Read part 1 of this story here.
When I drew near, my feet halted, as though stuck in place. As though a notice were affixed to the bench that read: ACCESS FORBIDDEN. Then I realized there was a magazine lying on the bench. I felt as though I’d seen it in the old woman’s hand that morning, and then I recalled the scene from earlier when she had appeared at our gate, holding a staff in one hand and this magazine in the other. She must have forgotten it on the bench, I thought, and leaned over to pick it up, but then I almost felt like I was stealing; no one was watching, were they? But I’m getting it for her, I thought with annoyance at myself. I’ll give it back to her when I see her. Nonetheless the eyes on the back of my head darted all about. Why did I feel guilty picking up a silly magazine? After all, it was possible the old woman hadn’t forgotten it, but had thrown it away, thinking, Enough, I’ve seen all I needed to see. The way we do with magazines.
I would have picked it up anyway, so that no one would come along and trash it: rain, wind, sun, trash picker, dog, cat, crow, pigeon. Why was I giving myself so much clarification, even getting annoyed! Arre, if you must pick it up, just do it, otherwise leave it there. So I reached out casually and picked up the magazine.
I flipped through it: on its cover was our office building. It was an architecture magazine, containing pictures of other old buildings as well: small bricks, arches, jharokhas, domes, screens worked with ornate vines. Mansions, forts, havelis, palaces. There were pictures of the interior of our building on the inside too. Wow, the old woman must have enjoyed this: Oh my, the sights I see every day, right in these pages! She must have picked up the magazine thinking, Come, let’s take a look here, and there, at this, at that, everything all together.
And our building certainly was worthy of appearing on a magazine cover. It was from the British period, a mashup of both desi and foreign styles. An English “nabob” must have lived here in high style. How sad it must have been to die and have the British Raj die out as well! Large is our lion-gate entrance, carved with bouquets. Ornamented cornices on the wall in front. Rounded pillars on the veranda, a large dome on the roof surrounded by narrow minarets, carved wooden jharokhas, and Victorian tiles.
Inside was a mosaic floor patterned with leaves and flowers. Chandeliers hung suspended from the high ceiling. There was a curving staircase, an old fireplace, and the moment you sat down on the large, heavy sofas, you would find yourself sinking back into the Raj era. You could be sitting there drinking coffee from a paper cup, but have the illusion that you were selecting a beverage served in a regal glass from a bearer standing at attention in a brightly colored uniform.
The carpet too was from that era. It had a paisley design, an ancient aroma, and was nibbled at here and there by ancient mice. It extended through the lounge and down the hall, creaking up the old curved staircase as it spread ancient mustiness and allergens everywhere it went. A beautiful curving staircase it was, on the verge of collapse, but somehow preserved.
The real problem was maintenance, since innumerable buildings of this type had existed in this city when once elephants had lived, but the Shanghaization had defeated them. Pushed them aside. You couldn’t fit the various cables and wires for telephones and electricity and whatnot within their thick walls. Such walls won’t bend unless you break them. They can’t be cleaned up, they must be wiped out.
Nowadays you will find only a few stray buildings like this about the city. Some have been purchased by the government for a pittance and turned into guest houses or tourist offices. Some of them have been bought up for dirt cheap by private companies and turned into five-star hotels. Our building somehow or other remained standing because it belonged to the boss’s father, whose eccentric wish was that no modernization would occur in his lifetime. “Such unprofessional design!” the boss would cry as he stamped his feet in irritation. His father had been reduced to half his former self by a stroke, but the commanding half lived on in the remaining portion. As long as he lived, the boss’s hands were tied.
It was a pretty pickle indeed, and the topic came up frequently, because maintenance problems arose on a daily basis. Old, eroded water pipes spreading damp in the walls that seeped into the electrical wires, and how could the pipes be changed if the walls weren’t torn down, and the walls could not be torn down. Don’t touch that, there are dangerous sparks, and over here, you could get shocked. The pillars and the walls remained standing, as did the switches installed in them, and the wires connected to them remained in place. The solution they came up with was for the water pipes and electric wires to be pulled upward into the open, and the switches were hammered down. Our pipes and wires were fitted in white cases and stuck out in all directions.
Compared to the other multinational offices, ours looked slovenly and run down.
