Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand became the first Hindi-language novel to be nominated for the International Booker Prize when it made the longlist last week.
Originally published as Ret Samadhi in 2018, the novel was translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. It tells the story of an Indian woman who, at the age of 80, slips into depression after her husband’s death and travels to Pakistan to confront, as the book’s blurb describes, “the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman, a feminist".
The work was hailed by Booker judges to be “an urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries, or genders".
Who is Geetanjali Shree?
Born in Mainpuri in India in 1957, Shree spent her childhood in different towns in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where her father was posted as a civil servant. She received her education in local English-medium schools, but growing up in Uttar Pradesh instilled a deep attachment to Hindi.
“My link to Hindi language and literature was informal and personal,” she told Indian magazine Outlook in February. “My mother spoke almost only Hindi. All around me in the Uttar Pradesh towns there was so much of Hindi. We also read, in my childhood, more Hindi magazines for children than English-school-going kids today.”
The scarcity of English-language children’s books, Shree said, was “a blessing in disguise” as it gravitated her towards tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arabian Nights, Panchatantra, Kathasaritsagara and Chandrakanta Santati.
Shree also has a profound relationship with her mother, she told the magazine. So much so that she adopted her mother’s name as her second name.
She moved to Delhi for her college education, studying modern Indian history but already “feeling the tug towards Hindi literature".
“In the absence of a formal Hindi education, history was the viable option, but I began doing tutorials using Hindi literature for the study of history and such like.”
Shree burst into the Hindi literary scene with the publication of her short story collection Anugoonj in 1991. Since then, she has published another collection of short stories as well as three novels. Her works have received a number of awards and have been translated into English, French, German, Serbian and Korean.
Her latest novel Tomb of Sand marks the first time a translation of a book from a South Asian language, not just Hindi, has been nominated for the International Booker Prize.
“Writing is its own reward. But getting recognition as special as from Booker is a wonderful bonus,” Shree told the Indian Express newspaper. “The fact that there is much that is dismal all around in the world today, adds to the value of positive vibes in fields like literature.”
If Shree wins the Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand, she will be splitting the £50,000 ($65,272) with translator Rockwell, who described the novel as “a rich, beautiful, experimental work".
“It was an honour to work with Geetanjali Shree to create the English translation. I am beyond thrilled that the International Booker Prize jury has chosen our book for the longlist.”
The 2022 longlist features works by previous winners, including Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft, David Grossman and Jessica Cohen, alongside authors translated into English for the first time.
It includes Paradais by Mexican author Fernanda Melchor; Heaven by Japanese author Mieko Kawakami; Love in the Big City by South Korean writer Sang Young Park; Happy Stories, Mostly by Indonesian writer Norman Erikson Pasaribu; Elena Knows by Argentine author Claudia Pineiro; The Book of Mother by French author Violaine Huisman; More than my Life by Israeli author Grossman; Phenotypes by Brazilian author Paulo Scott; A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse; After the Sun by Danish author Jonas Eika; The Books of Jacob by Polish author Tokarczuk; and Cursed Bunny by South Korean author Bora Chung.
The shortlist will feature six of the books and will be announced on April 7.