A story is like a nomad: An Interview with Geetanjali Shree
In the past forty years, South Asian writers writing in English have made a significant showing at the Booker Prizes, the literary awards for the best book published in the UK and Ireland. Previous winners include Salman Rushdie (who has been nominated seven times, and whose novel Midnight’s Children won in 1981, introducing South Asian literature in English to the world with a bang), Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga—and even in 2022, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka won for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.
But the big news was sixty-five-year-old Indian writer Geetanjali Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand—translated by Daisy Rockwell—bringing home the Booker International Prize, the first time a book translated from Hindi had won in the prize’s nearly twenty-year history. Shree’s experimental and playful novel tells the story of Ma—an eighty-year-old bedridden woman who gets a new lease on life and goes on a journey back across a border that she thought she would never cross again. The English translation was originally published by Tilted Axis Press in the UK, and is now available from HarperCollins in the United States.
“Behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi and in other South Asian languages,” Shree said in her acceptance speech. “World literature will be richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages, the vocabulary of life will increase from such an interaction.”
I spoke to Shree on Zoom one late night in California / mid-day in Delhi in between a flurry of events and appearances that have flooded her calendar since the prize was announced in October of 2022. The author of four other novels, Shree’s melodic voice and serene and vibrant demeanor made me wish I could teleport to her city and hear her speak in one of the many storied literary spaces there.
The Rumpus: Why do you write in Hindi?
Geetanjali Shree: The question itself says so much! That a person should be asked why she writes in her mother tongue, when it should be an absolutely natural thing. What else should I be writing in except in my mother tongue? It’s the first and most natural choice for a writer to be writing in her mother tongue. I think the question to be asked, normally, should be why you’re not writing in the mother tongue. But this says so much about our history, about our colonial past, about the place of English amongst the educated in [India], that it becomes almost unnatural that anyone who is educated to be writing not in English, but in another Indian language.
So yes, I write in Hindi because it’s my mother tongue. And I think, like a lot of us middle class Indians, I’ve also grown up with an English medium education. But when it comes to something like the arts and literature, it’s somehow so close to your bones that almost automatically you go into your mother tongue rather than in the language you have learned formally in school. I must add, because too easily it becomes a story about English versus other languages, that there is no such prejudice in my head or heart about it. Those who find for whatever reasons that English is the language they’ve expressed themselves in—they’re most welcome to do it.
Rumpus: Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi) was such a pleasure to read! The playfulness of the language really comes across, and the humor—also the deep themes of women and families and mothers and children and borders. You write: “Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass.” Do these themes come up in all your books, and what was the inspiration for this one?
Shree: I haven’t sat down and studied what all themes I have written about before, since I don’t think of my books that way; but yes, all the themes you name and a few more as well. It is very pluralistic and very polyphonic and variegated. But yes, women easily and family, these are themes that I am interested in, but the trigger each time would be different.
In terms of inspiration, what has more and more become my way and more and more something that I have understood is that you don’t have to go for anything dramatic and big. The daily and the mundane are imbued with the big and the momentous. Every small and completely inane looking thing is also strangely connected to much bigger things, and each thing can have so many reverberations and echoes. What’s important is to find those layers, you know, as you go along. In almost all of my other works, I let small curiosities take me along.
The great poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan, in one of his diaries, he’d written that you don’t have to go looking for the poem, you just have to put yourself in a place where the poem will come to you. I really feel at one with that. You are carrying all your stories in you, from your surroundings, from your imagination, from your reality, from your observation, from your history, from your tradition—you’re carrying them all with you all the time. They’re building up. You just want to find the place where the story, for that moment, is going to emerge and begin to take shape and you can go with it. I just tried to put myself in a kind of mode of retreat and empty myself out and let the layers and whispers and the murmurs from within me become more audible and visible. And then I go along with that.
In this case, I think what set me off was just an image of an old person, an elderly person, lying with her back turned to the family, which is a very, very ordinary image, which is there in every family or everywhere, you know, elderly people who look like they have nothing more to do with this world. That image somehow formed inside me. Maybe it was there, maybe I picked it up from somewhere. And it stayed with me. And then that image stirred up my curiosity. What is it that this back is doing? Is it turning away from the world and from life, or is it turning away from the immediate family behind her? I followed that curiosity and that character, and that character started to do various things, which began to amaze me and amuse me and then a whole novel was on the way to being created.