The cleaners and painters had objections of their own. These old havelis put on such airs! And the artistry is so intricate that nothing is straightforward. Spiraling, vaulting, carved, trellised, ornamented; alcoves, doors, casements, columns, domes, great halls. So that reaching one’s hand into every crevice is a painful business and a time-waster, whether you are polishing, or painting, or sweeping daily. These old buildings are intent on throwing in obstacles everywhere, since everything—the radiator, the cooler, the hot water heater—operated via entangled, draping wires and pipes.
All that antiquity hunkered down! Earning nothing, and making you weep over the expense! Whenever a photoshoot occurred that made a spectacle of this antiquity for an advertisement or a film, they’d hand us some pocket money, but what would that cover? Not even tea for the army of cleaners that had been recruited out of necessity!
Basically, beauty has its place, as does work. These twisty-turny, impractical things, these symbols of our grandfathers and grandmothers, they’re all useless. Everyone agrees on this. Nowadays you want clear, straight, fixed shapes, where the walls are so smooth and sleek you can slide your hand across them from one side to another—swish! What you don’t want is for the flow to get stuck, collapse somewhere, get caught elsewhere, or fall down in yet another spot. Ancient tables and chairs can’t be pushed out of the way—you must walk around them, meaning the straight, swift, corporate gait goes to hell, and you must walk crookedly, lurching, springing, bracing. If your foot touches the carpet, it gets caught on a patch or a tear; if you walk on the stairs, the creaking will make your head spin.
Companies don’t run like this. They are sharp and crisp. Nothing impedes the productivity of a company. If you get too caught up in constant impediments and interruptions, then it’s curtains for the company. Let them go the way of the elephants, wherever they went, with their joyful, lazy gait.
Most of us wouldn’t even lean against the old staircase by accident. If you went outside, behind the office, there was a properly shaped steel staircase. Everyone avoided the more conveniently located curving staircase and used the far away, outside one, and quickly too. One day a lift would be built, and then we’d grow from three stories to who knows how many, and then you’d simply press the button, go upstairs, come downstairs, then go up again, then down, swoosh whoosh. Smart, convenient.
But there was a part of me that actually enjoyed the old foolishness. Maybe because I’m not from around here, and Shanghai has yet to arrive where I come from. Back home, my grandfather puffs on his bubbling hukkah, and when I think of him, I feel homesick. And for a fleeting moment, the old age, the old time, appeals to me. And at moments like those, the curving of the staircase doesn’t feel so bad under my feet, nor does the mustiness of the carpet offend my nose. I climb cautiously, and as I get to the curve beyond where those below can see me, I sometimes become a princeling of the old era. In my outstretched hand I hold an imaginary sword! As I walk upstairs, I encounter the newer era, and though I hold onto my sword, I become a wealthy non-resident Indian groom. I have returned home with traditional pomp and pride in order to get married. I wear a silk pajama, a brocade achkan, a turban on my head; I have a sword in hand, dollars in my pocket, shoes on my feet, and I hear the giggles and titters of my sisters-in-law and their girlfriends shrieking flirtatiously, “Dollar! Dollar!” Before I knock on the boss’s door, I reach the decorated bedroom where I’m awaited on the marital bed. I slyly push my saucy sisters-in-law out of the way—I’ll take care of every one of them, I’m a dashing fellow, and, blowing each a kiss, I walk forward to open the door at the boss’s “Come in,” as I push open the official door and put on my official face.
For one whose era was indeed bygone, she must have felt even more of a thrill upon seeing the old building. It must have been a moment of excitement during the course of her meaningless daily routine, when an idle child had cursorily read the magazine and placed it before her—and she must have thought, Oh, this is where I go for walks. And then she must have come to stand at the gate, magazine in one hand, staff in the other, eyes this way, then that. On us, then down. Why, it’s the same building! The sort of thrill that only occurs to a child or an old person. Light and spontaneous.
It’s nice, isn’t it, when life is coming to a close in terrifying old age, and there’s an oh-so-slight trembling, the slightest taste, for just a moment, that takes you outside of the relentless pull of death. Beholding the very thing before you, a picture of which you hold in your hand, can bring a sparkle to your heart and your day, and urge you to come, sit on the bench, let the river flow with you, the building behind you, the magazine by your side.
And so it should be. Sit peacefully, gaze at the river, we will greet you with a namaste, and you will be pleased with the greeting. Don’t impose the affectations of your era on today’s era. Or the bizarre eccentric whims that the elderly might demand but would be a disaster for the rest of us. Not convenient, not cheap, not simple, but they insist that this is only proper, this is polite. They can’t find peace, nor will they leave us be. The nooks and crannies fill with spiderwebs, but they mustn’t be removed. The webs must look like gossamer threads to them and they must not notice with their weak eyesight that the world has moved on from where they were, and where it is now, they are not.
