Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi – translated into English as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell – was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Predictably, this energized the Indian literary sphere. There have been many articles and comments about the author and the translation since the shortlist was announced.
In fact, it all started when the novel made the Booker Prize long list. Any association with the Booker thrills us. The Indian media ecosystem spares no effort to hail such events as great moments for Indian literature. We love the Booker.
Ret Samadhi was written in 2018. Geetanjali Shree is an important voice in contemporary Hindi writing. I was an admirer of his fiction. Her novels such as Mai and Khali Jagah are also available in English translation. In fact, I read Roof Beneath Their Feet (Tirohit) a few years ago when I found a copy of it in a second-hand bookstore in Pune. It therefore has a large body of works available in English translation and prior to Booker’s recent recognition. However, it took the Booker nomination for the wider literary sphere in this country to take an interest in the author and his writing. Does this attitude indicate a systemic malaise? Most likely. It also shows that our literary discourse and conversations, even today, are guided by foreign awards or long lists and short lists.
It’s not a culture that discusses writing or a writer on its own merit, unless it’s validated by a foreign award nomination or some award. Should we then wait for the Bookers and other awards of the genre to know the writers Geetanjali Shree and many others like her who remain unknown and untranslated in India? Would we have looked at writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Vinod Kumar Shukla differently if they had received the award?
That said, does this nomination herald better days for translations? It is a known fact that over the past few years, several major English language publishers in India have focused on translations to identify contemporary texts of various modern Indian languages and make them available to a reading audience. wider. Some of the major literary prizes in India, such as the JCB Prize, have also been awarded to translated works of fiction in the recent past.
Are we to believe that there is a new interest in translation among English-language publishers? I think publishers are also looking for a new set of voices to bring to their readers beyond the monotony of English writing in India and the small cultural sphere from which it emerged. Translations help broaden our horizons and our imaginations about the country we live in and call home. It helps us to understand or at least familiarize ourselves with an India that exists beyond Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai or even shows us sides of these cities that English writing does not capture. Think of the Malayalam author, Delhi by M Mukundan: a soliloquy for example.
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Translations are of crucial importance, especially in a multilingual country like India, but will this Booker recognition help to boost our interest in translated works? Will the interest survive after the award? These are important questions. The answers may not yet be known, but given how the awards work or have worked in the past, it can certainly be inferred that at most they create momentary interest in the author and the book . Such interest does not sustain a literary culture.
So we have to find our own parameters and create our own systems and networks to discuss books, writers and their writing. It is perhaps also a paradox that despite our linguistic diversity, we are unwittingly led to believe that the only way to interact with the various literatures of India is through English, which is such an attitude colonial. The fact that the Booker is considered a marker of excellence is in itself an expression of servitude.
The writer teaches Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune