“The mundane is epic.” Will Geetanjali Shree win the 2022 International Booker Prize?

In breaking news Geetanjali Shree has just won the I Booker 🙂

Hindi novelist, Geetanjali Shree, has been shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize for her novel Tomb of Sand. The winner is to be announced on May 26 and I thought it would be timely to interview Shree as the countdown begins.

First for those who are confused by the two Booker prizes: one is for works in English while the International Booker is for works translated into English from other languages. This year according to the Booker website “…the shortlist spans six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish. Wildly original works of literature…this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level.”

Much appreciation goes to Daisy Rockwell whose initiative it was to translate Shree’s 2018 novel into English. The granddaughter of beloved American artist Norman Rockwell, Rockwell and Shree will split the £50,000 award equally if their book wins.

Tomb of Sand is a hefty novel that foregrounds the politics of family life, kinship and the quotidian using it to talk about much larger issues and grander existential themes. Can memory be buried or destroyed? Can stories be stilled? Who are the storykeeepers?

Geetanjali Shree at the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. Photo credit: Annie Paul

I sent Geetanjali, who is an old and dear friend, a list of questions that she has promised to answer two by two. Here then are the first two. Subsequent responses will be posted as i receive them:

AP: First of all, a million congratulations on being shortlisted for this global literary award—the International Booker. You already enjoyed tremendous success in Hindi and Indian literary circles, but this adds hugely to your visibility beyond India. Let’s also state up front that you and I are old friends from our university days at the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru University. It’s so good to see you finally get your due in terms of global attention Geetanjali and to have this conversation with you.

GS: Thank you dearest Annie. Yes, we go back a long way and we have been together in our experiences of the woes and naughtiness and fun of growing up, haven’t we?!

AP: We certainly have but let’s dive right into the interview. One of the admirable things about you is that you have always lived by your writing. Meaning that you never opted for the security of a day job and a steady salary to support your writing. What has this meant in terms of your lifestyle? Also have you ever taken a break from being a writer? Is that even possible?

GS: In the initial some months or a year or so, I did go into teaching for reasons of financial security, but it meant giving so much time to preparing lectures, seeing tutorials, going to work (I used to bus it) and being caught in all the rush and knots of the job. It kept me away from my literary pursuits and from Hindi, the language I was writing in and needed to pull back out from my blood. Very soon I realized if I am serious about writing I just have to take the plunge, security or not, success or not. And then there was no looking back.

I did not starve! But yes, the way of life was not luxurious. Sudhir, now my husband, was very supportive and let me tell you if the relationship is equal then that support is also between equals and does not amount to becoming dependent.

If you are a writer, you are a writer and it becomes your way of breathing. That does not mean you are plotting stories all the time or everything is grist to your mill in any cheap utilitarian way, but your relationship with yourself and the world is constantly honing your writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

So, sure, you never take a break from being a writer. But of course, you are not actively writing all the time.

Geetanjali Shree at the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. Photo credit: Annie Paul

AP:  One can’t help but be reminded of the mother figure in your first novel Mai—Mai — and the protagonist of Tomb — Ma.  Is there a connection between them? Also to what extent is Ma in Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi in Hindi) informed by your own beloved Ma who is now in her 90s?‎

GS: I was not thinking of any connection when I wrote the novel. But they could be seen as connected – Ma of Tomb of Sand is Mai asserting herself when she is well on in years!

Look Annie, a work of fiction is made up of so many elements coming together and its protagonists too are made up of several characters floating in one’s imagination, some real, some made-up from what-can-be or what-should-be. My beloved Ma is full of a spunk and a freedom not necessarily realized in her actual life. It is this remarkable quality in her which always inspired me. Her decisions and opinions came from a genuine humanity and she was often unaware consciously of the ideological implications of her thoughts. Like she never stopped us as kids from playing with so-called lower caste, even so-called untouchable children and that freed us of so many unconscious prejudices, making us also simply human.