I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the old woman. She’s fine. The river flows. What harm is it to anyone if she sits here. I was pleased she’d found the magazine. She must have relished the contrast between the real and the copy in her otherwise empty existence. She smiled to herself as though she felt that perhaps she herself had worked some magic!
And so I picked up her magazine for her.
All day long and during overtime as well, I sat by my window and clickety-clacked at my laptop. From time to time, I raised my head and saw the river. Then clickety-clack again.
The river looked lovely flowing between the cement banks. When it was sunny, people were busy. But after sunset, the chaat, corn on the cob, and peanut sellers with their baskets and spoons would begin calling out and people would come out to stroll with their children. Then too, the river looked beautiful. One didn’t notice when evening deepened and the blares of the chowkidars’ whistles began to announce closing time at Riverside Park. The people left, some lights remained and between them the deep, dark river. Still lovely.
Then along the banks appeared a police jeep, patrolling. Its headlights shone in the night like detectives searching with torches. But even then, the river was beautiful to me, as though there was a houseboat moving slowly along the shore, its light innocently bobbing across the water.
Why did this not seem threatening to me? Why did I not feel the suspicion in the air? Why did I remember nothing? So many police? Such silence? So much sleuthing? So much progress? Such prosperity? An elderly woman? The rains hanging suspended above the odor of smoke?
Because I should mention this: there’s nothing quite like the rain here, and it’s not as if I’ve never seen rain before. But it’s almost like it doesn’t exist here.
A gray sheet begins to flap. It stops flapping and grows darker. It’s growing heavier, it’s coming down, it covers everything and lies there silently.
No puffy clouds float about. Just a gray sheet that’s grown heavy as metal.
Then the wind blows. But the sheet doesn’t move. The odor of smoke spreads. Of burning. Of ash. Where is the wind when we can’t even tell if it’s blowing?
But I’m not distracted. No one is. We’re busy with overtime. Perhaps we don’t sniff about because we don’t have the leisure. In terms of smoke, we get as far as the smoke circles we blow from our cigarettes. It’s also possible that if we absentmindedly set out after some other smoke circle, and arrived at something unexpected—for example, a half-burnt corpse smoking on a pyre—even then we’d not be distracted from our work. Rather, some of us have reached such a level of skill that we’d simply make that a part of our work as well, and we’d start selling tickets for viewing or photography. “See, see, dead body!” we’d call out to passersby, “Take photo, real-real . . .”
So this was the situation: life was beautiful and the city was intent on outdoing Shanghai, and the river flowed through the middle, the handsome images of the delightful divided city reflected in its waters, where the people and the lights of the city rippled, glimmering like the coins of the nouveau riche, and the tall business houses from which all the glittering emanated glistened in the water in princely style, and everything was rich with delight as it swayed softly in the breeze and threw off playful sparkles into the river like a fountain of fireworks, filling life with thrills and chills.
Amid all this, the appearance and disappearance of the magical old woman went unnoticed. Recollecting nonsensical things is frankly disturbing. If the meanings of such things begin to surface, you might get to thinking, and then you’d need to know where to stow such thoughts. And why.
She was for us just a tiny portion of the entire scene which remained largely forgotten. She was like the building crane that floats into the city’s skyline, and we look up with a jolt, our gaze traveling through the window. But how could someone so insignificant cause such a jolt? Or she was the smoke that lingers in the rains. But she was like that. Meaningless. Familiar, useless, matchless, echoless.
How voiceless was her image, I only understood the day she spoke. The day she again came and stood by our gate, cast a cursory glance up at my window, then went to stare at the river, becoming one with the bench.
By chance, I cast a glance at the magazine I had picked up and blew off the dust that had settled there, before continuing with my work. Ah, old age, I said to myself compassionately. No need to slack off right now, I can give it to her during lunch break, my active mind assured her immobile back. By the riverbank. But it was less of a back, and more of a stone. Be happy, I blessed the back. Poor thing, she must be completely immobile, empty within, practically dead without; it will be like a breath of fresh air, seeing me, seeing the magazine.
When the time came, I picked up the magazine and went outside toward the bench. That stone, so perfectly still! “Mata ji,” I called out. Suddenly uneasy and finding myself turning to stone as well! I’m speaking with stone, what a fool. I’m breaking into someone’s meditation. How meddlesome!
