Let us go somewhere quiet,’ suggests Geetanjali Shree, the first Indian author to win the International Booker Prize, when I meet her for an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the recently concluded Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The author, who rose to fame after her novel Ret Samadhi translated into English as Tomb of Sands won the prize, says ‘she loves her solitude’.
Dressed in bright pink salwar kameez, her salt and pepper hair clipped into a loose bun and her quiet observing eyes lined with kohl, the 65-year-old is happy to sit down after having had a busy day discussing her book, fielding questions, and posing for pictures. I cannot miss noticing her bag with pictures of crows on them - the bird in her novel that can not only talk but perceive human thoughts too! She follows my line of sight and exclaims with a smile, ‘I carry them with me now.’
Last May, Geetanjali’s Tomb of Sand, beat five other finalists including Polish Nobel literature laurate, Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, to win the International Booker Prize with one of the judges praising it a ‘loud and irresistible’. Translator Frank Wynne, who chaired the judging panel, applauded her book saying, ‘We were won over by the joyous polyphony of Tomb of Sand, that explores crucial issues of grief and identity with wit and humour, while being powerfully human. I have never read nothing like this, this year or any year.’
Geethanjali fondly recollects that when the winner for The International Booker Prize was announced, it took several seconds for her to comprehend that the name announced was hers. ‘The translator actually had to walk towards me and kind of shake me out of my reverie,’ exclaims the Delhi-based author. ‘It came as a wonderful bolt from the blue.’
When Geetanjali’s novel, originally written in Hindi, was released in India, the response was mixed. Some found it impenetrable, others called it an experimental masterpiece. Geetanjali was aware of the risks she was taking when authoring an intense piece of literature and knew that she could not be sure of the response. ‘You are going on a journey that is unknown, so there is a risk. You should anyway be prepared for complete failure,’ she explains. That was perhaps why Geetanjali was stunned when the book, in an English translation, captivated critics and literary committees in the West.
The high-profile award recognizes fiction from the around the world that has been translated into English. Ret Samadhi was translated into English by American translator Daisy Rockwell. Geetanjali shares her 50,000-pound prize money with Daisy. Upon receiving the award, Geethanjali said: ‘This is not about me, the individual. I represent a language and culture and this recognition brings into purview the entire world of Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature as a whole.’
With five novels to her name, the author has been a fixture in the Indian literary landscape for more than three decades. In 2003, her book Mai that addresses the invisibility of women in families, won the Sahitya Akademy Award, the highest literary award in India. However, arguably it is the International Booker Prize that put her on the global map. ‘I had heard of the Booker, it was somewhere there, [I] never really brought it into my world,’ she explains. ‘It took some time to sink in, the more it sinks in the more I realize its huge recognition. I feel humbled and honoured.’
Set in northern India, Tomb of Sand chronicles the life of an 80-year-old woman who slips into a deep depression and turns her back, quite literally, on the world after the death of her husband before resurfacing with a new lease of life.
I do my first draft with complete focus and attention, but I like to keep tinkering with the draft. You keep tweaking sentences, rearranging them. It is like you have the diamond and you just keep cutting it and polishing it until it gets finer and finer.
Geetanjali always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Raised at a time when the reading culture was high she recalls how her father, a bureaucrat, was also a writer ‘and there was always that atmosphere around the house’.
Very early on, her mother told her that she was a rare child who didn’t want to hear stories but tell them. Growing up in Allahabad, she had the opportunity to interact with many prolific Hindi and Urdu writers. A student of History who studied at Lady Shri Ram College and JNU in New Delhi, she admits she never quite felt that she was in her element while studying the subject, ‘for I wanted to be the one writing stories, not analysing them’.
It was while on a train journey in her late twenties that it dawned on her that her dream to be a writer had remained unfulfilled. In sheer panic, she penned her first short story. When her husband, historian Sudhir Chandra, who was accompanying her read the story, he said it didn’t seem like a story from a first-time writer. Encouraged, she wrote Bel Patra, a short story that was published in the literary magazine, Hans, in 1987.
She has since published five novels and five short story collections, all in Hindi; some of them have been translated into English, French and German.
Geetanjali’s formal education was in English, yet she chose to write in her mother tongue, Hindi, not because she wants to make a political or literary statement but because ‘Hindi chose me,’ says the writer who has a doctorate on Social and Intellectual Trends in Colonial India: A Study of Premchand.
Writing in her mother tongue, she says, is intuitive to her.
A self-proclaimed ‘slow writer’, she lived with the characters of Tomb of Sand for close to a decade. ‘I begin with a seed - an image, dialogue or an idea, and from there it takes a life of its own.’
She likes to meander through the story where the reader is not only privy to the innermost thoughts of its characters, but that of inanimate objects like doorways, walls and walking sticks. A founding member of the theatre group, Vivadi, Geetanjali learnt that words are not the only means of expression. ‘There is voice in silence, colour and expression,’ she says.
The author, who takes her mother’s first name in place of a surname, says, ‘I do my first draft with complete focus and attention, but I like to keep tinkering with the draft. ‘You keep tweaking sentences, rearranging them. It is like you have the diamond and you just keep cutting it and polishing it until it gets finer and finer.’
