Last week, Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’ became the first Indian language novel to win the International Booker prize. The achievement marks a significant moment for Indian literature—which has long been represented by English-language authors on the global stage. Here’s a quick guide to the book and its brilliant author.
Researched by: Sara Varghese & Sheya Kurian
Not exactly. Most of us only know about the main Booker prize—which is awarded each year to a novel written in the English language and published in the UK. Five Indian authors have won that prize—starting with VS Naipaul in 1971, and most recently, Aravind Adiga in 2008. But Shree is the first to win the International Booker prize.
The International Booker: It was first constituted in 2005—and was initially awarded every two years to an author for published works in English, or works that have been translated in English. But in 2016, the rules were changed. And it is now given every year to a single novel that has been translated from its original language into English.
The aim: To boost literature in other languages—and to recognise the critical work of literary translators. As chair of the judging panel, Frank Wynne, puts it, it aims to show everyone that “literature in translation is not some form of cod liver oil that is supposed to be good for you.”
Point to note: ‘Tomb of Sand’ is the first ever Hindi novel to be even nominated for the prize. Previous Indian nominees include Salman Rushdie, Mahasweta Devi etc. More notably, this is the first Indian nomination since the rules were changed—to exclude books written in English.
Prize money: It carries a grand prize of £50,000, which is split equally between author and translator.
The competition: This year, Shree was up against some of the biggest names in the literary world. The six shortlisted books included:
Point to note: Fosse was the only male author on the shortlist.
Video of note: See the winning moment for Shree and translator, Daisy Rockwell below:
“Ma, at 80 a recent widow, has turned her back on the world. Literally. She lies on the bed, face to the wall, unresponsive to the Delhi winter bloom and to the entreaties of her rather functional upper-middle-class family. It takes her grandson’s strange affliction, the inability to laugh, to be addressed for one thing to lead to another, for Ma to be not just up and about but also for her to disappear.”
Ma’s renewed lease of life includes moving in with her daughter (Beti)—and then dragging her across the border to Pakistan to revisit her teenage years, and inevitably the traumas of Partition. In the novel, Shree writes:
“Here we are at Wagah, where the tale is drama and the story is partition. Is this the chronicle of the getting-smaller woman [ageing Ma] or is every story really a Partition tale—love romance longing courage pain-in-separation bloodshed?”
“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.”
The theme is woven into the narrative with subtlety and grace:
“When Papa was alive, she had put her all into looking after him. She was alert, at the ready, no matter how tired. Busy getting ground to a pulp; very much alive. Irritable, upset, coping, faltering, breathing breath after breath after breath.
Everyone’s breath flowed through her, and she breathed everyone’s breath. And now she’s saying she won’t get up. As though Papa was her only reason for living. Now he’s gone, has her reason too?”
Playing with language: Despite its weighty themes, Wynne calls it an “extraordinarily exuberant and incredibly playful book”—while The Wire praises it as a “loose-limbed, free-floating, breezy sari-sprawl of a novel.”
The tale is woven together from the point of multiple narrators—which include not just humans, but also birds, butterflies and even doors. Also notable: The novel’s dazzling and witty word play. Rockwell says it was one of the most difficult works she had ever translated because of Shree’s “unique use of language.” One example:
“It’s a passage in which the human brain is compared to a jalebi. It was just so unimaginably hard because it's written in this kind of fun, breezy way. There's sort of a vague way in which connections are made. I can make it sound vague, too. But I have to know what's underlying it. And so Geetanjali and I had to go back and forth, again, and again, and again.”
Video of note: You can watch what the judges had to say about the book below:
Yes, she is—though, embarrassingly, most of us have likely never heard of her before.
Basic bio: The 65-year-old was born in Mainpuri into a civil servant’s family—and spent her childhood in various parts of Uttar Pradesh. Her childhood influences include Chanda Mama comics, folk tales and the Mahabharata:
“It is not for nothing that it is said to contain everything. All possible stories, all possible ways of telling them, they are all there. It is audacious, wise, mad, humane, and clairvoyant. Perennially unsettling and inspiring.”
