Celebrated Hindi author Geetanjali Shree wins a global prize beyond her dreams

Mayank Chhaya

Mayank Chayya

On becoming the first Indian author to win the International Booker Prize, Geetanjali Shree said this during her acceptance speech in London on May 26: “I never dreamed of the Booker, I never thought I could. What a huge recognition. I am amazed, delighted, honored and humbled.”

A significant part of the reason why she thought she could never win the prestigious literary prize was that she writes in Hindi and that too in a style and with a flourish that do not lend themselves easily to equally compelling translation. It is probably for that reason her original Hindi novel ‘Ret Samadhi’s translation into ‘Tomb of Sand’ by American translator Daisy Rockwell is also being celebrated. Shree and Rockwell split the 50,000-pound prize.

Reading ‘Ret Samadhi’ is to be introduced an extraordinary lexical richness of Hindi as well become familiar with some remarkable turns of phrases and inventiveness. For instance, she writes in ‘Ret Samadhi’ “Shabd! Shabd kya hotey hain ji? Dhwani jis mein apne matlab jhula dete hain.” “Words! What are words? They are sounds that swing with their meanings.” The novel is full of such inventiveness which ought to have made Rockwell’s task rather exacting.

In the end though, Rockwell accomplished something remarkable and, in the process, made it possible for Shree to win a prize that she could never dream of and that too as the first ever Indian author.

There is a great body of work behind ‘Tomb of Sand’ for the writer who will turn 65 this June. Born in Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh on June 12, 1957, Shree had had an early exposure to eclectic influences because of several change of schools. Even at the university level, she did her graduation from the Lady Shri Ram College and master’s from the Jawaharlal Nehru University before getting her Ph.D. from the Maharaj Sayajirao University in Vadodara. In a sense, she came to the world of Hindi literature via the world of the iconic Hindi writer Munshi Premchand on whom she did her doctoral work.

It is a measure of her passion for Premchand that she produced a biography titled ‘Between Two Worlds: An Intellectual Biography of Premchand’ as part of her Ph.D. work. Apart from that, she also wrote two essays titled ‘Premchand and Industrialism: A Study in Attitudinal Ambivalence’ and ‘Premchand and Peasantry: Constrained Radicalism’.

That she began her writing career in Surat in Gujarat may also have played a role in bringing in cultural sensibilities very different from her home state of Uttar Pradesh. Among her noted works are ‘Anugunj’, ‘Vairagy’, ‘Mai’ (1991), ‘Hamara Sheher Us Baras (1998) and ‘Tirohit’ (2001). Since then, she has produced many other works but it was the English translation of ‘Mai’ that brought her national and international attention. It is about three generations of women in a middle-class North Indian family.

The International Booker Prize describes ‘Tomb of Sand’ thus: “Tomb of Sand is the first book originally written in any Indian language to win the International Booker Prize, and the first novel translated from Hindi to be recognized by the award.

Set in northern India, the novel follows the adventures of an 80-year-old woman who unexpectedly gains a new, and highly unconventional, lease of life.


The result is a book that is engaging, funny and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries – whether between religions, countries or genders.”

It says, “In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on traveling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition. Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.”

Frank Wynne, chair of the Booker judges, said of the novel, “This is a luminous novel of India and partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.”

Shree winning the International Booker Prize may be a cause for celebration in India and among the world of Hindi publishers. However, as Sanjaya Kumar Singh, a well-known Hindi journalist, writer and editor, said on Facebook, “Indian publishers have contributed nothing to Geetanjali Shree winning the Booker. She won despite them and not because of them.” Singh said Shree was introduced to Rockwell by the translator Arunav Sinha.

“This is a result of a happy combination of many coincidences which happens once in decades,” Singh said pointing out that had Rockwell herself not won one of PEN International’s translation awards in 2019, she may not have been able to afford time to devote to the translation of ‘Ret Samadhi’.

It is anybody’s guess whether the International Booker for Geetanjali Shree would open doors for translations of many books of great literature in all Indian languages.