A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are... full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass. The setting sun gathers fragments of tales and fashions them into glowing lanterns that hang suspended from clouds.” Thursday night, May 26, the searing summer of 2022: acclaimed Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree was awarded the International Booker Prize in London for her 2018 novel Ret Samadhi or Tomb of Sand, alongside her brilliant English translator Daisy Rockwell. It was the first time a book written in an Indian language had won this prestigious prize.
I was at home in Delhi that night, reading—quite serendipitously one might add—about the summer of 1912, almost exactly a-century-and-a-decade ago, when a certain RN Tagore had come to London, accompanied by a few members of his family. The party had, upon arrival, promptly lost the manuscript of what was to become his world-famous work, the compilation of poems called Gitanjali. (It was later recovered from the London Tube’s ‘Left Luggage Office’.)
As I thought about the curious synchronicities that characterise the journey of books, I wondered casually if Shree, born in 1957, 16 years after Tagore’s death, was named after this most iconic of books. With the correct spelling too, the “badi ee” mirroring the Bengali way of writing the word.
“How like a Bong you are!” I can hear my friends V and A snigger.
It is, I must confess, extremely Bengali to link every literary Indian milestone to Tagore. But surely it is not quite out of the ordinary to imagine that Shree might have been named for this classic, especially since Tagore’s Gitanjali was well-known and well-loved across India, with most literary-minded families possessing a copy. Also, Allahabad, the city in which Shree spent many of her growing years, had a vital living connection to Tagore. Not only does the city still have a quarter called ‘Tagore Town’, the journal Modern Review, in which Gora, one of Tagore’s most famous novels, was serialised, was published from Allahabad. And whether she was named for Tagore’s classic or not, his influence upon her is clear: early in her writing career, Shree adapted the novels Ghare Baire and Gora for the stage.
But all this is incidental. What truly feels interesting to me about the celebration of Tomb of Sand in the Anglophonic world today—and there is no doubt that the Booker win will take this unique novel to many new readers—is that in the recognition awarded to this book, what has been really acknowledged is a literary lineage that feels refreshingly different from what the West is familiar with. In his Introduction to Gitanjali, Yeats had written: “Though these prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years, I shall not know anything... of the movements of thought that have made them possible...”
Gitanjali Shree’s novels too are the result of “movements of thought” in Hindi literature—which has its own deep linkages to other Indian literatures—and the discipline of history, in an intuitive yet sophisticated way. Her novels are capacious and playful; they render plot to second place, they meander and surprise; they are oblique, full of slippages, the truths emerging, for a brief incandescent moment, from the silences and the subversions. And finally, the language in which Shree accomplishes all of the above is both medium and canvas, a robust Hindi that is as sophisticated as it is earthy, full of cadences that I—not a native speaker—can only half-understand.
The first novel by Shree that I read was in translation. Tirohit, rendered into English by the supremely talented Rahul Soni, and titled The Roof Beneath Their Feet. It became clear to me three paragraphs in, that here was a novel that came from a different stock. Most of my reading constitutes novels produced in the Anglophonic world and in Indian English. To my limited knowledge, it was like nothing I had read of late, and instantly reminiscent of Krishna Sobti. The impact was electric.
This view was only confirmed by Ret Samadhi. (Incidentally, both Tirohit and Ret Samadhi are dedicated to Sobti.) In a brilliant essay called ‘The Dull New Global Novel’, author Tim Parks bemoaned what globalisation has wreaked upon the literary novel. His argument is that, “[f]rom the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension.” As a result, “[w]hat seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.”
In awarding the prize to Geetanjali Shree, who, by choosing to write in Hindi looked to celebrate exactly these subtle nuances of language and literary culture (carried into English as sensitively as possible by Rockwell), the committee has taken a step towards recognising the diversity and richness of the very deeply local novel. May this establish a precedent for the future!
Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College