Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand becomes the first Indian woman to win the International Booker Prize
At a ceremony in London, on May 27, the New Delhi-based writer Geetanjali Shree won the Booker Prize for her book Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand), which was translated to English by Daisy Rockwell.
Born in Manipur, Shree obtained her MA and PhD. Because of the author Premchand, she was captivated by Hindi Literature and later became a writer. Although born Geetanjali Pandey, she changed her surname to her mother’s forename: “It was in adolescence, when I got my first bank account, with a great flourish I signed my full name. But my father said, ‘No, just sign your first name, because a woman’s name will change after marriage.’ He wasn’t being nasty, but it stayed with me. And I thought, why is my mother’s name nowhere? She’s the one who played such a big role in bringing us up. So when I started writing I thought: ‘I want my mother’s first name to become my second name.’” And from Shree Kumari, Geetanjali took her second name.
The book was originally written in Hindi, so we can appreciate that Rockwell took on the difficult task of translating a book while keeping the essence of its original form.
Rockwell said Tomb of Sand was one of the most difficult works she had ever translated because of the "experimental nature" of Shree's writing and "her unique use of language". But she added that the experience was also "great fun" and "liberating".
In a 2018 interview with Scroll, she revealed her own inspiring story: “My relationship with Hindi is absolutely different from that of a native speaker. I am an apt language learner, but I did not start learning Hindi until I was 19. By then, as studies have shown, your brain is less capable of soaking in new languages. It took me a long time to be able to read or speak Hindi with any fluency, and even now I make ridiculous mistakes and find some idiomatic phrases and words impenetrable.”
What is Tomb of Sand about?
Tomb of Sand follows an 80-year-old woman, Ma, after the death of her husband. At the forefront of the novel, Shree writes:
"Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass."
The narrative encompasses themes of family, trauma, and religion. It also tackles the vexed issue of the 1947 partition, wherein the split of India and Pakistan led to some of the worst communal riots in history, with many people getting displaced, killed and injured.
This book is the story of all North Indian households—Every family has a mother who is bed ridden, a son who is so caught up with work that he forgets to love Ma, a Bahu (daughter-in-law) who faces eternal dishonor. In her writing, Shree emphasizes on the common preconception that men in Indian households can talk sarcastically and indirectly to their wives. She also highlights mental health problems faced very often by youngsters in our society: Beti (Ma’s daughter) wanted to be a self-established, independent woman, but her ideas were brutally opposed—In many families, the daughter is expected to get married and look after her family, and any disobedience is met with a flood of taunts.
Ret Samadhi unfolds the truths and the controversies that every North Indian family is entangled with, but that none of them talk about, making it relatable for its target audience.
Apart from this, the book is garnished with hints of Indian culture on every page (which I LOVE) like song references, types of mangoes that grow during the season, and many references to delicacies.
When starting this excellent read, I would suggest you follow along with a pencil in your hand, for you will find the most intriguing quotes and lines on every page.