Tomb of Sand is the story of women, particularly those inching towards the evening years of their life, coming to terms with their identity and sexuality within the traditional setting of an Indian family. Geetanjali birthed the protagonist, Ma, an 80-year-old woman, who portrays many shades of her character over the course of the story - Ma is quiet, then Ma spins from the gloom and shocks the reader. Is there a shade of Ma’s character she enjoyed exploring the most?
‘Every shade of Ma’s character has its significance,’ she points out thoughtfully before explaining, ‘The kind of spunk and the love for life that Ma has is something inspiring. She is not one to give up on living life. When people might think that at her age it is ridiculous for her to be interested in her skin and her appearance, she takes a lot of interest in her looks. I love that spirit, the liveliness, and the courage in her.’
Who is Ma
Geetanjali explains that the heroine of her story ‘Ma’ did not take birth from the image of her mother, a very jubilant 95-year-old, but from a common sight in families – old people lying in a corner looking disinterested in life. It made her wonder whether such individuals were just disinterested towards life after having shouldered responsibilities until the twilight of their lives. Did they not have a new interest... a desire that is still alive in them even as their bodies are failing them? It was this thought that sowed the seeds of a story that found universal appeal.
As for the other characters, some do not get a name at all, instead taking their name from the role they play in the family – Bade, the responsible; Beti, the modern; Serious Son, who cannot laugh.
Was the choice of those ‘names’ deliberate?
‘For a lot of these characters, it is not their individual story, rather it is the story of those who play a certain role. They continue in that way till they are individualized, then they get a proper name,’ explains the author, ‘If I am talking about say a character named Rosie, it would only be Rosie’s story, but when I use ‘Bade’ it is the story of all the elder sons. The story surely demanded that kind portrayal and to me that was important.’
The author finds the unpredictability of writing interesting and says that she does not have it all worked out when she writes the first word. ‘I do not think that I have to write about a woman discovering her sexuality. I just let something simple, human and ordinary creep into my pages because nothing is just what it is. It is always linked to other things. Other stories will flow from it, bigger stories will take shape, politics, history, and more intense things will get connected with it,’ she explains. ‘I feel like I am going on a journey with the character, and I allow the story to choose its own strategies and direction.’
In these times of Instagram and instant gratification, does the world appreciate art and literature?
The author who likes to write in absolute quiet explains that in this fast-paced world, literature and art are not about racing by, but they are meant to stop you in your tracks. ‘They are not about immediate understanding and responding. It is about finding quiet in your head so new spaces open up, and you begin to start thinking about love, life and death in a new way.’
Her words resonate with Russian poet and novelist, Boris Pasternak, who said that literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary. Research has it that literature helps us communicate better, while also throwing open a window that gives us a better understanding of the world and cultivate empathy for others.
She advises young authors to look at the world around them and see everything that people fail to notice. ‘We often look at things and don’t see them at all. So, start seeing them, start noticing, start talking about them. Love the world and its people. Write about that with honesty and find your voice.’
Exploring boundaries and divisions
Born ten years after the partition of subcontinent and growing up in New Independent India, Geetanjali makes it clear that Tomb of Sand, is not a typical novel on Partition but explores borders, boundaries and divisions between religion, genders and nations – particularly India and Pakistan.
‘Partition is very much part of our lives, ‘she emphasises, ‘I have known these stories, I have read about them. I have been to Pakistan, and I have got to know a lot about the country from memory, from people, from everywhere.’ She points out that as an author, she is always researching, picking up details, reflecting on them and they all become a part of her story.
For Daisy Rockwell, the translator of her work, it was no mean feat considering that their only means of interaction was via detailed emails. (It was only on the eve of the award ceremony that she first met Daisy in person.) ‘Daisy gave me a lot of faith in how she loves to play with the language. When she couldn’t use some of the Hindi words that were humorously coined, she would invent her own English version that was parallel to that,’ says Geetanjali. They had many discussions, not all resulting in agreements. ‘And the work is now before you,’ she says with a smile. The book is peppered with Hindi words, but eminently readable for someone with no knowledge of Hindi. An Arabic translation of her book is ‘on the cards.’
With translations of her original book available in English and French, do translated versions do justice to her original piece of work?
‘We have read Tolstoy, do we know how it sounds in Russian?’ she asks. ‘We are grateful that we have this piece of literature available to us in a language we can understand.’
Just as we prepare to wind up and she reaches for her bag, I catch the picture of crows on it staring at us. What made her introduce the anthropomorphic crows in her book? I ask.
‘Crows are very much part of our world, my world,’ she says, looking at her bag as if recollecting her thoughts. ‘As a writer you are giving not just your conscious layers, but many other layers a chance to express themselves.’ It was perhaps in such a moment of serendipity that crows flitted into her story symbolising the supressed desires of the male character who yearns to see his mother in beautiful, coloourful sarees.
‘The crows became dreams and desires, doing some amazingly fascinating things.
‘And now these crows have become a part of my life like never before,’ she says with a smile, picking up her bag to leave.