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1st International Booker for Hindi novel by Indian

ByTannu Jain, New Delhi
May 28, 2022 05:31 AM IST

The book, Geetanjali Shree’s fifth and translated into English as Tomb of Sand, was awarded the prize on Thursday, making her the first Indian author to win the International Booker, which started in 2005 for a book translated into English from a foreign language.

“I feel a sense of wonderment about my own work, that so many people, sitting so far away, have read the book and liked it,” Geetanjali Shree told HT when her Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi, was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in March.

Amazed and delighted while accepting the award, Geetanjali Shree said, “I never dreamt of the Booker, I never thought I could. What a huge recognition, I’m honoured and humbled.” (AP)
Amazed and delighted while accepting the award, Geetanjali Shree said, “I never dreamt of the Booker, I never thought I could. What a huge recognition, I’m honoured and humbled.” (AP)

The book, Shree’s fifth and translated into English as Tomb of Sand, was awarded the prize on Thursday, making her the first Indian author to win the International Booker, which started in 2005 for a book translated into English from a foreign language.

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Three other Indians have won the Booker Prize (formerly the Man Booker prize) for the best novel written originally in English — Arundhati Roy in 1997, Kiran Desai in 2006, and Aravind Adiga in 2008.

At a ceremony in London, the 64-year-old New Delhi-based writer said she was “completely overwhelmed” as she accepted her £50,000 prize. The prize is split between the author, and the translator, Daisy Rockwell, equally.

Describing her book as an “elegy for the world we inhabit”, Geetanjali Shree said, “there is a melancholy satisfaction in the award going to it.”
Describing her book as an “elegy for the world we inhabit”, Geetanjali Shree said, “there is a melancholy satisfaction in the award going to it.”

Set in northern India, Tomb of Sand follows an 80-year-old widow as she travels to Pakistan, to confront her pre-Partition past, and tries to re-evaluate what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman, and a feminist.

Amazed and delighted while accepting the award, Shree said, “I never dreamt of the Booker, I never thought I could. What a huge recognition, I’m honoured and humbled.”

Describing her book as an “elegy for the world we inhabit”, Shree said, “there is a melancholy satisfaction in the award going to it.”

But, the author added, “This is not just about me... I represent a language and culture and this recognition brings into larger purview the entire world of Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature as a whole. Behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages. World literature will be richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages.”

Language has its own presence and independent personality, Shree told HT in March. “I enjoy the audio quality of language, I enjoy turns of phrase. Language is all about breath, not just easy breathing but fun breathing, different kinds of breathing. But you can’t have erratic breathing which will make you collapse,” she said at the time.

Rockwell, a painter, writer and translator living in Vermont, US, joined Shree on stage to receive the award for translating the novel she described as a “love letter to the Hindi language”.

“It was one of the most difficult I have ever translated because of the experimental nature of Geetanjali’s writing and her unique use of language,” said Rockwell, who now only translates women “after becoming fed up with the male gaze, misogyny”.

Originally published in 2018, Tomb of Sand is the first of Shree’s books to be published in the UK in English by Tilted Axis Press in August 2021. The publishing house was founded by translator Deborah Smith — who won the 2016 International Booker for translating Han Kang’s The Vegetarian — to publish books from Asia.

The book has not been published in the US yet, but Shree’s other works have been translated into English, French, German, Serbian, and Korean.

The author’s playful tone and wordplay resulted in a book that is “engaging, funny, and utterly original”, and an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, the Booker jury said.

Dubbing the novel a “joyous cacophony”, judges’ panel chair Frank Wynne said the novel “has an exuberance and a life and a power and a passion which the world can do with right now”.

“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,” he said.

Despite confronting traumatic events, Wynne said, “It manages to take issues of great seriousness — bereavement, loss, death — and conjure up an extraordinary choir, almost a cacophony, of voices.”

Shree’s novel competed against five other shortlisted titles, Heavenby Mieko Kawakami, Cursed Bunnyby Bora Chung, A New Name: Septology VI-VIIby Jon Fosse, Elena Knowsby Claudia Pineiro, and The Books of Jacobby former winner Olga Tokarczuk.

This year, the judges considered 135 books and for the first time in 2022, all shortlisted authors and translators will each receive £2,500 pounds, an increase from 1,000 pounds in previous years — bringing the total value of the prize to £80,000.

Complementing the Booker Prize for Fiction, the international prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It is run alongside the Booker Prize for English-language fiction.

Wynne said the prize aimed to show that “literature in translation is not some form of cod liver oil that is supposed to be good for you.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Tannu Jain works with HT's Page 1 team. She writes on the environment and climate change, with a focus on implications at the local and global levels. She is also the author of Cause and Effect, a weekly column for HT Premium.

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