Tomb of Sand & Booker: Can India’s Literary Elite Look Beyond English Now?

It has taken over a century for a literary work in an Indian language to break through the English glass ceiling.

6 min read

Acclaim matters to books and their authors. Awards and prizes matter – of course, the right kind of acclaim and the right kind of award, national acclaim as well as international. Like the International Booker Prize, which was won this year by Geetanjali Shree's 'Tomb of Sand', the English translation of her 'Ret Samadhi'. The right kind of acclaim or award rewards the author, confers on or confirms her stature and virtuosity, shines the literary spotlight on her, and encourages and inspires other writers, even as it engenders inevitable envy.

When a book receives an established and respected international literary award like the International Booker or the Nobel, it matters not just to the author and to the book but to their language and country, too. The author – in this case, the translator, Daisy Rockwell, too – of course gets glory, money and a brighter publishing future. But the language and its authors also get new recognition, salience, significance, strength and self-confidence.

  • The International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand, the English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi by Daisy Rockwell, is the first novel translated from an Indian language to win this prize.

  • "Every day, we are getting calls and orders from five-six new booksellers. This is unprecedented," says Rajkamal Prakashan's Amod Maheshwari.

  • This prize underscores the need for good translators of Indian literary works into English and other major world languages.

  • But the establishment that makes a fetish of promoting Hindi nationally and globally seems to have been stunned into silence by this historic achievement.


Breaking Through the English Glass Ceiling

These awards may not matter as much to already global, powerful literary languages such as English, French, Spanish, Japanese, etc. But they matter hugely to lesser-known languages from the third or second world. They elevate, energise and empower the entire publishing industry in these languages; they embolden such languages, as well as the authors, to aim higher, be more ambitious in their endeavours and broaden their horizons.

The International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand is the first novel translated from an Indian language to win this prize. The last big international award an Indian language book translated into English won was the Nobel prize for Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali in 1913. It was originally written in Bangla and was translated by Gurudev himself. Several Indian writers have won international literary prizes, including the main Booker since, but they were all written in English. Salman Rushdie, Amitava Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, and Arvind Adiga have become global representatives of ‘Indian’ writing for the world.

It has taken over a century for a literary work in an Indian language to break through the English glass ceiling and arrive on the world stage with a bang, bringing global attention to the supremely rich world of Indian languages that has largely remained little-known to the wider world.

It is a rightfully proud though belated moment for all Indian language writing, not just for Hindi, arguably the world’s third-most spoken language. Justifiable comments on the colonial gaze finally descending on the formerly colonised notwithstanding, the moment needs to be welcomed, cherished and celebrated.

Especially when, as the European culture reporter of the New York Times noted, “the novel claimed the title despite not having been reviewed by a major British newspaper”. The report said, “It is the first in an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize, and the first in Hindi to even secure a nomination.”

'Getting Calls Everyday', Says Publisher

What a coveted prize such as this does to the author, language, publisher and the community of writers and publishers is best understood in the words of its publisher, Rajkamal Prakashan’s Amod Maheshwari.

“Ret Samadhi is on its way to creating Hindi publishing history. It had had two editions when it was longlisted for the prize. After winning, it has gone into the eighth edition and demand keeps pouring in. It is number one on Amazon in literature and fourth overall. No. 1 on Kindle. Earlier, we used to chase big booksellers and chains to keep our Hindi books, to give them decent display instead of a small corner at the back. Not only is it getting the best display space in big, mainly English language book shops, but we are also getting calls from them to rush deliveries. Every day, we are getting calls and orders from five-six new booksellers. This is unprecedented."

“This means big for Hindi writers and publishers. For all Indian language publishing. The whole world of Indian language writing-publishing is going to experience a new boom, new visibility nationally and globally,” says Amod.