Or – in the context of Ret Samadhi – a transgender woman would visit my Ma when she was living with my bureaucrat brother. My Ma would go to the nearby public garden for long walks and it was there that a transgender woman started greeting her. Then when my Mother would sit down on a bench or a culvert for a little rest and this person happened to come by, Ma would chat with her. The transgender person initially stood in front of her but Ma insisted she sit by her and they began to do it quite regularly and the two would talk away.

I met this woman only once and Ma introduced her to me saying Bua this is my daughter, and daughter, this is Bua. I even forgot about it but it must have been in me for it found its way into the book and I remembered only then!

It was Ma’s naturalness in her relating with anybody and everybody, without any sloganeering cheering her on, which I always found just amazing and so admirable.

May 26, 2022. The second batch of responses from Geetanjali is posted below, a mere hours before the Booker winner is announced in London.

AP: Your subject matter is quite intriguing. You dwell on insubstantial things such as the artifact of the story itself‎, “a story is like a nomad” you say for example, it is a living being.  What is it about this metafictional mode that you find generative or productive? And one might add this is not a new mode of writing for you, Mai, published in 1997 also employs the same style and technique of storytelling that rejects straightforward plot-driven narrative for a more discursive mode in which we are made aware of the various discourses we are entering or leaving. Please talk some more about this, tell us if there were influential or inspirational writers who led you in this direction.

GS: I don’t know quite where this comes from, but, the obsession with a focused central theme and straight-coursing content often bothers me. Perhaps because much of our modern literature comes out of the oppressive colonial past and the nationalism it fostered, there is an overemphasis on theme and clarity in the narration. As if that is the best or even only mode of telling reality. In fact it is not. Reality is always more than what it seems, and truth is light full of shades. Literature must capture some of that ambiguity and shadedness. As someone put it literature is there not to clarify but to confound! In confounding it stirs you on to think and explore and shakes up clear-cut rigid positions.

So I do not usually search for a main plot or story. It is in the daily collision of what you call unsubstantial things where big stories begin to unfurl. Because the ordinary also comes from history, from humanity, from the beginning of Time, and it looks small but is not. The mundane is epic.

Besides what is a central story? Every story is life which is indeed wayward and goes this way and that and I find that amazing and exciting.

I am not a cerebral writer. If a description can be given on condition that it not be taken as defining and definitive, I am intuitive. The consciously thinking mind constitutes but a fragment of what functions during the act of writing. In Ret Samadhi there is a playful account of how we think everything emanates from the jalebi shaped thing in the head called brain, while in fact that jalebi up there is very limited and it is all the other senses and organs which make us understand things and experiences!

“And what is understanding anyway—no one really gets that— where does it dwell? In the brain, which plays its tune as we smite our brows? This is what we’ve all been taught. That the rest of our mind and body and soul just hang loose like goop  from that jalebi-shaped brain. You’re like Alice and you go missing, and only your brain remains, suspended in the air as a smile? Nose eyes lips neck shoulder elbow knee ankle fist thigh runny funny tummy back plaque sac. all of it knavish slavish, all of it clueless mindless useless. If only we knew that all our other parts were so much finer than the jalebi brain the most regal of sweets compared to our simple tiny curly jalebis.”

Tomb of Sand, p. 368

That said, the subject of subject matter in general – not the subject matter of any particular work of mine – is something I’d like to talk a little about. Be it a novel or a short story, I do not remember having ever begun with more than an image, a word, or an experience, or some vaguely felt amorphous impulse to take me forward. Never with a preconceived plot or story or thought-out subject matter, waiting to be shaped into a narrative.

What, for instance, set Ret Samadhi – Tomb of Sand – going was an image. The image of an old woman lying in bed with her face to the wall, a familiar image in any part of the world.

Of my five published novels, only the second was overtly political and concerned with disturbing real-life events. Called Hamara Shahar Us Baras, it was written in the immediate wake of the communal atmosphere the karseva unleashed in Ayodhya followed by the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque. Despite that resemblance with concrete happenings in the external world, the narrative took a life and course of its own.