Rumpus: Your book is dedicated to the Indian writer Krishna Sobti, another Hindi writer. Can you tell us about your relationship with her, and about the Hindi literary community in Delhi. It feels like a real community, as opposed to the United States where it is very institutionalized in terms of MFA programs.
Shree: The literary community in Delhi, well, it’s a very informal community at one level—and there’s everything that goes on within a community—there’s intrigue and politics and pettiness and support. In terms of Krishna Sobti, I consider her my guru and a great writer. She’s someone who people refer to as a “difficult writer,” which I find very unnecessary. I mean, why shouldn’t writing be difficult? The more important thing is whether it is good; difficult and good. Krishna Sobti was not an easy writer. You couldn’t just pick her up and read her in one second. But she was a writer of tremendous variety, and strength, and she was a person of great strength and forthrightness, and a person who you could absolutely iconify. She died a few years ago at the ripe old age of ninety-four, and right to the end she was very alert and aware about everything that was going on, very disturbed with the politics that were shaping up—and very upfront about whatever she had to say.
She was always very senior to me, and when we met, I was very much a new writer, but she was always very encouraging, not just to me but to others also, and she took all of us very seriously. She remembered what we were doing, and she would question us when we met. So right from the start, whenever I had the time, I would go and see her, which was actually not that often, but we just developed this relationship of great respect and affection. She was very, very kind and generous. We would sit down with a small brandy in the evening, which she would almost never finish, and she would ask about my work, and we would have that little evening together. It was lovely.
Rumpus: Your mentorship and community with Sobti makes me think of the many lines in your book about storytelling, and all the references you make to other writers. “Here’s the thing: A story can fly, stop, go, turn, be whatever it wants to be. That’s why our wise author Intizar Hussain once remarked that a story is like a nomad.” Is this an important part of your storytelling?
Shree: It is a line of thought which has probably been growing in me, perhaps something that I’ve been thinking more and more about. Perhaps it also comes from the fact that I am born into a literature which is in its modern form. Hindi literature very much belongs to the period just before [Indian] independence, and then concerns what went on after independence. And I think it was a period when social realism had a huge meaning and purpose for everyone who was writing because it was a new society, and everyone wanted to steer it towards a better future. So, this express purpose became the overriding concern for all the writers. Now that makes complete sense and I’m not deriding them at all, but I think it did become the sort of tacit rule and guideline that when you were writing, that you had to write about society for the betterment of society, and you had to do it in a way which is very easily communicable. You had to follow a certain sort of way which can be comprehended, the proper sort of story that a reader can immediately connect with.
I think somewhere I—when I say ‘I,’ I am not only talking about myself but a whole community of writers and artists—began to push back against social realism. Society comes into your work in so many different ways—it doesn’t have to be a verifiable, empirical, descriptive way. I think that spurred a lot of us on, and freed a lot of us. It’s like that Ramanujan quote again. I would say that we don’t have to go looking for the society, because almost whatever we do, society will come to it. So, just let yourself free in the field of literature and creativity. And, if you’re letting yourself free, then also realize that stories will not just go straight. Stories will go this way and that! There’ll be non sequiturs! There’ll be all kinds of breaks and incompleteness, and it’s okay to celebrate all that and see what happens.
Rumpus: Along with the meta-fictional elements in the book, there is also so much playfulness with the POV and characters and the way the story is being told. Do you feel like there is a lot of experimentation happening amongst modern Indian writers and artists today?
