The first-ever Indian winner of the International Booker Prize, Geetanjali Shree, has had a roller coaster few days since her Hindi novel ‘Ret Samadhi’ won the coveted literary honour for its English translation ‘Tomb of Sand’ this week. The Delhi-based author, along with American translator Daisy Rockwell, has been inundated with messages from around the world and the duo finds themselves swept away in a kind of whirlwind of excitement.
One aspect that has dominated the headlines is the spotlight on literature in the Hindi language, which the author hopes will trigger some serious efforts at maintaining the momentum.
“In its immediate aftermath, this has definitely done something to increase the visibility of Hindi literature. An interest and curiosity have been generated,” Shree tells PTI in an interview. “More serious sustained and organised efforts, however, will be required to really bring Hindi literature centre-stage. A prominent role in that will have to be played by publishers, especially in facilitating good translations from such literature. I want to emphasise that this holds true not just for Hindi but for all South Asian languages,” she asserts.
When asked if she fears that Hindi may be getting overshadowed by English in some ways in India, the author stressed that it should not have to be a choice of either or because languages have the ability to enrich each other.
“It is sad that it was ours and it’s available to us and a lot of us have lost it. But I think it doesn’t have to be Hindi or English. What is the problem in being bilingual or trilingual or multilingual,” she reflects. “I think humans have the capacity to know more than one language. We should just have an education system which encourages people to know their mother tongue, or another Indian language, and English; what’s the problem? But it gets completely riddled with politics and becomes a kind of unresolvable problem,” she says.
As someone who has been writing in Hindi for many years now, the 64-year-old author believes creative expression comes best in the language that one is intuitively closest to.
“It’s a kind of sensual connection with the language. It’s the smell and the taste and the sight of certain things which have come to you through Hindi, rather than through English. And it just automatically becomes the language that you want to express your creativity in,” she shares.
For Rockwell, as a prolific translator who fell in love with Hindi during her college days, sees ‘Ret Samadhi’ as a “love letter to the Hindi language”. “It’s a delight that many bilingual readers choose to read both works simultaneously to get the full flavour of what the Booker judges have praised as a “luminous novel of India and Partition”.
“I love that a lot of people are reading them side by side. I think that shows the real value of a translation when it brings people to the original and makes them want to go back,” says Rockwell, who is also the illustrator behind the cover of the book.
At 725 pages, the English translation runs almost double of the Hindi original, something the translator attributes to the “mysterious way” the two languages are different. But that Shree and Rockwell are perfectly in sync is obvious when they complete each other’s sentences and describe their coming together as a “kismet connection”. But the process did involve many “friendly” debates on phraseology, starting with the title itself.
“Samadhi, the original title, means many things. It’s a very rich word. And so, to capture that in Tomb, she [Shree] felt she was losing that rich word… but I promised to incorporate the word throughout the text,” recalls Rockwell.
The very act of submitting to a translation, therefore, implies some risk on the part of an author, but Shree isn’t too daunted by it as long as she feels she can trust the translator to capture the “atma” or spirit of the work.
“I think one has to realise that everything is going to be read every single time differently. The moment the book is out of your hands and it’s going to readers, it is going to be read in many different ways. It’s already out of your hands… you have to let go,” explains Shree.
Her next work, which she is not disclosing yet, is almost ready to be handed over to the publishers after she has emerged from the Booker Prize frenzy.
“I’ve never seen my phone behave this way… it’s so heart-warming; messages saying all of India is celebrating, with pictures of little feasts,” she shares. The author of three novels and several story collections, Mainpuri-born Shree’s works have been translated into English, French, German, Serbian, and Korean.
‘Tomb of Sand’, the first of her books to be published in the UK in English and which she has described as an elegy for the world we inhabit, impressed the Booker judges with its “playful tone and exuberant wordplay”.
The book now travels to the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in Wales this weekend and the Jaipur Literature Festival in London next month, before Shree heads back to Delhi to her nearly finished manuscript.