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Interview with Geetanjali Shree

In her 2022 International Booker Prize-winning novel, Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree writes, ‘Anything worth doing transcends borders.’ It is a sentiment that encapsulates the novel, which has gone on to establish itself as a paradigm of experimental South Asian literature. Originally published as Ret Samadhi in 2018 in Shree’s native language, Hindi, Daisy Rockwell’s translation brings this story about family and loss to an Anglophone audience.

 

Since her 1993 breakout novel, Mai, which follows three generations of women within the same family, Shree has tirelessly explored what it means to be a woman in Indian society, penning five novels and several short stories which traverse the nuances of intersectional womanhood. Tomb of Sand is no different. At the heart of the story is an octogenarian matriarch, referred to simply by the Hindi designation for mother – Ma. The novel begins at a glacial pace, reflecting Ma’s bedridden inertia as she mourns the death of her husband. She eventually reawakens, both physically and in terms of her outlook on life. In her acceptance of modernity, Ma seems to age in reverse, breaking with tradition as she takes up residence with her daughter, instead of her son. Her newfound freedom is reflected in her friendship with Rosie/Raza, a hijra, and it is this bond which acts as a catalyst for the novel’s grand odyssey: Ma’s return to the Pakistan of her youth.

 

The traumatic legacy of India and Pakistan’s Partition looms in the background of Tomb of Sand, understated yet at the forefront of the story’s emotional framework. The latter half of the novel centres around Ma’s tragic memories of Partition and her attempts to reconcile with the devastation and pain, but Shree’s humour provides a light-hearted counterpoint to the otherwise sombre subject matter. Shree is an author who rides the waves and metrics of writing, surprising even herself with the novel’s structure and plot. She describes the creative process as subconscious, as if the story has a life of its own, an entity that uses her as a conduit to make itself heard. Her laissez-faire attitude is mirrored by the novel’s tongue-in-cheek social commentaries and forgoing of a linear narrative, instead bouncing between narrators (often non-sentient, like a pair of Reeboks) and time frames to satirise the banalities of everyday life.

 

This interview took place over the course of 2022 – a whirlwind year for Shree. In the wake of winning the Booker, Tomb of Sand’s reception in literary spheres around the world embodies the novel’s goal of building bridges over borders. It is also testament to Shree’s ability to blend tragedy with comedy and love with resentment, a mixing of genres and emotions reflective of the human condition. As she aptly writes: ‘Life exists because there’s death, and joy because there’s sorrow.’

 

Q

The White Review

— First off, a big, big congratulations on winning the International Booker Prize! Has there been any difference between how your novel, Ret Samadhi Tomb of Sand], and subsequent accolade have been received back home in India and abroad?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— Well, actually, not much time has elapsed, has it? There is enough interest in the West because it has won the Booker, but I think serious comments and reviews are still few and far between. The Booker jury has of course engaged with the book seriously and I am delighted and humbled by their response, but I cannot think of many others. People are reading the book, that is for sure, and translators and publishers across the world are interested, but that comes with the Booker.

 

Back home the response is more wild and varied! Obviously the Hindi-world and the non-English-language world are elated. The so-called ‘vernacular’ press has covered it widely. And quite endearingly, small towns in UP Uttar Pradesh] – the province I spent my childhood and adolescence in – are celebrating that I had once lived in them. Even the village my father comes from, which I have visited perhaps once, only in my early childhood, and of which I have the faintest memory, went into euphoria. The press photographed the house my father used to stay in, and an elderly man – a long lost relative who used to address my father as ‘elder brother’ – was interviewed. I saw the video and truly, it warmed the cockles of my heart, and I hope one of these days to go and meet this old ‘uncle’.

 

In the writers’ world there is much fun and frolic, and spite and praise. Since I am not on social media, I only get to hear of things here and there, but the good outweighs the petty. The book is being read and people are feeling the worth and weight of serious literature, even if it does not have the immediate popular appeal that most are lured by. I think this is a valuable churning. My community has certainly expanded – old friends have resurfaced, fine new ones have emerged, in India and abroad. Along with all this, today’s world, dominated by the ruthless grasping market and the questionable politics making inroads everywhere, has surrounded me in ways like never before. I have to confront it more directly and also protect my literary space from its pollution.

Q

The White Review

— As the first Indian-language novel to win the Booker, what kind of precedent do you hope Tomb of Sand sets regarding the reception of South-Asian literature in a largely Western-dominated literary sphere?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— It being the first Indian-language novel to win the award is indeed a very special precedent. In fact, it is the first South-Asian-language novel. That is something to be celebrated, sure, but also a moment to be seized and taken forward. It will be sad if it becomes just hype and noise for a few days, and then is forgotten.