Not just writers-publishers, but the prize is equally important to the oft-neglected community of translators. We may scoff at the supposedly ‘colonial’ nature of the IBP being given to only English language translations of non-English novels and the additional condition that they must be published by a publisher in the UK or Ireland, but we must at the same time duly recognise that the prize accords the same dignity and honour to the writer and the translator. Both share the prize money equally. This equality of acclaim needs to be strongly applauded. If there were no translations, there would be no such thing as ‘world literature’.

It is through translations that a work of literature crosses the borders and boundaries of nations, languages and cultures and comes to belong to the whole world, a theme that so hauntingly permeates Geetanjali Shree’s brilliant novel. The managing director of Rajkamal, Ashok Maheshwari, had told me while gifting me the book three years ago that a novel like this doesn’t exist anywhere. He has been proven right.


Tomb of Sand Was 'The' Choice Among Big Names

While no one can claim that Ret Samadhi is the best novel written in the world since 2018 or even in India, we must remember that it won against some very big, known names. In the words of Frank Wynne, the chair of the judges for this year’s prize, ‘Tomb of Sand’ was “overwhelmingly” the judges’ choice, deserving to beat the five other shortlisted novels. Some of those books were by internationally well-known authors, including ‘The Books of Jacob’ by Olga Takarczuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist, and ‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami, the Japanese author best known for ‘Breasts and Eggs’.

For an international award, the intrinsic superiority of a work of literature by itself isn’t the sole requirement. It needs an extraordinarily skilled translator and literary intermediaries, such as agents or friends in the right places in the literary establishment abroad. In the case of Tagore’s Gitanjali, he himself translated much of the Bangla poems assisted by none less than his friend W. B. Yeats, the celebrated poet.

Yeats assisted Tagore both with the translation as well as pushed the book with the Nobel committee. Their friend Thomas Sturge Moore also played a significant role. Yeats even wrote an introduction to the English translation of Gitanjali.

In Geetanjali Shree’s case, Arunava Sinha, a Bengali and English writer, had introduced her American translator-painter Daisy Rockwell to the publisher of the English translation. It perhaps also helped that Geetanjali Shree wasn’t completely unknown abroad. She has more than one English book to her credit and has been translated into English earlier. Ret Samadhi itself had first been translated and published in French before the IBP.


Why Good Translators are Important

This prize underscores the need for good translators of Indian literary works into English and other major world languages. It is some consolation that many bhasha writers have been translated and well-received in English in recent years. Translated works have started gaining traction and attention across bookshelves. The phenomenon will now get a strong fillip. But much more is needed to ensure that this does not end up being an episodic euphoria of the celebration of bhasha writing.

Major publishers, governments and academia need to cast their net wider to spot, encourage and empower the vast pool of talent among the bhashas. The lives, loves, struggles, victories and vicissitudes and the colours and sensibilities of Bharat need to enter the consciousness of the reading humanity across the barriers of language, culture and countries.

Thankfully, the English-only elite have slowly begun to notice the merits and strengths of the bhashas they had forgotten or given up. Hopefully, this global recognition for Ret Samadhi will not only give Hindi new respectability in a class of Indo-Anglians, for whom literature and good writing begin and end with English within India, but it will also raise the awareness and profile of bhasha writing in general. For Hindi, long starved of respect by the non-Hindi elite and accused of myriad sins by narrow-minded politicians of some states, it is a new dawn of arrival on the world stage.

Why are the Hindi 'Lions' Silent?

One last comment. The silence of the lions of the ruling establishment who leave no achievement, big or small, by an Indian on the world stage in any field unsung and publicly uncongratulated is deafening.

The establishment that makes a fetish of promoting Hindi nationally and globally seems to have been stunned into silence by this singular, historic, unprecedented achievement of Hindi and a Hindi writer.

It is as if they fear that by acknowledging and honouring this work and this author, they and their ideology will be enfeebled. I think we should be thankful that the prize has not yet been attacked for being anti-India or a conspiracy. Thank God for small mercies.

(The author is a journalist and trustee of Samyak Foundation. He tweets @rahuldev2. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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