‘Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself’, says Booker winner Geetanjali Shree

Indian novelist makes a strong case for how non-English literary world can be just as vibrant


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 4:11 PM

Indian author Geetanjali Shree, whose novel Ret Samadhi was translated into English as Tomb of Sand by her American translator Daisy Rockwell (see box), created history on May 26, when she won the International Booker Prize 2022. She is the first South Asian and Indian to win the £50,000 (Dh231,300) prize, which was instituted in 2005 by the Booker Prize Foundation.

The award is a huge honour for Indian vernacular literature, as the novel’s universal theme of inheritance of loss set against the 1947 Partition resonated with a global audience.

Frank Wynne, the chair of judges, said the panel were “captivated by the power, the poignancy and the playfulness” of her 725-page novel.

“This is a luminous novel of India and Partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole,” he said.

The universal theme — the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries or genders — is likely to have struck a chord with the jury members.

Rockwell told BBC that Tomb of Sand was one of the most difficult works she had ever translated because of the “experimental nature” of Geetanjali’s writing and “her unique use of language”. But she added that the experience was also “great fun” and “liberating”.

Days after winning the prize, Geetanjali is coming to terms with her newfound global acclaim. However, she is a picture of poise while speaking to wknd. from London.

“It’s a huge recognition for my mother tongue and India’s national language Hindi. There is a certain hierarchy of global languages. Some are more well-known and successful than others,” she says.

Pride and prejudice are inherent in any culture.

Her literary feat has put Hindi on the global map on the back of stellar translations in English and French by Rockwell and Anne Motad, respectively.

“The honour illustrates that non-English literary world can be as vibrant as English. Other languages and their literature have a rich lineage that needs to be celebrated. The award has certainly drawn the world’s attention to Hindi literature,” she says.

To be sure, it’s the power of translation — such as the Russian, French classics and South American magic realism masterpieces — that have opened a new vista of literary conversation in a globalised world.

For instance, though Ret Samadhi was published by Geetanjali’s publisher Rajkamal Prakashan in 2018, it’s the translation in both English and French — done over the past two years when the world was reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic — that helped her work reach a larger global audience and triggered a conversation about her work.

Geetanjali, who originally hails from Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, was born in Mainpuri, which is in western UP and was exposed to the pangs of the Partition from an early age.

“My family may not have had suffered the trauma of Partition, but I grew up amidst the suffering that those who lived in north India in those times were familiar with. However, the book doesn’t deal with the Partition alone, but several partitions that have been bridged. My work celebrates pluralism and has a universal ring to it,” she says.

The outline of the plot is her tribute to tell a timeless tale couched in a particular period, where the unity of being — time, place and action — come in perfect harmony.

Tomb of Sand traces the transformative journey of 80-year-old Ma, who is crestfallen after her husband passes away. Soon, she decides to travel to Pakistan and confront trauma that had all along haunted her since she was a teenager, who survived the formation of two biggest nations in South Asia. Her unexpected journey is about a new and unconventional life, despite her advanced years.

The opening pages of the novel are a sneak peek into Geetanjali’s power of imagination that uncovers a layered narrative. “Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass,” she writes.

She suggests it’s best to read the book in its original and translation if a reader is proficient in both the languages.

Translation, she says, is the key for a literary work to reach to a wider audience. “India is a land of several languages. Translations must access other linguist group’s literature and help us start a conversation in a country known to celebrate unity in diversity,” she adds.

Geetanjali, who has been writing for over three decades, is yet to come to terms with the nascent idea, whether her book can be adapted for an OTT series.

“I’ve just won the award. I’m yet to give any thought to it. It’s too early to commit to any such ideas,” she says.

The prize money will be split between Geetanjali and Daisy.

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a book that is translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

However, the award is different from the Man Booker Prize which is for English novels and has been won by Indians in the past, including Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga.

Her novel competed against five other shortlisted titles, by Mieko Kawakami (Japanese), Bora Chung (Korean), Jon Fosse (Norwegian), Claudia Pineiro (Spanish) and former winner Olga Tokarczuk (Polish).

Tomb of Sand has been published by Tilted Axis Press and Penguin Books India.

She is a painter and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature, and lives in New England, USA. She paints under the alias Lapata, which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconding”.

She grew up in a family of artists in western Massachusetts, some whose works adorn the surfaces of chinaware and brightens up the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices, and others whose artistic output has found more select audiences.

She has a Ph.D in South Asian literature, a book on the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk.

Author Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell pose with the 2022 International Booker Prize
Author Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell pose with the 2022 International Booker Prize

Who is Daisy Rockwell?

She has published numerous translations from Hindi and Urdu, including Ashk’s Falling Walls (2015), Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (2016), and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard. Her translation of Krishna Sobti’s final novel, A Gujarat here, a Gujarat there (Penguin, 2019) was awarded the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Translation of a Literary Work in 2019. She has also written The Little Book of Terror, a volume of paintings and essays on the Global War on Terror (Foxhead Books, 2012), and her novel Taste was published by Foxhead Books in April 2014.


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