Geetanjali Shree picks three novelists who changed the face of Hindi literature

International Booker Prize-winning author suggests the writers with whom to begin your Hindi literature journey

Geetanjali Shree at the Hay Festival in Wales. Getty Images
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When the Hindi novel Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize in May, it not only introduced Indian author Geetanjali Shree to an international audience, it also shed a light on the rich literary culture of her homeland.

Set in India and Pakistan and dealing with memories and trauma of the partition of India, Shree’s novel follows a proud tradition of Hindi literary works that speak of current and historical concerns.

"Hindi fiction is a world that is very vast," Shree tells The National at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which runs until Sunday.

"There are books that deal with history and the social reality of today in ways that are poetic and very straightforward."

For newcomers to Hindi literature, Shree recommends the following revered writers.

1. Krishna Sobti

Krishna Sobti wrote fearless novels. Wikimedia Commons

Described by the Indian press as the "grand dame" of Hindi literature, Sobti wrote novels, short stories and columns that took no prisoners, with their feisty tone and sensual subject matter.

Her works were also influenced by Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi literary traditions and featured fierce female characters challenging patriarchal societies and practices.

A number of Sobti's novels have been translated into English, including 2005's The Heart Has Its Reasons, which won the Hutch Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Fiction Translation.

Shree dedicated Tomb of Sand to Sobti, who died in 2019 aged 93.

"I view her as my literary guru," Shree says. "I loved her independent spirit and she never cared whether her kind of writing will be approved or not. She was absolutely fearless."

2. Premchand

Premchand was know as the "king of novelists". Photo: India Post, 1980

Famous for his modern take on Hindustani literature, 19th-century writer Premchand, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, was viewed as a pioneer of Hindi and Urdu fiction with stories focusing on societal fissures such as India's caste hierarchies and the struggles of women and labourers.

Hailed by peers as the “kingof novelists”, he released more than a dozen novels, some of which are translated, such as 1925's The Second Wife, about India's dowry system, and The Gift of a Cow from 1936 that looks at the plight of the rural class.

"He lived in India when it was under foreign rule, so he made it his purpose to show what is happening out there in society and educating people on how they can make society better," Shree says.

"Premchand had this idea of reform always in his mind, and through that lens he wrote many short stories and novels that are absolutely first rate."

3. Nirmal Verma

Nirmal Verma's work examined the complexities of human relationships. Getty Images

The novelist and translator is hailed as a pioneer of the Nai Kahani (New Story) literary movement in Hindi fiction.

Flourishing between 1954 and 1953, stories from that scene were predominately about relationships set in a rapidly industrialising and urbanising India.

Verma, who died in 2005 aged 76, has had a number of novels translated, including 1974's Red Tin Roof and 1989's In Every Rain.

"He was a very complex writer with a very modern sensibility," Shree says. "Where Premchand wrote about the exterior, Verma was concerned with the interior and ... the nature of the modern man and the loneliness that comes from such an experience."

Updated: November 11, 2022, 6:02 PM
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