“Mata ji . . . I have your magazine,” I whispered, as though confessing to a crime.
She turned. The river behind her. It framed her face, almost like a waterfall. In the intense rays of the sun, the drops of water became splinters of glass.
She looked at me, then turned back.
I just stood there. A two-bit magazine in my hand. Put it down and scram; beat it, I thought with annoyance. I put it down and was about to stride away, feeling as though I’d no right to be here.
Then the eyes on the back of my head saw that she was motioning me over. The magazine was in her hand; her eyes were on me.
“I am the mother of the mother of your mother.”
It was an imposing voice that seemed to scold me!
I also felt nervous. How could she be wispy and echoless, and at the same time, speak with such force? One’s composure falters.
Was this the voice of a master, or a man, or a woman, or a singer, or a principal . . ?
I started to clarify that I wanted to get away quickly. “I see you . . . from my office . . . you left your magazine . . . so I . . . you show up . . . watch the river . . . I’m right here . . . all day . . . insurance company . . .” I stammered, “Over there . . .” I gestured toward our building.
The old woman had picked up the magazine.
“Yes, yes . . . this one . . . same as that . . . our building. Old but not that old. There are Chinese dragons on the cabinets. And there are stained glass skylights. And brass vases. There’s an entire army to do the cleaning; vacuum cleaners are useless. Incredibly dusty . . .”
But what are you babbling about? She’s already read all that in the magazine!
“Two hundred,” she said.
Years, I understood. “Yes,” I nodded. “Eighteenth century.”
“Ghosts,” she said.
Ah! I got it. Two hundred ghosts!
“Yes.” I smiled politely, taking my leave as I turned away. The babblings of the old.
The matter would have stopped right here and should have, too. For what thread connected the two of us? She was an old woman, and I, a young man. She’s past, I’m present; she’s ancient, I’m modern. In other words, I had an established daily routine, my life was pretty okay, and my future didn’t look too bad either. It was said that we were the superpower of the future, and that the future was drawing nigh, and people like me would occupy the future, all the while creating it.
I had turned and was feeling reassured, when I heard a sharp laugh behind me. The old woman was laughing at me.
Before me stood new blue-windowed buildings. If you live in those, you can look out, but no one from the outside can see in. Those of us who live on the inside can also determine how many echoes, how much light, we’ll let in.
I won’t look back, I’ll only look forward. But somehow the old woman’s reflection flashed onto the new blue glass building, multiplying from one into many.
As though someone had licked a postage stamp of her reflection and pasted it everywhere.
The era of stamps is gone, I thought to myself with annoyance. Email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp. Harumph. I opened the door to my office, closed it, forgot the old woman, and would have continued to forget her if it were not destined that we would again come face to face.
As though we were playing hide and seek.
What happened was that one day our boss’s father passed away. A period of grieving was observed in the office, and we even went to his home to mourn. His eulogy appeared in the newspapers, and he was lauded as one of our most diligent and gifted industrialists. He’d been an architect of the city’s renewal, after it had burned to ash in the riots. It was he who started the process during which the future—us—began to unfold . . . and so on.
Once all the mourning rituals had been completed, we returned to work in an orderly fashion, when it occurred to the boss that now our building should be modernized. Architects, contractors, and builders began to come and go, and we all began to tell one another that this was overdue high-time imperative and here there are cracks in the building, and there the walls are crumbling and ramshackle, it’s a ruin, if no one broke a bone on the stairs, that was only thanks to the strength of new bones, but thankfully, the boss wasn’t in favor of delay and it was just as well his father had passed on, and now let’s get to work!
The contract was awarded to a fashionable architect couple, and we temporarily shifted to a rented office. Blasters were summoned to gut the old building. In just a few moments, it was filled with smoke, and the pillars that had held the roof above our heads had collapsed in a heap. The blasts were aimed toward a vacant area outside the building, so the walls could fall like trees. Without disturbing the surrounding progress. All the same, mountains of large, broken bits piled up everywhere and dust began to fly. The debris was beaten into rubble to ensure easy removal. The remnants of our building lay all about wrapped in ropes and planks and crates, looking every bit like severed arms and legs after an accident.
We would stroll over to take a look at the spectacle of our former building-turned-Egyptian-mummy and our past days disappearing in a cloud of dust. We’d feel a slight pang of regret as well: all the doors and windows had been pulled out, and what was left was about to depart into the universe.
