Many of our magnificent Mughal tombs have one thing in common—they stand in the centre of a large square garden divided into four neat quarters, the Char Bagh. Now that the stardust seems to be settling around the award of the International Booker Prize to Tomb of Sand (2021), the English translation by Daisy Rockwell of the Hindi novel Ret-Samadhi (2018) by Geetanjali Shree, it may be time to look around at the wider context and significance of the event, the vast Char Bagh that closely surrounds it.
The four quarters in which we may situate this unprecedented phenomenon suggest themselves. The first is the prize, without which we would not be talking about the book. The second is the book in both its versions, the English translation without which there would have been no award, and the Hindi original without which there would have been nothing to translate. The third is the reception of the award in three different locations: in the West, in India generally, and in Hindi in particular. And the last may be the long-term impact that this award may hopefully have on the development of Hindi literature and Indian literature and on the place our literature is accorded globally, in world literature.
Not many persons in India had heard of the International Booker prize before Tomb of Sand won it in May, just as few Indians had heard of the Man (or main) Booker before Salman Rushdie won it in 1981. The prize has thus not only made the winner, but also itself, better known. The reports in British newspapers highlighted the fact that it was the first Hindi/Indian novel to have won the prize.
But the prize is only seven years old, so the book that got it in 2021 was similarly the first French novel to have won the award. There was an International Booker Prize before, too, but from 2005 to 2015, it was a lifetime achievement award, and the two writers from our subcontinent who had been shortlisted for (but did not win) it were U.R. Ananthamurthy and Intizar Husain, both in 2013.
The excitement caused by the award in India is largely due to the fact that it is, shockingly, the only notable international award won by a work from an Indian language since Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali in 1913. A Hindi user of Facebook was quick to characterise this tardy progress half-mockingly as being one “From Gitanjali to Geetanjali”. A book that attracted wide notice in between was the Kannada novella Ghachar Ghochar (2013) by Vivek Shanbhag, translated into English by Srinath Perur under the same nonce title in 2016. It won much international acclaim and was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize but did not win. Apparently, in literature too as in sports, the winner takes all.
It is thus the scarcity value of the award for Geetanjali Shree’s novel that has enhanced its patriotic value in many eyes. For the same reason, it has invited charges of colonial cringe against those for whom a foreign award outweighs all local recognition. Within the literary sphere of the Indian languages, the award to win is undoubtedly the Sahitya Akademi award, which has been given since 1954; it is so prestigious that even returning it makes waves. And the lifetime award which is the ultimate accolade is the Jnanpith, founded in 1965; it is the Valhalla of Indian writers, with its winners automatically comprising the ultimate canon of modern Indian literature.
Another aspect of the prize that has drawn disproportionate attention is the money that comes with it—GBP 50,000 divided equally between the writer and the translator, that is, approximately Rs.24 lakh each. This seems invidiously large by Indian standards, for the Sahitya Akademi award is currently Rs.1 lakh and the Jnanpith, Rs.11 lakh. But this is to ignore the fact that for the last few years, India has had literary awards of comparable or even higher monetary value than the International Booker. These are sponsored by MNCs with a strong Indian base and connection.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, founded by Surina and Manhad Narula in 2011, carried a purse of USD 50,000; that has been halved since but even USD 25,000 is substantial by any standards. Over the years, it has been won by Jeet Thayil, Jhumpa Lahiri and Anuradha Roy, among others. Its jury of five has members each year from five different countries; its longlist is announced in Delhi, the shortlist in London, and the winner in a city in one or the other SAARC country.
Another prize that has a generous purse, of Rs. 25 lakh, is the JCB Prize for Literature, founded in 2018 by a British MNC with a plant in India. In the four years that the prize has been awarded, a novel in translation has won it three times, and each time, coincidentally, it has been a novel translated from Malayalam. But what has the International Booker got that these two other prizes have not? It must be the stamp of approval of our erstwhile colonial masters sitting in London, and the reflected glory of the sister award, the Man Booker, which has been given since 1969 and has a greater brand value.
Ret-Samadhi, published in 2018, is Geetanjali Shree’s fifth novel. Her first, Mai (2000), had instantly attracted attention, was translated into English by Nita Kumar as Mai: Silently Mother (2001), and won the Crossword award for Translation. Another of her novels that was specially noticed was Hamara Shahar Us Baras (2007; Our City That Year); it showed how deep Hindi-Muslim hostility runs through all classes of our society.
Among the current generation of Hindi writers, Geetanjali Shree has a distinct niche of her own; she has been the kind of writer who is perhaps more highly admired than widely read. Even before it was translated into English, Ret-Samadhi was being acclaimed as her best book since Mai. Her Hindi publisher Rajkamal hosted a special discussion on it only a few weeks after it was published, and in January 2019, the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) scheduled a full session on this book. A long interview with Arpan Kumar in which Geetanjali thoughtfully surveyed her whole career had been scheduled for publication in the top literary quarterly in Hindi, Tadbhav—a bit like a Paris Review interview—even before she was longlisted for the Booker.
