestrian light was red, but no one said anything, and a crane was scooping up rubble from an old building and swinging around in the air to load it onto a truck, and there she was, standing atop the pile of rubble as though she was about to be tossed out as well, and the crane operator was silent, and she continued to sit on the bench, even after sunset, even after the moral police had blown their whistles, telling everyone to get lost, you rude, obscene, single sex, opposite sex, amorous couples, and thwacking their staffs about as they endeavored to pull those degenerates out from the shadows, but the woman kept doing what she did: she was free, she stood, she sat, she wandered, capricious, stubborn. Or she was a ghost. Or she had nothing better to do.
No one said anything to her. The traffic police didn’t rebuke her, nor did the construction workers toss her into the cement mixer, nor did the cars honk at her, nor did the protectors of morality grit their teeth and blow their whistles. Rather the machines, cars, people, all moved to the right and left the way one performs prostrations before an august personage. And that regal, ghostly, ruined being, whatever you want to call her, would move on by and sit down on the bench.
But in any case, she died.
Or she was already dead, and then she actually died again, and this time, I became a witness to her death.
I know this is no way to tell a story, to tell the ending so soon, but for one thing, I haven’t come around to this business of clear divisions. I find it more attractive when there’s no clear shape; no sequential steps, like first this, next this, and next that, then the end. On the contrary, the city’s neat divisions of river people walls make me a little agitated, even now. This could be the reason why in comparison to others, I lifted my head from my work more frequently at the flickering of her image. I watched with interest. Feeling a touch of admiration, a touch of envy, as I thought, Wow, here is someone who belongs to no one but herself.
The other thing is that when it’s not even decided that the end only comes at the end, then which beginning and whose end is this? Who knows if the story ends with her death? And if she’d died before, too, then what was this that was happening after that end? Up until her next death? Who knew well enough what sequence of events was unfolding and where the order would come from to arrange it sequentially?
All I know is that I too had seen one of her deaths. On that very bench. By then she’d grown even older, and someone would bring her in a car and pick her up like a potted plant and take her out and place her on the bench, and then come and take her back later, after she’d had her sunlight and air.
Even then, I didn’t know whether she’d be buried or cremated, but when I ran to lift her up, I was certainly struck by how slight she’d become; she wouldn’t require a large grave, nor much wood. Her former manly gait and hearty build had shrunk, and whether she was from this side of the river or that, she’d only need as much room as a child requires.
How can I say with any certainty whether I haven’t skipped over some fragments of her story when I don’t even know how it will progress sequentially? When I witnessed her death, it could have taken place before or after one or more other deaths, yes, I can say that before this particular death, I did have a few opportunities to see her up close. Not many, but enough that I no longer felt the uneasy hesitation others felt around her, and what remained was a sense of enjoyment or at least ordinary curiosity. That wasn’t going to get in the way of my work, and anyway insurance work is extremely boring, so what’s the harm in enjoying a little free entertainment?
She would appear outside my window, framed by the river, the bridge, and the sky. From afar she’d come close. Before turning toward the bench, she’d rest at our gate. Sometimes it seemed as though she was looking at me, and my hands would start as they moved across the keyboard, and my head would sink a bit into my neck in the habitual manner of greeting an elder, and my palms would press together a bit, but all without me rising from the computer, without ceasing to work. Who knows if she saw or didn’t see, but she didn’t respond, or else I didn’t see it, as I was already back to work. These in-between moments were mere blinks of an eye.
But it was certainly the case that I’d grown accustomed to these moments and upon finding myself before the old woman, I no longer felt anxious, or tried to avoid her and tiptoe away. When it was time to leave the office, I’d go downstairs and turn toward my car, and then I’d see her back flapping across the bridge, and I’d turn my eye toward the bench as usual, expecting somehow to find her sitting there, although I was watching her walk across the bridge.
This is what I was doing one day, when, as I was about to turn and open the car door, my feet turned instead toward the bench. They carried me along!
The bench was just a short distance away. I was walking toward it out of some sort of idle curiosity.
But what was that lying on the bench?
Read part 2 of this story here.
Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize-winning Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell, is published in the US by HarperVia January 31, 2023.
© Geetanjali Shree. By arrangement with David Godwin Associates Ltd. Translation © 2023 by Daisy Rockwell.