 

The Booker, in choosing me, has caught not just me in the light it is shining down, but the literature around me too. It is a vast literature of rich antecedents and contemporary vibrancy, and it is little known outside its own language circles. The new attention it has got should make translators, publishers and readers all desirous to explore this world, making them proactive, resourceful and willing to support the exploration in all ways possible. It brings to mind the example of South-American literature and its discovery by the larger world, so to speak. When Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1982], hardly anyone outside of South America knew of the riches there. But his discovery led to the discovery of the literature around him and soon South-American literature was a genre by itself. Everyone was talking about the variety, about there being not one but several Márquezes, and indeed writers better than Márquez too! That is the golden possibility waiting here as well.

Q

The White Review

— By shining a spotlight on regional literature, we draw the world’s eyes to languages, traditions, cultures and parts of history that are unfortunately relatively unknown outside of their own spheres. The 1947 Partition that followed the cessation of the British Raj in South Asia, for instance, is such an important part of history for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, still affecting their political systems and people today. I loved the moment in Part 3, Chapter 1, where all the Partition writers congregate at the Wagah Border, almost as if they were passing on the baton. What drew you to the Partition as a topic? How have previous Partition works and authors influenced the direction your novel takes?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— Partition is an important part of history for the three countries on the subcontinent, but I feel it is an experience of many countries. Even today, what is happening in Ukraine and in the larger ex-Soviet Bloc carries the same kind of sad tales and harrowing experiences. The same thing is happening elsewhere. So for me Partition has specific subcontinental implications, but it also spans the larger world. It is a sad reality seen throughout human history. The follies of mankind from times immemorial have led to broken homes and illogical political identities, severed selves and truncated stories, dislocated populations and homeless refugees. I am remembering the play The Suppliants by Aeschylus, from the fifth century BCE.

 

Nearer home, of course, Partition has an ongoing bearing on our minds, especially in North India. Even people like me, who have no direct experience of the Partition, are surrounded by its memory and by people who have undergone its pains. The new nations that have been created have a love-hate relationship with each other. It is amazing how people on both sides of the border are full of nostalgia for the other side, and it is everyone’s dream to go to the other side. I am talking of even those who have never been directly, personally affected but collectively carry the trauma of it. And so many of us will tell you of the love and hospitality accorded to us when we did go – shopkeepers refusing to take money when they learnt we are from the other side, people being sentimental and remembering their own or others’ memories, and simply bending over backwards to look after the guests from across. That’s not to deny that there are prejudices and ‘enmities’ too, doing the rounds. But there is a world of difference in how the governments behave and how the people do.

 

Sadly the Partition and the ideology it fostered is not finished, and via new routes of divisiveness, hatred, violence and politics, it continues to plague our societies.

Q

The White Review

— This coexistence of nostalgia and prejudice is what makes the Partition such a complex experience. On a much smaller, perhaps less dramatic scale, the dichotomy of love and resentment exists within family structures as well, a topic that is thoroughly explored in Tomb of Sand, especially when it comes to female relationships. I found it interesting that most of the female characters’ names are in line with their designations and roles within the family. Is this a simple carry-over from the original Hindi, where the names are their familial roles – Ma (mother), Beti (daughter), Bade (elder), Bahu (daughter-in-law) – or a commentary on the social compartmentalisation of women? I find a certain irony in the fact that to different people, and in different phases of life, Ma would have also been Beti and/or Bahu. I also like that women who are ‘free’ from the shackles of society, such as Rosie, are given their own names and identities that don’t revolve around their social roles.

A

Geetanjali Shree

— I was, for a while, taken in by the pattern you have discerned in the naming. This could hardly have happened if I had followed a pre-set design in the naming of the characters. They kept suggesting their naming as the narrative proceeded. Now that I am prompted to look at it closely, it seems to me that if there is indeed an explanation for the naming of characters, more than gender and freedom from the shackles of society lie behind the explanation. Bade, for example, is a pivotal male character, and his name simply denotes his familial role. Beti is a woman, she has also broken free of societal shackles, and yet she does not get a ‘proper’ name. As for Rosie, I should like to believe that she does not represent women. She is also Raza Master. The character exists between genders, appearing in the novel as both Rosie Bua, Ma’s devoted friend and companion, and Raza Master, a reserved tailor.] The figure named Rosie/Raza embodies not only the novel’s cry against boundaries and divisions but also its plea to transform boundaries into bridges. Before moving on from Rosie, I should like to suggest that she can hardly be seen as having freed herself from societal shackles. Her cruel killing tells a very different tale.

 

I would rather add another view to your observation, carrying it forward: everybody, not just women and not just in India, represents different identities at different moments. They are ‘unique’ individuals, but they are also their roles. The tale chose when to see them in roles and when as specific, separate persons. And it did not follow a standardised formula to do even that. Just a general guiding principle. Your observation about Ma having also been a Beti and/or Bahu is spot on. The Bahu dimension does not figure in the novel. But the novel does ask us to remember that all mothers are daughters. And two-thirds of it is about the mother becoming the daughter and vice versa.

