“Something sets me off. That often becomes the nucleus of my creative journey,” says Geetanjali Shree, whose novel Ret Samadhi, translated by Daisy Rockwell as Tomb of Sand, has become the first Hindi novel to land on the International Booker Prize shortlist. The judging panel, chaired by Frank Wynn, said, “The constantly shifting perspectives and timeframes of Geetanjali Shree’s inventive, energetic Tomb of Sand lead us into every cranny of an 80-year-old woman’s life and surprising past.”
With a doctorate in History, Shree (64) is a notable Hindi fiction writer whose first short story collection, Anugoonj, was published in 1991. She has published five collections of short stories and five novels so far.
“I have seen many old women lying in bed for the entire day, with backs towards us. I have often wondered if they are turning their backs towards us or life,” says Shree. In the first section of Tomb of Sand, the mother is seen facing the wall. The narratorial voice ruminates upon the reason — does she wish to enter the wall as a dismissal of life or want to break through it to enter another dimension?
Shree’s work often traces an old frail woman, usually a mother with a haunting past, on her journey of self-reclamation —as in her previous well-acclaimed novel, Mai, and a short story, ‘March, Ma Aur Sakura’. One is reminded here of Ambai and her intersectional feminism in the short story collection, The Red Necked Green Bird. The mother in Mai appears submissive, managing the house by staying behind the curtain. But the mother in Ret Samadhi seems to be more aware, slipping into depression after her husband’s death, and eventually coming out of it to find a new lease of life. However, Shree’s novel is not only about a mother making peace with her gnawing past but is also a political satire on the times we are living in — this comes out most sharply in the way the transgender Rozi, whom the mother befriends, is treated by most.
Rozi sometimes behaves like a man and sometimes a woman. The alternating viewpoints “[lead] us to the philosophical idea of each one of us being man and woman at the same time,” says Shree. The mother instinctively feels a kinship with Rozi, much to the amazement of the daughter, who thinks she is more modern than her mother.
Tug to be masculine
While the mother-daughter equation demands attention, Shree says that readers tend to flip through the relationship between the elder son and mother . The elder son is frail and feels a certain emptiness when the mother goes to live with the daughter. He visits her but doesn’t enter the house. He feels a tug to be masculine, to not express his emotions — a side-effect of patriarchy that is less discussed in Hindi literature.
Shree’s language is playful and acerbic by turns, and the prose relies heavily on sounds, which give it a rich texture. In a particular section, through continuous iteration, nahi (no) changes to nayi (new). Experimental writing in Hindi is scarce, the few notable writers being Krishna Baldev Vaid, Krishna Sobti and Nirmal Verma. So It was intially difficult for Shree to find her footing in the Hindi literary scene. Ret Samadhi, though appreciated by writers and critics, found a lukewarm response from a large body of readers. But, Shree says, “I haven’t ever cared about anything except my writing.”
The translation tries to preserve the nuances and deliver the context to a Western audience while staying true to the original. “People talk on and on about the gain and loss in a translation. A rich text is definitely enriched, albeit differently, by a good translation. My rapport with the translator is what matters the most,” Shree says. The Booker International splits the prize money of £50,000 equally between the author and translator. India will be rooting for Shree at the award ceremony on May 26 in London that Shree has been ivited to attend.
The writer is an award-winning poet from New Delhi.