Geetanjali Shree made history by becoming the first writer in any South-Asian language to be awarded the International Booker Prize in May 2022 for her novel, Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi), translated by Daisy Rockwell, which is a deep examination of the fluidity of borders of all kinds – territorial, of gender, of age, and also time.
Shree has five novels and several collections of short stories to her credit. She started her professional life as a historian but did not stay one for long and leapt into a world of full-time writing.
The story, or kahaani, always had a captivating hold on her. She wrote her first story in her twenties, in a register, while travelling on a train. Her mother says that even as a child, Geetanjali would be more interested in narrating stories rather than having them told to her.
The world she captures in her books is not parochial or restrictive in any way but is a large canvas and full of cosmopolitan references.
On receiving the International Booker, she said:
“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.”
Seema Chishti caught up with her recently. Here are some edited excerpts of the conversation:
Technology and The Digital Deep Dive
How has new technology worked for you? You are familiar with new tech, I notice, but you prefer to not wade too deep into digital technology?
I represent my generation and my time, so I have not taken to the new technology in the same way as a lot of youngsters have. So who am I to say it is terrible or not so terrible? I am sure they know of some wonderful new things to do with the new technology. But for me, there is something about the slower pace which is very important in life. I think a slower pace, stopping to think, stopping to be quiet, letting the clutter get out of you, and some thoughts getting a chance to work themselves inside you are very important.
Those things get lost if they become too fast-paced which seems to become a problem for me. I think literature and art are not about racing by but they are meant to stop you in your tracks. They are not even about immediate understanding and responding. It is about finding quiet in your head so new spaces open up, and you begin to start thinking about life, love, and death, in a new way.
You need that quiet space and that slowness. I think there is much to be said about slowness. I don't think this is only because I belong to an earlier time! The pleasure, the sheer anand, of relishing music, for example, you slowly appreciate the notes flowering and the tunes that you can hear. That joy will elude you if you are always rushing. Slowness needs to be valued and preserved and literature teaches us, and maybe digital and tech takes away from that.
Is technology today really changing our lives that dramatically? Has it not always been like this when new tech comes in? Do we risk attaching too much exceptionalism to the tech of our times?
I feel that the world has changed at a pace perhaps different from earlier times. The pace of change of pace is a huge shift. The way speed has taken over is perhaps missing from earlier history and that makes things...this is a completely new situation we are dealing with.
I am sure there are people who will find beauty and positive possibilities for their times or for their future, but it requires a new kind of reckoning.
Ret Samadhi: The Movie?
Would you like to see Ret Samadhi as a movie? It reads a lot like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, so of course, there is a risk that it will be botched up!
I am not a terribly possessive person, so I will let it go after a point. I have so far had to only deal with translations. I was concerned up to a point, I certainly wanted the translator to be somebody with whom there is room for dialogue so we are at least on the same wavelength, a worldview and sensibility we share, I know that there is a possibility of talking about things, agreeing, disagree and agree to disagree, and so far, I have been very lucky.
I found that there would come a point after I would explain my position and what I had tried to do and we would work through that, but there would come a point where I would realise that it is not for me to decide but for her to decide. For example, with Daisy, she knows the language. Her language is different. Mine is conversational English.
I really feel happy when readers I value say what wonderful translation it was. That is the only test that matters as she has not done the translation for me; how much I like it or don't. I think it is a great thing, that they have enjoyed it so much.
Writing Style and Methods
How do you actually go about writing?
No set pattern but, AK Ramanujan, whom I often bring up, has written in his diary somewhere, that ‘I don’t go in search of the poem. But I put myself in a position where the poem will find me.’ So what I want to do usually is to find that solitude and that quiet and privacy in my head so I am ready to receive the muse.
As far as subject, content or the works go, something sometimes happens out there which you feel bad about, which you feel you have to write about that and you do. Otherwise, you are always living and responding all the time and stories are constantly floating about you and collecting in there.
Things that bother you, elate you, things you want to unentangle, play with, they are all there. It is not as if something terrible happens and you want to write about it. No. It is not like that. It is already there in your storehouse inside and you place yourself in that position so the muse will choose the moment and it will come.
Something triggers me. Like in this novel, the back of the elderly woman. What does it mean? Does it mean she is bored? Interested in something else? It started evolving as a story, that image and other stories from inside me kept finding their way in. And like you said, good to hear it made you think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it became a novel of life, what I know, around me. So it developed a huge canvas around me.
My way of writing is trust. That once I have made a beginning, things and my characters will bring up the stories and they will get written. I have another novel where the image that started me off was the image of the roof, chhat. In India and in many parts of the world, the rooftops are so close to each other that they are one roof.
It started to inspire a story within me, that downstairs there are so many restrictions and narrow-mindedness. But if you are up on the roof, who can stop you? A girl may come up to dry washed clothes and a boy living far away, may come up to steal a smoke, they may meet and no one will know. In a conservative mohalla, the chhat became an area of freedom.
This is the only thing that inspired me and I started writing, it became a novel of friendship of two women! That was a discovery for me. I had not started out to write on two women but I let that happen. It’s not arbitrary. It is all there inside of you. You have to discover, which story is it that it’s time now to start telling.
You are perfectly bilingual. Why not translate your own work?
Time, but also I don’t believe I would be a good translator. I don’t have creative English in me. Maybe if I worked towards it, I may discover my English and my creative English, but writing in Hindi, then translating it? I would rather write another book in that time.
What's Next For The Writer
Your next book?
I have a small novel coming up, if the Booker had not happened, I would be getting that ready for the press. I am not good at talking about my books. It bears no resemblance to Ret Samadhi. It is completely different.
Your Phd dissertation was on Premchand. Any non-fiction on the cards?
Time is a huge factor. I am a slow writer…I take 3-4 years for a single novel. Some are much faster, and they are always writing. I am spending a lot of time in a period which looks fallow but I hope it is not. Time is a factor for me. I often write pieces, even in English, because I am required to, in Anthologies and for conferences. But so far I have not thought of writing non-fiction.
You started out as a historian, have you thought about a historical novel?
So far, I believe much more in honing an intuition, without being fully conscious of it. So if I write a historical novel, I will have to do a certain kind of research, which at the moment, I am not interested in.
What has your experience been on being in the world as a woman writer?
I have been a luckier, more privileged woman, so did not have to deal much with obvious oppression or nastiness or 'me-too' situations but I know women have often had to suffer those things. Women from humbler backgrounds, trying to find ways of publishing, and be heard. I have developed a certain aloof personality, but I didn’t suffer as a result of it. I was lucky. Some stories came out in Hans (a literary magazine).
When I had the first set of stories ready to come out as a collection, I went to Rajkamal Prakashan, on the urging of my husband (historian Sudhir Chandra), who nudged me to send it to the top publisher. Rajkamal at that time was managed by Sheela Sandhu, who was such a gutsy woman, and what an entrepreneur herself, so I didn’t have to deal with a Godman, it was a very powerful woman.
She wrote me a very nice letter and said we want to publish your stories but will take some time. But contrary to this warning, the book was out in a year. So, I have been lucky. My own nature also shielded me. On being received very well, I am not so anxious or worried about public approval.
But I know that all women have not had it so easy. I also know that there is a systemic bias. Silence greets the work of a lot of women. There is a refusal to acknowledge that it is path-breaking. I think even Krishna Sobti would have faced this, that things can take longer than they can for a man. And if a woman writes one line on sex, then all hell breaks loose.
Men can keep writing and it passes unnoticed. A lot of things happen, that happen continually due to systemic bias. Women have to suffer comments, systemic violence, and discrimination.