“Joy of literature sometimes lie in being motivated to think anew”

Says this year’s International Booker Prize-winner Geetanjali Shree.

Booker Prize-winner Geetanjali Shree
Booker Prize-winner Geetanjali Shree

Teamwork Arts and IHC’s Indian language festival ILF Samanvay recently organised an event to felicitate this year’s International Booker Prize-winner Geetanjali Shree. Here, she shared her candid opinions, views and feelings about literature, translations and of course Booker Prize while addressing a packed auditorium at the India Habitat Centre (IHC).

Geetanjali Shree is an Indian Hindi-language novelist and short-story writer based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of several short stories and five novels. Her first story, “Bel Patra” (1987), was published in the literary magazine Hans and was followed by a collection of short stories Anugoonj (1991).

Her works…

The English translation of her novel Mai (Niyogi Books) catapulted her to fame. The novel is about three generations of women and the men around them, in a North Indian middle-class family. Mai has been translated into several languages, including Serbian and Korean. It has also been translated into English by Nita Kumar, who was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, and into Urdu by Bashir Unwan with a preface by Intizar Hussain. Other translations of the novel include French by Annie Montaut, and German by Reinhold Schein.

Her second novel Hamara Shahar Us Baras is set loosely after the incidents of Babri Masjid demolition. Her fourth novel, Kh?l? jagah (2006), has been translated into English (by Nivedita Menon as The Empty Space), French (by Nicola Pozza as Une place vide), and German (by Georg Lechner and Nivedita Menon as Im leeren Raum).

International Booker Prize…

Her fifth novel, Ret Samadhi (2018), has been translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as Tomb of Sand, and into French by Annie Montaut as Au-delà de la frontière. On May26, 2022, Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize, becoming the first book in Hindi and the first from an Indian writer to receive the accolade.

Set in North India, Ret Samadhi is a family saga that sheds light on the life of an 80-year-old woman who travels to Pakistan in an attempt to revisit and resolve the emotional trauma of the experiences of Partition. In the process, the reader sees her reassess her various roles—she unravels what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and a woman. By following the journey of this octogenarian, Geetanjali also highlights the fact that life is meant to be celebrated till one’s last breath.

Life after International Booker Prize

At ILF Samanvay, Geetanjali Shree was in conversation with journalist and translator Poonam Saxena. The obvious start to the evening was asking her to share, “How life has changed after Booker?” She replied with a pause and a smile, “I have been a very quiet person and to be in the public gaze suddenly is a huge adjustment for me… My circle of friends and well-wishers has increased incredibly in very few days. Old friends have resurfaced, and new friends have emerged. I met some very nice people during this time.”

Further elaborating on how she is dealing with sudden celebrity status and paparazzi, she said, “I know this will fade away, we are not film stars or cricketers. It’s normal to enjoy the attention, and I do too, but becoming too intrusive is when I start getting worried. I think I am learning to handle it. Before this, I was very polite but now I can get politely rude also. I am hoping to not become rudely rude. It’s been a very rich experience and I am still processing it.”

“Booker mere se thoda alagh hi chalega,” she said with a wink, in response to an audience’s question about whether the win will add more pressure on her while penning future works.

On wordplay…

She also read an excerpt from her award-winning novel – Ret Samadhi, which was mesmerizing. It was witty and hard-hitting at the same time. It seemed like poetry. On asking her about the unconventional use of the Hindi language, the rhythmic flow and intelligent wordplay sometimes made her works difficult to read. To which, she replied, “I have been asked this question many times, and I always wonder what is the problem in it (being a difficult read)? Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and critic, is here. I am going to use his dialogue. He says, literature is not a samosa, that you put it in your mouth and gulp it down. Why is it difficult if you have to halt somewhere, or circle back to a particular place or try again? Even if you don’t get it, it’s not a big deal. There are many things we see or feel that we cannot express in language but we understand its heft. The joy of literature can sometimes lie in being motivated to “think anew”.”

“It took me 8 years to complete this novel; I never plan, it is better to go with the flow and write. Language is an entity by itself. It is not something that has to be used as a vehicle to say something. It is the power of language that takes over and makes me write in a certain way. Shabdo me ek fluidity hoti hi hai, ye toh hum unhe fix kardete hain. (Words have a fluidity…it is we who fix it!) As far as readers are concerned, I have never worried about my readership — neither before nor now.”

Importance of translations

Expressing her delight on translations getting attention, she shared that the International Booker Prize is going to put focus on South Asian languages that were once considered outside the worldview. She added, “One must pay heed to other authors who are writing in South Asian languages as well.”

Mentioning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Geetanjali explained that winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 opened avenues for the then little-known South American and also for Latin American writings across the world. “Soon people realised that there is not one Márquez and that the place is filled with people like him, or even better than him,” concluded Geetanjali.

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