If ‘story’ could possess, even in Hamara Shahar Us Baras, that kind of – may I say – will and power, it has been irresistible in the other works. It seems uncanny that Ret Samadhi should open thus: “A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are.” That brings me to your observation about the element of metafiction in my work. Metafiction presupposes a sharpened awareness of the act of writing. One would imagine that the statement, “A tale tells itself”, implies that awareness. The author’s awareness that the tale is being told not by her but by itself. That she, the author, is but a nimitta, a medium.At the same time, the statement can also be a plain fictive device.

I believe that in my fiction it is not a device. The tale announces that it shall tell itself. You are right that it can be traced since Mai, my first novel. Except that I did not then quite realise what was happening.

Influences behind this metafictionality? Many. From the Mahabharata, PanchtantraKissa Tota Maina, the art of Ajanta to Intizar Hussain in our own day. Influences operate by getting internalised, not as discrete external elements.

AP: The subjects you dwell on in your writing are hard to pin down, conceptual even; “unlaughed laughter” eg‎‎ or “a story garden”; “laughter germs”; “the memory market” and bullets fired in one century that reverberate and reach their targets in another. There’s a playfulness with language and ideas, a rejection of the strictures of literary realism, yet what you’re doing is more than straightforward magical realism. How would you describe your style of telling stories?

GS: I am not a cerebral writer. That which, in the moment of reading, appears as conceptual to sensitive, analytically inclined minds like you, in the moment of meandering into my fiction it is never conceptual. It can appear as many things, e.g., memory, dream, a real-life event. But it is never a concept. That is what happened in each one of the cases that you off-hand mentioned above. Of these, the one that now strikes me as particularly poignant is the image of bullets fired in one century that reverberate and reach their targets in another. To the extent I can recall the state of mind in which that got written, it was a state of mind sorrowing over human predicament, not one probing the inexorability or laws of history.

Yes, there is a whole variety of playfulness. I am fortunate that it comes naturally to me. It gives me freedom.  Enthuses me into audacity.

 My style of telling stories? I believe that there is no single style that can be described as mine. A single style to which all of my five published novels can be said to answer. Unless by style is meant certain traits like freedom, avoidance of explicit realism, deference to the power and autonomy of language. But what these traits combine to produce is not uniform and similar. What their combination produces is a function of their interaction with what a particular work is about. If I may also include my sixth and as yet unpublished novel, Sah-sa, no two of them are alike.

There is something in your question, you will notice, to which I am not responding. That is best answered by readers and critics. 

AP: Tomb is dedicated to Krishna Sobti, a renowned Hindi writer of a previous generation, who has been described as the ‘grande dame’ of Hindi literature. Tell us more about the connection you feel to Sobti, have you ever met her personally? Did or do you have a relationship?

Krishna Sobti. Photo credit: Daisy Rockwell

Krishna Sobti was indeed a doyenne of Hindi literature. As wonderful in her person and personality as in her writing. Strong writer, strong woman, strong citizen. I first met her when I had just started writing and nobody knew of it. I can hardly sum her up in a few words but she was unbelievable – lived life fearlessly, on her own terms, would spare nobody her caustic tongue if needs be, highest power though they may be, she had lived the Partition, she was unsparing about the rot in politics and indeed totally committed to the best values in society, she came out in her wheelchair to protest against the fanaticism running riot in our society, and she wrote great fiction. And she had humour. Yes, I knew her, and we spent many an evening together talking, laughing, ruing the world over a drink. I want to send you the few pieces I wrote on her after she passed on. One is in English and it came out in the online journal Indian Cultural Forum.

She confronted the publisher over her earliest novel, Channa, for meddling with her rich “new” language mixing rural Punjabi colloquial with high Hindi (whatever that be!)

…Young Krishna telegraphed the publisher to stop the printing and journeyed to Allahabad to meet him. Her language represented the glory of undivided Punjab and she was opposed to this partitioning of the vocabulary. A partition as reprehensible as the partition of the nation. She believed in their unity. She had retained the lingua of the khetihar samaj and used regional words. She would not abandon them.

