Booker Prize Winner Geetanjali Shree Read Chandamama, Is Inspired by Mahabharata

Geetanjali Shree is the first Indian to win the International Booker Prize, for her novel 'Tomb of Sand.'
Saadhya Mohan
Art and Culture

Geetanjali Shree is the first Indian to win the International Booker Prize, for her novel 'Tomb of Sand.'


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<div class="paragraphs"><p>Geetanjali Shree is the first Indian to win the International Booker Prize, for her novel 'Tomb of Sand.'</p></div>

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"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," said Geetanjali Shree, who on Thursday, 26 May, became the first Indian writer to win the International Booker Prize.

The International Booker Prize is awarded to a work of fiction from around the world that has been translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The sister award, the Booker Prize, is given to a novel written in English – the 2022 winner for which will be announced on 17 October.

Shree's Ret Samadhi, translated from Hindi into English as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell, is the first novel in an Indian language to receive the award.

'Never Thought I Could': Shree on the Booker Prize & the Inspiration Behind 'Tomb of Sand'

From a childhood spent reading Chandamama and folk classics to an interest in the Mahabharata and theatre, the prize-winning novelist has had an interesting journey and has often spoken about the influences on her literary sensibility.

In her acceptance speech at the International Booker Prize ceremony held in London on Thursday, Shree said that she "never dreamt of the Booker and I never thought I could."

Set in northern India, Tomb of Sand chronicles the journey of an 80-year-old woman, who after her husband’s death, slips into depression. During the course of the novel, the woman decides to visit Pakistan to confront the past that she left behind during the Partition.

"Ever since the book got longlisted, much has been written about Hindi making it for the first time. It feels good to be the means of that happening but it also obliges me to emphasise that behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi and in other South Asian languages. World literature will be richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages."
Geetanjali Shree, in her acceptance speech

The Booker Prize website hails the novel as an "urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries - whether between religions, countries or genders."

Asked about the inspiration behind the award-winning novel, Shree quoted another Indian writer.

"I actually am fully in tune with what the famous poet A K Ramanujan writes in his diaries: ‘You do not choose and pursue your poems. You put yourself in a place where they happen to you,'" she said in an interview.

Describing her experience of ideating the book, she said, "In the case of Tomb of Sand, the image of an old, bed-ridden woman’s back, who seemed to care to live no more and pushed deeper into the wall, as if to bury herself in it, gradually took hold of me. It aroused my curiosity: is she indeed tired of life and the world and so turning her back to them, or slowly readying herself for a new and different innings in life? When she seems to want to disappear in the wall, is she wanting the end or actually wishing to burrow through and come out on the other side?"

Moving Towns in UP, Reading 'Panchtantra': A Peek Into Shree's Childhood

Geetanjali Shree was born in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, in 1957, as Geetanjali Pandey. She later changed her second name to the first name of her mother, Shree Kumar Pandey.

Shree's childhood was spent shifting between towns in Uttar Pradesh, where her father was posted as a civil servant, a biography of hers on The Booker Prizes website says.

She recounts reading tales from popular Indian classics for children such as the Panchatantra, and magazines like Chandamama, during her formative years.

While she was educated in English, her family and social milieu primed her in the Hindi language. "My childhood was spent in different towns of UP where my father as a civil servant got posted... My link to Hindi language and literature was informal and personal. My mother spoke almost only Hindi. All round me in the UP towns there was so much of Hindi," Shree elaborated in an interview with Outlook.

It was only natural then that Hindi became the language she later chose to write her stories.


LSR, JNU, Theatre & 'Mai': Shree's Academic Career

Shree moved to Delhi for her higher education, where she now resides. She completed her bachelor's degree from Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR), and then her master's in Modern Indian History from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She then pursued her PhD, which focused on the Hindi author Munshi Premchand, under the guidance of a historian from MS University, Baroda.

While Shree's first story Bel Patra appeared in 1987 in Hans, a literary magazine, it was after her first collection of short stories in 1991, Anugoonj, that she emerged in the Hindi literary circuit.

Her debut novel, Mai (1993), catapulted her to fame. The literary text, which was nominated for the Crossword Book Award, follows the lives of three generations of women. It was translated from Hindi into several languages, including Russian and Korean.

Since then, Shree has written four more novels – Hamara Shahar Us Baras (1998), which is loosely set around the Babri Masjid demolition, Tirohit (2001), Khali Jagah (2006), and Ret Samadhi (2018). Khali Jagah was translated into English as Empty Space by political thought scholar Nivedita Menon.

Her work has been translated into English, French, German, Serbian, and Korean. Tomb of Sand, which won Shree the 2022 International Booker Prize, is the first of her books to be published in the United Kingdom.

In addition to writing, the author has an active association with theatre since 1989, which saw the birth of group of artistes called Vivadi.

Inspired by Mahabharata, Influenced by Krishna Sobti & Hemingway: Shree's Literary Style

A number of Shree's works are foregrounded around sociopolitical events and the experiences of women.

"I prefer to say many many writers inspired me," she told the team of the International Booker Prize in an interview.

"Krishna Sobti showed me the importance of the smell of the earth, the cadence of the language, and the sheer materiality of description which makes the narration pulsate with life; Nirmal Verma dispensed quite a bit with the much-touted need for dialogue in his writing, and let atmosphere take over, thereby creating another kind of breathing in writing; Intizar Hussain enriched my imagination with his very ‘eastern’ way of telling a tale within a tale within a tale and blending epic, folktale, and mythology with the contemporary and everyday; KB Vaid thrilled me with his risky and risqué games with form and language; Sri Lal Shukl with sardonic humour coloured the personal with political; Vinod Kumar Shukla gave the mundane a slightly askance gait, thereby drawing attention to things and people forgotten or taken for granted."
Geetanjali Shree

She also named John Maxwell Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Halldor Laxness, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borghes, Osamu Dazai, Alice Munroe, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Miguel de Unamuno, and Gao Xingjian, among others, as her influences.

Sharing that the Mahabharata was the one text that changed her life, Shree said, "It is not for nothing that it is said to contain everything. All possible stories, all possible ways of telling them, they are all there. It is audacious, wise, mad, humane, and clairvoyant. Perennially unsettling and inspiring."

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjia, Maila Anchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Basti by Intizar Hussain, and Gora by Rabindranath Tagore were also listed by her as some of the books that shaped her writing.

The award-winning author emphasises on having an independent writing style.

"Be yourself - let no one peep over your shoulder to tell you how and what you may write," she was quoted as the best piece of writing advice she had received.

'Most Difficult Work I've Ever Translated': Daisy Rockwell on Translating 'Tomb of Sand'

Daisy Rockwell, who shares the International Booker Prize 2022, said that Shree's Tomb of Sand was the "most difficult" book she has ever translated "because of the experimental nature of Geetanjali’s writing and her unique use of language."

"For the most part, I have translated mid-twentieth-century classics of Hindi and Urdu literature. Tomb of Sand was my first truly contemporary translation. This was great fun for me because I am usually constrained in my use of language—I need to avoid modern slang and anachronisms, for example," explained Rockwell, who lives in Vermont, US.

Rockwell has translated a number of classic works of Hindi and Urdu literature, including Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls, Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard. Her 2019 translation of Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize. She also paints and writes, in addition to her translation work.

"The translation universe within South Asia is huge and rich. There are many, many talented translators bringing literature into English and also translating between various South Asian languages. Very little of that work is ever published outside of the region, so I’m excited that we can bring a taste of that to the greater world with this tremendous recognition," Rockwell said in an interview with the team of the Booker Prize.

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Published: 27 May 2022,04:01 PM IST

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