In Ret-Samadhi, Geetanjali returns to a mother-figure who is now widowed, 80, and has decided to turn her back on life. She is gradually cajoled back to get a life again, moves from her son’s home to begin a new liberated life with her unmarried, free-spirited daughter. And then, the two cross over without a visa into Pakistan, where they are arrested and she is shot dead. But even more than the ambitious, footloose, overarching plot, it is Geetanjali’s use of language, now playfully witty, now fancifully inventive, now rhythmically lyrical with even an internal rhyme thrown in here and there, that has stood out as her signature.
The work of the English translator was thus cut out for her. Daisy Rockwell has a PhD from the University of Chicago on the Hindi novelist and playwright Upendranath Ashk. When we met in Chicago in 1999, she was full of entertaining anecdotes about this robustly vain and habitually combative literary figure from Allahabad. Daisy Rockwell has since gone on to publish a critical biography of Ashk and translations of books by him, and by other notable Hindi writers such as Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Sobti. She had already won a translation award in the US before this Booker.
However, the pitch for her translation of Ret-Samadhi as Tomb of Sand was queered by two instances of Daisy Rockwell’s para-text, so to say. In her Translator’s Note, she made a fairly combative statement of her own by saying that she has retained many Hindi words in her translation just as Geetanjali’s Hindi text is packed with English words, so that her text is just as “artificially English-centric” as Geetanjali’s text was “artificially Hindi-centric.” Here, she seems to ignore the vital difference that we Hindi-speakers know a lot more English than her Anglo-American readers may know Hindi, even those of us whose competence in the language is passive and who would not be caught dead speaking or writing English. The hybrid parity Daisy Rockwell imputes between the original text and the translation is, in effect, no parity at all.
The other factor that has raised a few hackles among bilingual readers is the translation by Daisy Rockwell of the very title of the Hindi novel. Tomb of Sand sounds crisp and catchy, and it raises philosophical visions of worldly impermanence—as in sandcastles or castles in the air or indeed in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” where the grandest monuments are over time reduced to “lone and level sands” that “stretch far away”. But all these wonderful connotations have nothing to do with the Sanskrit/Hindi word “samadhi”, which means primarily a state of deep meditation verging on trance and, in extreme sadhana, even merging into death.
A long passage in the novel describes the Buddha practising precisely such a penance; that is what in the book is called “ret-samadhi,” and by association that is what is going to be the fate of the mother in the novel. In the JLF session referred to above, Geetanjali and I decided to go with the title “Meditations on Sand”, and other readers may come up with happier variations, for that is one of the joys of translation for its bilingual readers. The seemingly inept translation of the title by Daisy Rockwell is unfortunate; as a Sanskrit proverb has it, “prathama graasay makshikaa paatah”, that is, a fly has fallen into the very first morsel. But as time passes and more and more readers progress beyond the title, there is bound to be a fairer appreciation of Daisy Rockwell’s numerous “dynamic equivalences” (as they are called in Translation Studies) and many felicities that follow.
The British newspapers seemed caught on the wrong foot by the news. The Independent said the prize had gone to a novel written in “Indian”, while The Guardian said the winning novel was the first one translated from Hindi. This error might have arisen from the precondition through which novels whose translations are not published in the UK or Ireland are not eligible to be considered for the “International” Booker. This is like giving with one hand what one takes away with the other; that was clearly why a whole number of fine translations of great Indian fiction published in India were earlier not even in the running. This imperially discriminatory clause in this day and age may remind one of the provision made by the British at the high noon of the Raj that Indians could sit for the examination for the ICS but had to travel to London to do so.
In India, the news came as a pleasant shock— “a bolt from the blue, though a nice one,” as Geetanjali said in her acceptance speech. She also said that the award was not for her alone but for the whole body of good writing going on in Hindi and other South Asian languages. Virginia Woolf had said in A Room of One’s Own that literary masterpieces were not “single and solitary births” but that a whole mass of feeling and thinking was behind that “single voice.” For Geetanjali to echo that in her proud moment signified her recognition that in our multilingual nation, Hindi was a part of our inclusive and integrated cultural formation.
That did not stop Hindi-speakers, however, from holding their heads especially high. It is probably true that had the award gone to a book from say Bengali or Malayalam or Kannada, the shock waves might have been a bit milder. But for Hindi to win seems to have shaken the edifice of our internal literary hierarchy. Ever since it campaigned against the dominance of Urdu in the last quarter of the 19th century and won out, Hindi has had a bad press.