The fledgling writer paid the money the press had hitherto spent on printing and paper and took back her novel. Her first, which became chronologically her last.

“Krishna Sobti: The dancing dervish.” Geetanjali Shree, Indian Cultural Forum, February 26, 2019

AP: In a similar vein is there a writing community you belong to, or has writing largely been a solitary occupation? I remember that you, Sara Rai and I used to spend a lot of time at JNU daydreaming about becoming writers. Sara of course is the great writer Premchand’s granddaughter, so you both were already inserted into literary circles through that connection, and you went on to dedicate your life to being a writer. Did you know then that you would write in Hindi? As an independent writer have you found the literary infrastructure in India adequate? Do you get opportunities to share your work with readers across the country? Are literary festivals a crucial part of the ecosystem? What about the fellowship of other writers? Are there good networks you belong to?

Sara Rai in Paris, 2006. Photo credit: Annie Paul

GS: Yes, those dreams we shared – you me and Sara! I think we also grew up in a time not so long after Independence and in our own respective childhoods we had writers to revere around us, their idealism to inspire us. It was not the fast paced, corporate world of today which has no time to stand and stare and needs to get on with it quickly quickly!

It is a mixed story about the literary infrastructure. India is too big, the literary scene is plagued – as all other scenes! – by unevenness in economy, literacy, other resources. There is a network but not always smooth and united. There are conversations but scattered and staggered. Hindi itself is a huge language used across a large geographical area. It is enriched by many Hindis as it were, coming from different regions and from different segments of population. The Hindi from Bihar will be different from the Hindi from Rajasthan for example. It is a language constantly crossing borders. Add to that the fact of new literacies and new voices – women, so-called tribals, so-called Dalits, etc. It can be confusing but makes for a very vibrant scene. With the inevitable range of good, bad, indifferent, coming out of it!

Also remember the whole dispute about official Hindi has nothing to offer the cause of Hindi except to shame it and malign it. The single, standardized Sanskritised Hindi official policy wants to promote and force down peoples’ throats is giving a vibrant porous-border language a bad name.

I love the polyphony already present in Hindi and add to it the polyphony of India and you have a happy scene but also a confusing one. I remember a Sahitya Academy get-together once. In beautiful Kerala, your state, and writers from different parts of the country had to read out excerpts from their work, first in their mother tongue, then in English translation, so that we hear each other’s language and then understand each other. Well, the Bihari read out in Bihari Hindi and then in Bihari English, the Keralite in Malayalam and then in Malayalam-sounding English, the Gujarati in Gujarati and then in Gujarati-sounding English!! So no one understood anything!!

I am exaggerating only a wee bit. The point is we still communicated, and it was a great coming-together. Because communication comes from coming together and becoming familiar with each others’ ways and language is part of that.

Sure, more needs to be done to create platforms for writers. But not just to get together, also to keep to their solitary spaces. Because writing is ultimately a place of solitude, which should be facilitated with a support network of retreats, fellowships etc etc.

AP: Were the older Hindi writers welcoming to you when you started your writing career? Do you have relationships with other Indian language writers? I know that Paul Zachariah, a Malayalam language writer, has been a good friend of yours. Where and how are such relationships fostered and nurtured? Have you read many Indian writers in translation yourself? Have you ever been tempted to translate your own work into English?

GS: Welcoming, yes. I think I was very lucky. I wrote my first stories and wondered where to send them. Sudhir said why fear, send them to the best. The journal Hans at that time was very up and coming and its editor was the well-known Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav. I sent a story to him and he promptly wrote back that he liked it but they had just done many stories on discontented old men and did I have another story. So, I sent him two to choose from. And then he wrote back that the stories didn’t seem to be by a beginner but he didn’t remember seeing my work anywhere so who was I! When he heard that I had not been published yet he took all three stories and brought them out one after another with a special introduction launching me as a new writer.

