Stirring the Plot: A Wknd Interview with Author Geetanjali Shree
When Geetanjali Shree turned 19 and showed every sign of becoming an independent-minded young woman, her father gave her a hundred rupee note as a birthday present (an unusual gesture; one hundred rupees was a lot of money in the 1970s, and birthdays were rarely celebrated back then, let alone in the small town of Uttar Pradesh), and told him, “You can marry any boy you want, as long as you ‘He is Brahmin and in the IAS.’ Her father, an IAS officer, wanted her to take the civil service exam as well. Shree smiled at the memory. If he was still around (he died in 2002), he’d probably be happy with what she did instead.
A brilliant and celebrated Hindi writer with five novels and five collections of short stories to his credit, Shree’s latest and fifth novel, Ret Samadhi, translated into English as Tomb of Sand by American translator and writer Daisy Rockwell, has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (alongside 12 other books). It is the first novel translated from Hindi to be in the running for this prestigious prize. Shree made literary history.
When the book’s UK publishers, Tilted Axis, sent her word two days before the list was publicly announced, Shree says she didn’t quite get the implication. “I was happy, of course,” she says. “But I was a little detached.”
As the news broke, she began to feel humbled and grateful. “It would be very disrespectful of me not to realize the maan samman was given to me. Can anyone claim that this is the only Hindi work worthy of honor? Of course not. But I feel amazed at my own work, that so many people, sitting so far away, have read the book and loved it.
She does not wonder if she will win or not. She’s not in any race, she said. “Something wonderful happened to me. For me, it’s a Hindi moment of pride. Leave it there.
Spanning over 700 pages, Ret Samadhi / Tomb of Sand is the story of an 80-year-old Indian woman who loses her husband, turns her back on her life and family, and travels to Pakistan, home. Past score. This description cannot begin to do justice to the complexity of the story and characters, or the unique literary style of the novel. Some chapters, for example, are only one sentence; in another chapter, a single sentence spans three pages. One interviewer described the variable lengths as reminiscent of an ECG chart.
And then there’s the way Shree uses words, creating an almost musical rhythm, linking words together; by pairing others that sound the same but mean completely different things.
Read an exclusive clip from Tomb of Sand here
This also makes Ret Samadhi / Tomb of Sand a demanding read and an extremely difficult book to translate. “Why does a book have to be easy to read? Shree said. “I like the audio quality of the language, I like the turns of phrase. Language is about breathing, not just easy breathing, but fun breathing, different types of breathing. But you can’t have erratic breathing that will cause you to collapse. There must be a balance. Often, language is treated as a simple vector of ideas, of history. For me, language has its own independent presence and personality.
When Ret Samadhi first came out, in 2019, Shree sent a copy to French translator Annie Montaut, who translated Shree’s 1993 novel Mai. As soon as she read the book, Montaut announced that she was going to translate it. “She found a publisher. I’ve never even met them,” Shree says. “He was shortlisted for the Emile Guimet Prize in 2021, which was magnificent. Both Annie and Daisy asked me such detailed questions about the book that I often had to research myself and my book to answer them. Daisy’s translation is a tour de force, all the more remarkable considering that she and Shree have never met.
Shree’s journey as a Hindi writer likely began when she was still a child, growing up in small towns in Uttar Pradesh, learning Hindi in many registers – sophisticated kavi sammelans where poetry meets, the street, children’s magazines; but especially his mother. “I always spoke to my mother in Hindi. My Hindi was nurtured by her,” she says. “When I went to college in Delhi, I wrote long letters to him in Hindi. She is 96 today and she has learned enough English, but it is not her comfortable language.
When Shree started writing, she first tried English, but soon realized that Hindi was the language she wanted to express herself in. The question she’s still most often asked, she says, is: why do you write in Hindi (the unspoken rest of the question being, “when you could very well write in English”). “It could only happen in a former colonial country,” she says. “People here can say, ‘Oh, I can’t read Hindi’ or ‘Hindi is so hard’, without being embarrassed or ashamed in the least. In fact, some say it with pride. She pauses, then adds: “English is the language of power, it is the connecting language of the world and you must learn it by all means. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your rich lineage or be proud of that ignorance!
The first stories of Shree were published in the 1980s, in the prestigious Hindi literary journal Hans. Like many writers, she says she needs absolute peace and solitude to write. She and her university husband lead a quiet life in Delhi. She often escapes to write, sometimes retreating to a rubber plantation in Kerala, sometimes to writers’ residences abroad.
Shree has just finished her sixth novel Sah-Sa (which Hindi readers will recognize as a pun sasha or suddenly; sah or together; saha, to support; and her or as, as in “bada sa ghar”). She hasn’t sent it to the publisher yet. Why this hesitation? “It may be the Covid years. Maybe the world feels like it’s turning upside down,” she says. “Is there a tomorrow? Will the world reinvent itself or are we headed for disaster? I will send the manuscript to the publisher when I feel ready.