It is commonly thought to be too rustic compared with the nawabi grace of Urdu, too big in an age in which small is beautiful, and too mainstream and realistic when set beside the more theoretically informed languages whose postmodern authors are au fait with whatever moves in the West. Above all, especially after being nominally proclaimed as the “national” language which we all know it will never become, it is thought to be too dominant, “imperialistic” and “majoritarian.” To see Hindi in its new colours now may take some getting used to for those who write in other languages.
But that would be the outsider’s impression of Hindi. The reaction within was deeply divided. Many were patently proud of the award in a general feel-good way. But even when the novel had been shortlisted but had yet to win, sceptical and even dismissive views were expressed vocally, especially in social media. Many reasons may be surmised for this. Those who were quick to comment had actually not read the novel—including the author of an opinion piece in an English language national daily. Those on social media felt miffed that Geetanjali was not on Facebook and used WhatsApp only sparingly, mainly to communicate with old friends; very few could claim to “know” her, even online, and could not forgive her. The fact that she is clearly of Hindi but not (sub)merged in the Hindi literary world, floating rather like a lotus leaf on its surface, won her no brownie points.
Had an older writer with a longer standing reputation won it, such as (to name invidious names) Vinod Kumar Shukla, Mridula Garg, or Uday Prakash, there might have been fewer eyebrows raised. As Geetanjali said in her speech at the party given by her Hindi publisher to celebrate her appearance in the longlist, many Hindi writers who have recently departed and whom she knew personally had been sources of inspiration for her, and she named Krishna Sobti, Intizar Husain, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Kunwar Narain, Manzoor Ehtesham, Kiran Rathi, and the painter Bhupen Khakhar. That is a long and distinguished lineage, an eminent domain.
That Geetanjali has, however, not been milling around shoulder to shoulder with the thousands or even lakhs of aspiring Hindi writers who throng social media and contest every inch of the Hindi public sphere has served to cause some heartburning. Her fiction reveals a highly sophisticated cosmopolitan sensibility, wide erudition and a “knowingness”, but it is no less true that her use of Hindi is deeply rooted and rescues several local grass-root words and phrases which even many janavadi (popular) Hindi writers may not be conversant with. She is a bird of hybrid plumage, and as her new visibility spreads within Hindi, knee-jerk “social” prejudice is bound to yield to considered literary criticism and appreciation.
When Tagore won the Nobel prize in 1913, it immediately spawned a horde of clones writing similar poetry. However, it was soon discovered that though the Vaishnava mystical effusions of self-surrender to God’s grace (“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy will” and so on) may have been thrillingly new for the West, they were old hat in India, for each major language had loads of the stuff right from the Bhakti period. Another short-lived fashion that Gitanjali started was for the prose-poem, for the accidental reason that although Tagore’s poems for that volume had been melodious lyrics in the Bengali original, he had translated them in prose.
Neither kind of phenomenon is likely to recur if only because we have all grown up. The major themes that Geetanjali highlights in her novel—old age, a liberating mother-daughter relationship, a sympathetically treated LGBTQ character shown now as a female and now as a male, and bold border-crossing—are not a throwback but universal concerns of our own day and age, and likely to grow more topical as time passes. There may come along an Indian-English novel titled Tomb of Something-or-the-Other, or perhaps Something-or-the-Other of Sand, but that is unlikely to cut much ice with another jury.
Of the more thoughtful responses to Tagore’s success was one by the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati who said that Tagore’s main achievement had been not what he wrote but the fact that it had won international acclaim for an Indian writer. And the Hindi scholar and novelist Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, who had taught at Santiniketan for many years, said that the Nobel for Tagore had helped raise the self-esteem of Hindi, as it had done for all Indian languages generally.
There can be no doubt that the International Booker for Geetanjali too will make the global literary system look at us with a new respect while writers in all Indian languages may feel that international recognition of the same order as was so far accorded to only those writing in the colonisers’ language like Rushdie and Arundhati Roy is within their reach too, and under the same famed umbrella.
As for Geetanjali herself, it would be interesting to watch how the rest of her career unfolds. She is 65 and has, hopefully, half a dozen novels or more still to write. For those of us who have known her for years (and I first met her in the 1980s when she was still a historian and not yet a fictionist), at least two things are certain.
One is that as she has been translated into several languages of the world already and been shortlisted also for an award in France, this award is not likely to go to her head. One of her novels, Khali Jagah (Space Left Empty), is dedicated to the sponsors of a writer’s residency abroad where much of that book was written; she is as glocal a writer as they come. And the other is that given her wit, incurable word-play, and sense of comic irony that are writ large over all her books, she is not likely to be weighed down by the award either. It will not be an albatross round her neck, nor (to switch to a metaphor in Hindi) a dhol, a two-sided drum, which she must go on beating forever after. The award could not have gone to a saner or more grounded person.
Harish Trivedi is a former professor of English, Delhi University, and a translator.