It was during that time that that old woman also began to appear amid the dust and rubble. We were busy, we’d already forgotten her, but when we saw her appear, out of the blue, we spoke among ourselves, if we said anything at all. The old woman had abandoned the bench and come over here. Once the gate had been demolished, one could consider it open. No one stopped her, she just slipped in wherever she wished, fearing neither the falling of the beams, nor the blinding of the dust storm. She’d stand near the walls as they were torn down; or near the uprooting of the alcoves and wardrobes; or the shredding of the carpets, curtains and tapestries; and then she’d leave.
And return. For the old woman, all this was as exciting as the latest blockbuster movie.
So one day I was standing over there, and the boss had also come to supervise.
“It’s a good thing,” he said to me. “It was necessary. Calamity could have struck at any moment. Every single component had to be changed. A complete disaster.”
“But beautiful,” I said. The cover of the magazine suddenly appeared in my thoughts. And just then, the old woman appeared before us.
When I clasped my palms together to greet her, the boss looked over there as well. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, and rushed to her side. He helped her over and began to explain the details of what was going on all around us.
Can it be that no one would have bothered to tell me these old tales if I hadn’t arrived there at that very moment? When the boss was there, and she was there, and I was there too? This is how moments come together. Otherwise they disappear.
That was how I learned that this had been her home. Once upon a time. The boss’s late father used to work for the old woman’s husband. During the riots, the boss’s family had sheltered the old woman’s family. “As long as we’re here, no one can touch you,” they had promised. Numerous houses all around had been burned to the ground, but the solid walls of this house were only slightly grazed. But the old woman’s father and grandfather did not return to their home. The boss’s family members had said the situation had gone beyond the pale, they could give them no guarantee now, they must flee. And they fled. Handed the house over for a song. But the old woman survived. She still came.
I didn’t know how I felt about this. Perhaps it seemed a bit foolish.
Do we play hide and seek with ourselves? The dust of the building we were uprooting stuck in our eyes and ears, and then we could see nothing, hear nothing. So how could we know who tore it down? If we didn’t know, then what had we done? It wasn’t a crime, right? It wasn’t us, was it?
The boss called for a chair for the old woman and seated her on it. All around her the bundles of bones from the house were lifted into the air. Junk, which was stuffed into sacks and removed, no longer recognizable rubble, which the crane scooped up like loot and carted off somehow or other.
She stayed put as the old stuff was continuously removed. Once I heard her saying, “That carving is on walnut wood.”
So should we throw it away carefully then?
She sat for a long time, and then she must have left.
When we came back to work, the building was transformed. There were blue glass walls, but none contained my old window.
I went straight up to the seventh floor and turned left by the lift, and from that height, I could comfortably watch the river flowing by below.
One day, a long time after, a car stopped below. I looked down and saw two people taking her out of the car. They picked her up and placed her on the bench by the river side.
All day long I continued to work. When I emerged from the office in the evening, I was curious. I turned toward the bench. As I approached, I saw her.
“Greetings, Mata ji,” I said.
How small she’d grown over time, as though she’d been run through a shrinking machine. A mini-Buddha.
She gazed ahead, motionless.
Someone should say something. I tried to break the silence. Just then, the voice of the city arose: temple prayer bells and calls from the mosques to ask for God’s blessings. Voices in unison. From both sides of the river.
Since moving into the new building, I’d stopped hearing these voices; they didn’t penetrate the new walls. I was hearing them for the first time in a long while. Suddenly, they sounded alien. A bit frightening too, as though they were not voices of worship, but the echoes of war. When people forget, the familiar changes.
I felt I should say something. “Our building is all done,” I said, “We can see the entire city from there.”
The weather was calm. Neither cold nor hot.
The old woman turned toward me. The pure lines and wrinkles and moles and skin tags and swinging skin and age marks of her face turned toward me, as though the city’s paths, streets, hills, mounds, wells, gorges and drains, plantings, shrubbery, slopes, rocky wastelands, the city’s every corner and crevice, its entire map, was spread out before me. I was astonished: it truly seemed as though her face was lined with paths and layered with buildings through which dust and smoke flowed. There might have been elephants too, whom we had forgotten or had died. Or had they been killed?
The city murmured in the mazes of her ancient face. Everything was inscribed there, and everything had drowned there, and through it all flowed the river. And her hollow eyes were hazy chasms.
Hazy, as she was, too, the day I found her dead on the bench.
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. All rights reserved.