The Mainpuri-born, 65-year-old Ms. Shree follows in the footsteps of Indian-origin author Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy and Arvind Adiga to win the award. The book was chosen among 135 longlisted ones. The Hindi original was published in 2018 while the English translation hit the stores in India in March this year. “This rather chunky text,” as Ms. Rockwell said at the award ceremony, “is the first time the translation of a Hindi language book had been nominated for the award”. “Shortlisting from 135 books was daunting. Choosing a single one from them has been agonising,” as the compere said before the announcement.
Shortly before the award ceremony in London, Ms. Shree, who, has four other novels under her belt, told the media, “The plot challenges the boundaries of time and geography. It is recognition of a very special kind. When a work appeals to unknown people sitting in faraway places, then it must have the ability to transcend its specific cultural context and touch the universal and the human. That is true ratification. The work must be good; the translation must be excellent! It is a great moment for Daisy and me. The final selection for the Booker shows how rich and meaningful my and Daisy’s interactions have been.”
Her translator, Ms. Rockwell chipped in, “The longlisting brought the book many new readers around the world, in English and in Hindi as well. It also created an awareness of Indian literature written in languages other than English, and I sincerely hope that awareness will grow into a desire for more.” One of the finest works by Ms. Shree, Tomb of Sand had already received a lot of appreciation from readers, who found it melancholic, engaging yet funny. Based on a tragic premise, the story however has a playful tone and exuberant wordplay. At the same time, it is an urgent and a timely protest against the destructive impact on borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or gender. The book narrates the journey of an 80-year-old widow who travels to Pakistan following the death of her husband, confronting “the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist”.
Ms. Rockwell said, “I am honoured and overjoyed that the International Booker Committee has chosen to include Tomb of Sand for the shortlist. The subcontinent has so many talented translators and amazing translated works to offer to readers of world literature. Here's to many more International Booker nominations for south Asian literature.”
It is an unprecedented moment in the history of literature in Indian languages. Ms. Shree is happy to soak in the moment. International newspapers and channels vied for the attention of Ms. Shree and Ms. Rockwell who are beseeched with requests for interviews from across the world. Amidst all the chaos of flashing lights and reporters seeking replies, Ms. Shree hails her feat as not that of an individual, but an entire culture of literature of south Asia. “This is not just about me, the individual. I represent a language and culture and this recognition brings into larger purview the entire world of Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature as a whole.”
Ashok Maheshwari, managing director of Rajkamal Prakashan, the publishers of the Hindi original, nods in agreement, “It is a historic feat, unprecedented too. It is a moment of pride for Hindi literature and indeed all Indian languages.” His words are backed by early reports from the market. Penguin which published the English translation reported all copies sold out in the morning itself. By afternoon, there were reports of the book going into a reprint. Likewise, the Hindi book sold out on online portals even before the day died.