Sudhir Chandra. Photo credit: Annie Paul

When I had enough for a book, again Sudhir said send it to the best. So I sent the manuscript to Sheela Sandhu who owned Rajkamal Publishers. She was another strong entrepreneur who is  listed among memorable characters who started their bold ventures in independent India, describing their valuable contribution towards making a new India. Well, she wrote me the sweetest letter ever saying they would publish me but they had a backlog and it would take time. And then in no time she brought out my book!

There were other senior writers too who were responsive and encouraging.

Other language writers I get to know through English translations and through literature festivals. Yes, I have forged some nice friendships through these and Paul is one such.

The world has opened up so much and there is way too much to read. Already in Hindi there is a proliferation of writing. So, it is hard to keep pace. I try but am not a systematically well-read person, I am afraid. Quite haphazardly I keep reading, picking up good things as and where they come, still remaining an ignoramous! But that also means there is so much left for me to do!

No, I don’t want to translate myself. If I have the time I would prefer to write a new something. Besides, just sounding proficient in a language does not equip one for creative translating work.

Yes, one day, for fun, I might play with the English language and write something in it. But no plan yet. There is too much going on and I am finding it hard enough to catch up with whatever I am doing as it is.

AP: How does inspiration come? Does something grow inside and finally bubble up to the surface? Or do you consciously think about a subject you’d like to focus on? Do you work on one novel at a time or several? Tell us more about your writing life.

GS: As I have already mentioned, I almost never consciously think of a subject I would like to focus on. Rather, I don’t go chasing a subject. I said ‘almost’ because very occasionally it might happen that a subject is so much upon you that you cannot but pick it up. As happened in the bigoted atmosphere that the disputed temple-mosque site in Ayodhya was surrounding itself with. And then the demolition which was a demolition of so much we believed in, in the way it was effected. Then I felt I could write about nothing but the vitiated Hindu Muslim relationship and how it is poisoning the most enlightened minds too. So I wrote a novel Hamara Shahar Us Baras with the subject focus clear from the start. I have spoken earlier about this.

But all other times I want inspiration to creep up on me and surprise me by its own choices. It is about letting yourself be quiet in a place and moment to let the muse take over.

This is not as mysterious a process as it sounds. We have subjects or stories, if you prefer, constantly floating in us and around us, enriching our intuition, made up of so many things – our observations, experiences, others’ experiences, osmosis, our histories and geography, our traditions and conventions, and of course our imagination and dreams or nightmares. They are all wanting to express themselves and you have to let them. Then they ‘happen’, find their voice, and take you along as much as you take them along. The story comes together and it might sound like it is doing this arbitrarily but it is not – you have by now a fine sense of design, proportion, balance, character, event, and various other things and know intuitively when to accept a turn, when to stop. Your aesthetic sense has been honed, your ideas and feelings are arranging themselves and your imagination is creating something from so many of these elements.

I usually live with a single work till it lets me free. An image, a small thought, a small gesture plays trigger and I follow it to discover more about it. In Tirohit (The Roof Beneath Their Feet) it was the roof in old crowded Indian neighbourhoods – they are so close together that umpteen houses share the same roof in a manner of speaking. And the possibility of traversing the length and breadth of the mohalla just by prancing on the roof means you can transgress all boundaries up there. So what is taboo in the house below cannot be checked once you are up there, the sky above and the roof beneath your feet. Love affairs not permitted within the four walls will flourish up there – one will climb up from this end to do some household chore, the lover from another end with another excuse to go to the roof, and they will meet behind the water tank or under the branches stretching out to the roof or any other part of the roof not directly above their home below. And do as they please! So much for conservatism down below and no barriers and rules up above! That idea and image got me going and the story found its space.

In Tomb of Sand it was the old woman’s back, a common enough image of someone tired, ready to die, feeling useless in the world. It stirred my curiosity and imagination – is she bored of life or of the life immediately around her? Slowly she got up and out and told me the answer!

The story is there. You have to let it free.

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