Geetanjali Shree, the first Hindi writer to win the International Booker prize, seems to have come out of nowhere. Until last month, some very famous Hindi Indian journalists didn’t know her name. At 65, she has been writing for about 30 years, and Tomb of Sandtranslated by Daisy Rockwell from her book Ret Samadhiis her fifth novel.
The invisibility of women is a recurring subject in Shree’s work. It seems to be the natural state of women in Indiawhere, despite modernity, men continue to take social and psychological precedence. Visibility may be returned to us conditionally – on having kids, by proving to be indispensable to men, on winning the Booker prize. Shree is an excellent observer of women’s inner lives. What living with men does to women, to their spines. “We always knew mother had a weak spine,” her debut novel May (Silently Mother) begins. “Those who constantly bend get this problem.”
Tomb of Sand is a novel about a depressed 80-year-old, “a woman so small she could slip through anywhere”. For the first 100 pages, only her back is visible to the reader. She is found lying, facing the wall, in a civil servant’s bungalow in north India. She leaves the house and crosses with her daughter into Pakistan. She travels to Lahore, where she lived as a girl, and then to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where she goes looking for her ex-husband, Anwar. She is known as Ma throughout, but in the final pages reclaims her true identity in the arms of her first love and becomes Anwar-Chanda.
The timelessness to which the title alludes is that of a woman’s interiority, as well as the timelessness of the Indian story, especially the ones in Hindi and Urdu. The journey that Ma embarks upon is a journey millions have taken before.
But this is also the story of an upper-class family in the Hindi cow belt, where people debate the safeguarding of mothers at lunches. Men yell and speak to women indirectly, and women refuse to comply. Shree writes sarcastically about Indian men and she is at her sharpest in these scenes. There is a 15-page description of a self-important man’s inability to laugh. Another insists that his wife cook fresh meals every day, because eating leftovers could kill him. A boyfriend is described as kissing without consent: “A long string of saliva fell from his laughing mouth into her face.”
Without Rockwell, there would be no Booker for Shree, but I find the translation to be excessively loyal to the Hindi version. For instance: “No eating, no drinking, not even touching tea to mouth” is a commonly spoken sentence in Hindi, but its literal translation into English doesn’t work.
The novel is strewn with such phrases, where you can hear the Hindi and the English is broken. It is confusing and can make it appear as if the writer is ridiculing the Hindi characters.
Arundhati Roy once said that after she won the Booker in 1997, people would stop her in Delhi and congratulate her on the prize, but not on the book she had written. Let me take this space to recognise Shree for the labour of writing itself, and for solving the difficulties of sentences, paragraphs, tone and characters for 30 years. She is a prose stylist trying to make her point in Hindi. This book, this Booker, has come at last, and for me it has come as a breath of fresh air.
Ankita Chakraborty is an Indian writer and journalist