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27 May 2022updated 27 Jul 2022 10:13am

International Booker Prize winner Geetanjali Shree: “Women come into their own when they are older”

The author of Tomb of Sand on writing in Hindi, the politics of daily life, and why “people think English is the language of success”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Lots of people, including fellow Indian writers, are surprised to learn that Geetanjali Shree writes in Hindi, her mother tongue. “In India the so-called educated all know English,” the novelist said. “People tend to think that English is the language of success. So they ask: ‘Why are you writing in a language that will keep you limited within that geographical space, rather than give you exposure in the larger world?’”

Such questions speak to “our colonial legacy”, Shree said on Friday 27 May as she sat in the Groucho Club in Soho, London. The theme will probably be increasingly on her mind as her work finds a wider audience in English translation. The previous evening Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand, translated by the American Daisy Rockwell, had won the International Booker Prize, the foremost award for novels translated into English. Shree and Rockwell, who sat on her left, will split the £50,000 prize money for their historic victory: Tomb of Sand was the first book originally written in any Indian language to win.

Shree, an author of three novels and several short story collections, was born in 1957 in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, the country’s most populous state, and is now based in New Delhi. She grew up speaking both English and Hindi. “But when it comes to fiction writing, one uses the language which is closest to the intuition: the language in your blood rather than in your head.”

In translating Tomb of Sand into English, Rockwell was acutely aware of the power she wielded. “It wouldn’t do to be a translator of South Asian languages and not be aware of the colonial legacy,” she said. When she first began translating literature from Urdu and Hindi into English, she expected her readership to be in the US and UK, people who did not know anything about Indian literature. But her readers – “until today, perhaps”, she laughed – have more often been of Indian or Pakistani heritage, and highly aware of the fact they are not reading the original Hindi. Sometimes she feels they are “even a bit peeved at me for making them read a translation, which of course I didn’t make them do”, she said dryly. “They feel that colonial legacy. They feel separated from the Hindi while they’re reading the English,” she said, because they can’t “get at” the original language due to geographical or language barriers.

India’s colonial past is a subtle yet unwavering presence in Tomb of Sand, which was originally published as Ret Samadhi in 2018. (In the UK it is published by Tilted Axis, an independent press that was founded by Deborah Smith after she won the 2016 International Booker Prize for her translation of The Vegetarian by Han Kang.) 

The enthralling, confounding 739-page novel follows an 80-year-old woman, known as Ma, in contemporary northern India whose husband has recently died. At first she refuses to get out of bed and stares at the wall as though turning her back on life. When she goes to stay with one of her daughters she finds new freedoms and begins to live again, often wildly, and as though she were a girl. As she thrives in the present, we learn too of her painful past: the violence she experienced during the 1947 partition of India, and the displacement that she has felt since.

“Women come into their own when they are older,” Shree said, with a quiet authority. “For a long time in their lives they are playing roles, serving others. As a younger person they had so many social codes, so many fears, so many things that impede women, and of course marriage and children. It’s when they’ve lost their youth that they begin to get free, and they get freer and freer. It’s ironical and humorous because they are getting freer but their body is getting more frail, so they’re not going to be able to enjoy that freedom in the way they could have as a young person.” 

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That irony exists in the novel in Ma’s rebellious behaviour, which is both absurd and infinitely charming. As the daughter watches her mother, she wonders: “Don’t you think youth comes at the wrong time? When we haven’t lived at all.”

Ma develops a close friendship with a hijra, or transgender person, who appears sometimes as female-presenting Rosie, and sometimes as male-presenting Raza. While hijra communities have a long history in India, and some people spiritually understand there to be a third gender, as in the UK transgender people remain marginalised in mainstream culture.

As Ma ignores what society deems age-appropriate she “breaks out of her old body”, Shree said. “Transgressions” become instinctive to her, and “Rosie stands for another transgression. It came very naturally for this older mother to embark on a friendship that is not considered completely respectable.”

These characters object to the borders of gender, age and geography, too. In the novel’s final, plot-heavy third part, Ma and her daughter ignore visa laws to travel into Khyber. Soon they are surrounded by soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs. Shree’s intention was “to object to boundaries as rigid”. She wondered whether a border could instead be a line that works “as a bridge for two sides to meet, rather than something that cuts asunder”.

She wanted to make a “political point”, she said, because “it’s a political belief that a lot of us live with: we don’t believe in these borders”. One scene in the novel imagines numerous partition writers – Bhisham Sahni, Intizar Hussain, Krishna Sobti – sitting at Wagah, a post on the India-Pakistan border, and not recognising it as such. “They get lost, there is a lot of despair, because they don’t know which side they are on: which is our side? Because for them there is no border.”

Rockwell believes that there is a stronger tradition of political writing in India and Pakistan than in Britain or America, “where it is often considered sullying the art to bring in politics”. But Shree is more interested in the politics of daily life, in the “confrontations and collisions of the most ordinary kind. It’s often within the family that big political echoes reverberate. That’s very much the life of the subcontinent and, I think, the life of the world. I don’t think one has to try to be terribly political. I think it just comes. It’s there in the most ordinary, mundane action or word.”

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