Q

The White Review

— A significant plot point in the novel is Ma’s friendship with Rosie/Raza, which is often viewed apprehensively by most characters – even Beti, a paradigm of the progressive Indian woman – because of Rosie/Raza’s gender identity. There seems to be an almost full circle moment in the novel when Ma decides to undertake her journey to Pakistan, fulfilling a desire Rosie/Raza was unable to act upon because of their demise. Do you suppose Rosie/Raza’s death was in a sense preordained? As the character who moves between gender and societal borders with the most ‘ease’, it seems fitting that their death should act as the catalyst for Ma’s (as well as Beti’s) physical and mental shift across borders both self and man-made. These personal and interpersonal transformations within the characters also seem to parallel the fluid nature of the narrative itself. Crows, walls, even Reeboks – the story’s narrators change and meld into one another seamlessly. Was this experimentation with narrative technique a conscious goal of yours right from the get-go, or was it something that developed naturally, following the pace and mystical mood of the plot?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— There is indeed a sense in which prima facie Rosie/Raza’s death is preordained. It seems to lie in the sheer subversion threatened by this character’s defiance of societal norms, institutional arrangements and gender distinctions. But there is a larger sense, one dictated by the triumphal spirit of Tomb of Sand, in which that cannot be so. Rosie/Raza is an assertion. That assertion is reinforced in the tragedy of her/his death, a tragedy that is an indictment of things and an urgent call to set right the situation gone askew. Think of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Nothing ends with such deaths. Renewed hope and effort come with them. These deaths only cast light on the ‘hopelessness’ of something, and in bringing it to attention, they bring in a new hope.

 

But this is the response of an author whom you have prompted to look back. It bears no relation to what was happening to the author when she was writing what she is looking back at now. I cannot recall having had any preconceived design when Rosie/Raza entered the narrative. I had as little idea of what would happen to her/him as of what that death would do to the others. Things are related but it is not as if they are so precisely causally related to each other. Were it otherwise, you would not be talking of the novel’s ‘mystical’ mood.

Q

The White Review

— Could you elaborate more on your writing process? Have you always known the ending of your novels, the fates of all your characters, or do you unravel these things as you write?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— I do not care for writing with a worked out plan of beginning, middle and end. Creativity can be an unexpected journey for the writer also. Krishna Sobti, the great Hindi writer, once said there is no fun in writing if you already know where it is going. It is a voyage of discovery and an unexpected terrain to cross. So many things go into the making of a creative work – a linguistic-literary tradition, an entire cultural lineage, history, one’s own experience and that of others distilled through observation, new readings and lessons learnt, hope and despair and playfulness and sadness, all feeding the writers’ imagination in tangible and not-so-tangible ways. These in fact go into the intuition of the writer and stories keep forming in there, ready to fly out when their moment arrives. I would dare to say that conscious intention plays the smallest part in a work of art. Except for the moment of its conception, in which my agency is vital, every work, be it a short story or novel, evolves its own dynamics that I follow. The conception can occur in various ways. An image may appear and stay on. An idea or problem may present itself and refuse to leave. It can even be a real life incident.

 

Let me instantiate. Traditional urban neighbourhoods in India comprise clusters of adjacent houses with interconnected terraces sprawling from one end of the neighbourhood to the other. The roofs of such terraces became the image which inspired me, and stayed with me, and set off my imaginings. The dwellings below may house the most conservative people, orthodox and conformist in their ways. But the roofs become a place where all boundaries may be transgressed and things tabooed have a field day! Forbidden love flourishes – the lovers may not be allowed to meet in the houses for reasons of social and other inequalities, but one climbs up from this end and another climbs up the roof from a few houses away, and they clamber across to meet in some happy shelter, behind a water tank, hidden in the leaves of a tree whose branches have swayed on to the roof, and no one can stop them. As it stayed with me, the terrace became a space of freedom in complete contrast to the dwellings below where life was closely monitored and ran along rigid rules of conduct. The image of the terrace as a space of freedom inspired me to write Tirohit The Roof Beneath Their Feet] (2001). The novel is about the friendship of two women coming from different social strata. They were not a plan when the novel began. There was only the terrace to guide me along. The two women appeared by and by, revealing slowly their separate histories, their growing intimacy, and all that came in the wake of their intimacy.

 

Tomb of Sand grew out of the image of an old woman apparently turning her back on the world – a common enough image of the elderly. But the image stayed with me and slowly the back seemed to give other messages. The woman had not tired of the world and life, but rather of the immediate life behind her; she was burrowing into the wall not to bury herself into it, but to break out of it on the other side. Slowly, the protagonist began to do that and reinvented herself, and I went along with her. We stopped at chasms and borders and she jumped across, and so did I, and it unfolded that borders are not there to close anything but to make bridges between this side and that.

