Geetanjali Shree on her International Booker Prize and 'risky' writing process

The Indian author made an appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Geetanjali Shree. Her award-winning novel 'Tomb of Sand' follows the life of Ma, an 80-year-old woman who slips into depression after the death of her husband. Photo: Sharjah Book Authority
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The Fifa World Cup may kick off this month, but Indian author Geetanjali Shree feels she won the literary version for her homeland when her novel Tomb of Sand scooped the International Booker Prize in May.

Not only was it the first Hindi title to land the prestigious prize, the award’s profile provided the publishing world an important glimpse into India's literary culture, which Shree describes as rich and untapped.

Speaking to The National at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which is running until Sunday, she expresses satisfaction for an achievement she views as more than her own.

“I am not just one plant growing in a desert,” Shree says. "I come on the back of a great many literary traditions in India, so I do feel that this award is not for me alone.

“If anything, I feel like it helped shine a light on a literary world, which has not been noticed much."

An evolving journey

Originally published as Ret Samadhi in 2018, the expansive novel follows the life of Ma, an Indian woman who, at the age 80, slips into depression after the death of her husband.

As part of the mourning process, she travels to Pakistan to confront some life-long traumas stemming from growing up amid the fevered political period leading to the 1947 partition of India.

While working within a large historical canvas, Shree says she wasn’t attempting to write her own history of India. Like Ma’s journey, she says the novel evolved to take on bigger and weightier themes and topics, including the patriarchal nature of Indian politics and society.

"I am not one of those writers who has a formula or a method. As the book evolves, so does the expression. I feel like I am also going on the journey with the character and I allow the story to choose its own strategies and direction."

For such an organic approach, isn't there a risk of the writing leading to a dead end?

"It requires both risk and a certain amount of trust in yourself because intuition is involved," Shree says.

"My intuition is not made up of just my life's experiences, but of those around me, and I always hope and trust that something worthwhile will come out on the page.

“But it is risky because maybe it will be a failure. If you are creative, you have to be ready to fail."

The relationship between author and translator

Another risk paying off was the choice of Daisy Rockwell as translator for Tomb of Sand, with whom she shared the £50,000 International Booker Prize purse.

Shree reveals she only physically met Rockwell in London on the eve of the awards ceremony. The onset of the pandemic meant the translation process was done through extensive online meetings and detailed emails.

More than Rockwell's distinguished career — which includes her English translations of Upendranath Ashk's 2013 short story collection Hats and Doctors and Krishna Sobti’s final novel A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There — Shree says it was their complementary world views that were responsible for their winning collaboration.

"That rapport and similar sensibilities is fundamental. If Daisy didn't have the same sympathy and empathy for women or for language or humour then the translation would have fallen through, no matter how good her English and Hindi are," she says.

"Daisy gave me a lot of faith in how she loves to play with the language. When she couldn't use all the Hindi words that were humorously coined, she would invent her own English version that was parallel to that."

Shree will be looking for that same chemistry when choosing an Arabic translator for Tomb of Sand, a move she describes as "in the cards".

"A good analogy for the work of the author and translator is making music," she says. "Somehow we have to find a way together and create the literary version of music and not something discordant."

In the meantime, Shree has quietly embarked on another creative journey with the follow-up to Tombs of Sand.

While she plans to pick it up again after her Sharjah visit, the self-described "slow writer" is also more than happy to sit back and enjoy the well-deserved attention.

“I am still this year’s Booker baby,” she says. "Writers are also ambassadors because as soon as we step out from our private corner, we are representing our literature, background and traditions.

"I am happy to be here in Sharjah and many other places away from home because I feel like I am talking to people who are also very happy for me and celebrating with me.”

Scroll through the gallery below for more pictures from the Sharjah International Book Fair 2022

Updated: November 15, 2022, 8:26 AM