Shree: I don’t know if writers are thinking about that word “experimentation,” but it is happening in the course of searching out ways of saying what we are trying to say. Is there a lot of that kind of writing happening? Yes, the literature is very, very vibrant and many different things are happening. But I’ll also say that it’s not as if this is happening for the first time. I mean, if you go back to ancient literature, perhaps anywhere, and certainly in [India], you see it—look at our epics, take the Mahabharata. And what you’re calling experimentation I mean, come on, it’s full of every way of storytelling. It’s doing everything! It’s almost like there’s nothing new for you to do. In a way, I’m only copying. We carry on from things which have already been done, and we keep renewing them with our zeal and reinventing them and we keep trying to do something new. And sometimes, we manage with the same ingredients. And sometimes perhaps, we discover that we thought we were doing it for the first time, but it’s been done thousands of times before.
Rumpus: You speak so highly of your translators, not only mentioning your English translator Daisy Rockwell in your Booker acceptance speech, but also mentioning your French translator Annie Montaut. Tell me about what your relationship is like with your translators, and what the process of translating Tomb of Sand was like.
Shree: I’m so lucky to have these two translators for this book of mine. With both, actually, I’ve had a very, very rich relationship. I knew Annie, but I only met Daisy in person a few days before the Booker Awards Ceremony. It started with Daisy sending me a sample of the translation. When I saw those few pages, I felt that here’s somebody who really got the sense of things and is clearly enjoying the way I’m using language a bit crookedly—here’s somebody who seems to be in tune with it immediately.
After that, Daisy was sending me long questionnaires about lots of things that she needed clarified, which included messages where she said: “You know, it’s not really needed for the translation, but I need for myself, to have the context in my head when I’m translating.” So it was very fascinating, but quite excruciating sometimes for me because my work is not research based. I had to go back to my work and start sort of researching where I got certain metaphors from, what was the story behind my use of language, because when I am writing it’s just coming out. So, it became a conscious exercise of going back and researching and sometimes just guessing at what made me come to certain points in certain words and so on.
What’s important between the translator and the author is to share a rapport about the way of looking at things, you know, and feeling intensely about those things. So, I think the fact that Daisy felt as much love for language or playing with language made for a very strong foundation, and I think the outcome has been wonderful.
Rumpus: There has been a great deal of attention paid to the fact that Tomb of Sand was the first Indian language book to win the Booker International Prize. Why do you think Indian literature is not being recognized and translated as much as other languages and recognized on a world stage?
Shree: We must return again and again to the whole issue of hegemony of the English language. I think it’s unfortunate that English should become the pool where all literature is to be viewed. There should be more translations across languages; in fact, even across Indian languages. Why should Indians from different parts of the country have to read each other only in English? There’s a lot of things which are skewed in this whole translation story. In fact, in recent years, the quality of translations has really, really improved, so that’s a very hopeful sign. In fact, most of [the literature] that’s going out of South Asia is only literature written in English by South Asians.
Also, I don’t think there’s such a lot of translation being done of Indian languages. So, I think it’s a matter of accessibility—that it’s not been worked on and created. I think the world is really opening up, but it’s also made people quite insular. I hope something like the Booker win might do that. I was told that at the Frankfurt Book Fair, publishers were really interested in tapping translated works from Indian languages, rather than just going for the English. So, I think that’s a change one can immediately see, but it would only mean something if it becomes a sustained act.
Rumpus: How does it feel to be an artist in India, at this moment—or really in the world—with such a prevalence of right-wing and Nationalist leaders?
Shree: I’m really, really glad that you added in “the world.” I think that’s important because too often people talk about some places, like that’s where something is happening only. And there are other places where things are really, you know, hunky dory and you can do anything and get away with anything. That’s just not true. There are some trends in the world today, which are disturbing. There’s a tidal wave, you know. The world has opened up, but it’s also become more constricted. Vigilance has increased. Vigilance has become much easier than before, so everyone’s being watched. So, I’m glad you’re not making it India versus the world.
What’s happening in India… look, I mean, we respond to things at various levels. And let me tell you this: In some sense, the word has been endangered for a very long time, perhaps from the beginning. If the word is going to threaten the social order, it has to be stopped. Anything which is going to threaten the social and political order has to be stopped. And this has been going on perhaps forever. But I think writers cannot stop because writing for us is like breathing. We cannot stop. We have to carry on. By and large, I think that is what the situation is in India. So many people are writing and, indeed, I think there is a whole community which is carrying on saying what they want—even in this atmosphere of fear.