She did her BA from Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi—and her master's in Modern Indian History from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She then did a PhD dissertation on Hindi author Munshi Premchand.
Literary career: In 1987, Shree's first story ‘Bel Patra’ appeared in Hans, a prestigious literary magazine—and she published her first collection of short stories—titled ‘Anugoonj’—in 1991. In 1993, her debut novel ‘Mai’—which was nominated for the Crossword Book Award—brought her literary fame. She has since written four more novels: ‘Hamara Shahar Us Baras’ (1998), ‘Tirohit’ (2001), ‘Khali Jagah’ (2006), and ‘Ret Samadhi’ (2018).
Writing in Hindi: The language was Shree’s mother tongue, literally:
“My childhood was spent in different towns of UP where my father as a civil servant got posted... My link to Hindi language and literature was informal and personal. My mother spoke almost only Hindi. All around me in the UP towns there was so much of Hindi.”
“English is a language that I encountered in school: the ‘convents,’ to which we were willy-nilly sent, represented the snobbery integral to the assumption of the cultural-intellectual superiority of English vis-à-vis the vernacular. Talk English, think English, pay a fine for speaking Hindi except during the Hindi period, when we learnt only elementary Hindi. In school, we often picked up ungrammatical English spoken in conventy accents, became snooty towards Hindi, and in the process ‘lost’ both Hindi and English.”
When Shree started writing in Hindi, she had to translate her thoughts from English. But her bilingualism has also made her more playful with language:
“My bilingualism tends to be especially alert to possibilities of borrowing from other Indian languages, especially from what we condescendingly call ‘dialects,’ not seeing how the expansionist Khari Boli has been in the process of devouring them. I mix Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi with spontaneity in expressions like ‘shadeed vedana’ (intense suffering), and combine words like the Hindi ‘chori’ and the English ‘stealing’ to create ‘chorying.’ ‘Langda bahana’ (from the English ‘lame excuse’) also meets with my approval.”
A word about Daisy Rockwell: It is great testimony to Rockwell’s talent that she was able to match Shree’s inventive and unusual use of language. And the prize belongs no less to her. In the past, Rockwell has translated a number of Hindi literature's finest works including ‘Hats and Doctors’ and ‘Girti Diwarein’—both by Upendranath Ashk. Rockwell fell in love with Hindi as a college student and sees her translation of Shree’s novel as a “love letter to the Hindi language.” FYI: She is the famous American painter Norman Rockwell’s grand-daughter.
Point to note: Without the genius of skilful translators, much of non-English literature would be lost to the rest of the world. Here’s how Rockwell describes her art:
“A translator is like a musician, and the original author is the composer. There are an infinite number of ways to play Vivaldi on the violin, or Bhairav raga on the sitar. There are also a lot of ways to mess them both up horrendously so that the audience members clap their hands over their ears and run out of the room.”
The bottomline: At least 10 Hindi publishers went out of business over the past two years due to the pandemic. While English accounts for 55% of the books sold, Hindi accounts for only 35%—and the rest are in other Indian languages. A “bestseller” in Hindi sells a measly 2,000 copies. As Shree makes clear, this prize is not just about her novel:
“Ever since the book got longlisted, much has been written about Hindi making it for the first time. It feels good to be the means of that happening but it also obliges me to emphasise that behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi and in other South Asian languages. World literature will be richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages.”
The Quint has the most detailed profile of Shree. Scroll and The Wire have excerpt’s from ‘Tomb of Sand’. The best review is by Mini Kapoor in The Hindu. Outlook magazine has an interview with Shree—but her personal essay on her relationship with Hindi in Caravan is a better read (but behind a paywall). Scroll also did a great interview with Daisy Rockwell. Also read: The two-part series we did on the book publishing business in India: part one, part two.
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