 

The trigger for Khali Jagah Empty Space] (2006) was an actual incident of terrorist violence. The incident kept troubling me and led me to write this novel. Despite the initial propulsion however, the actual incident did not figure in the novel. Its narrative became an exploration of how terrorist violence affects ordinary lives when it becomes an everyday occurrence. Unlike the actual incident, in which there were no survivors, the novel opens with a terrorist blast in which there is a miraculous survivor, a child. The narrative traces the doomed life of that child in his adoptive family as he grows into a brooding young man. All that evolved in the course of writing.

 

Yet another novel not-yet-translated is Hamara Shahar Us Baras (1998), which is a case slightly apart. Here it was more a didactic desire which spurred me on – the need to lay bare realities which challenge the stupid and sinister prejudices that account for widening hostilities among peoples, in this case, between the two major communities in India, namely the Hindus and the Muslims. The novel was sparked off by the atmosphere of riots and violence that had become widespread. But even in that, the story came together as I proceeded and the form worked itself out as a narrative splintered by explosion, leading to dismembered and unconnected bits, relevant or inane as the case may be, becoming the world to be told.

Q

The White Review

— Looking back now, do you recall any moments of writer’s block, perhaps parts that were emotionally taxing to write? Does writing emotionally-charged scenes, moments which resonate with your own life, leave you with a cathartic or enervating feeling?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— There have been more moments of writer’s block than I can remember, not all caused by having to write something emotionally taxing. Writing emotionally-charged scenes – independent of whether they resonate with my own life – may leave me with some sort of an enervating feeling and may also produce a compensatory aesthetic satisfaction, but they can also sap me, filling me with an incredible exhaustion.

 

Earlier you asked: ‘Have you always known the ending of the novel, the fates of all your characters?’ Never. You also ask if I unravel these as I go on writing. It may sound mysterious to some, but there is very little that I unravel as I write. Things unfold on their own. The poet A. K. Ramanujan wrote in his diary that he does not go in search of poems but rather puts himself where the poem can find him. I think that makes complete sense to me. The story and stories are all there and I move with them to a place and a time where I can be calm and wait for one or more to unfurl. Which indeed happens.

Q

The White Review

— The manner in which you talk about the process of writing, equating it to a voyage of discovery, makes me think of the process as intuitive and subconscious – its outcome a surprise even to you, the author. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, as you step outside of Tomb of Sand’s microcosm, is there any part of the story that you wish you could have changed or done differently?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— You put it very well. Intuitive and subconscious is what the process on the whole is; and its outcome is never pre-designed so indeed there are surprises for the writer too. It may sound like I am speaking of some mysteriously generated inner voice called intuition and the subconscious and glorifying it like a ‘divine’ power, but it is not that at all. I am speaking of an intuition and subconscious which are created in us over the years and constantly honed as we go along. Our environment, history, geography, aesthetic and other traditions, readings, observations, thoughts, feelings, a whole range of things I cannot all list, together go into that storehouse and make it a powerhouse that throws up ideas and guides our imagination! In execution it may look like it came from nowhere but in fact everything is emerging from the rich subconscious so created. And it is from the aesthetic sensibility maturing there that my self-critique and balance and nuances get their shape.

Q

The White Review

— As your work goes out into the world, what is your process of self-critique, especially as readers’ opinions now intermingle with your own reflections?

A

Geetanjali Shree

— Self-critique is always there, as part of my intuition. It is this that produces, in the event of certain outcomes, that thrill of what you call ‘surprise’. It is also the pitiless slave-driver that keeps tormenting me, saying ‘no, not this, not this.’

 

Once a work is out in the world, I agonise neither over what else I could – should – have done, nor over its reception. Which is not to say that my work is unswayed by the opinions, values, standards, expectations, etc., obtained in the outside world. I brook no external, indeed no extraneous, mediation between me and my writing. But, in ways more unknown than known to me, my intuition carries marks of the collective conscious and unconscious of which I am part. My self-critique, then, is also a collective critique. I should like to believe, though, that only the best of the collective has gone into that self.

Q

The White Review

— Do you believe it is possible for you, or for writers in general, to ever achieve a complete sense of satisfaction with their published works?
A

Geetanjali Shree

— Complete sense of satisfaction! Can one possibly know that bliss? And once a writer feels that, would there be any more reason to write? Because writing, for me at any rate, is not towards an end but an end in itself. Nothing stops with writing any one single thing. The process continues into the next act of writing. Trying to reach where? Some closure? Surely not. The joy of occasional ‘surprises’ is wonderful enough to keep one going.

 

My artist friend, Bhupen Khakhar, would sign off every painting just as he felt it was at the point of completion, a principle he scrupulously followed. I think I dread completion. Always trying to reach the horizon which I will never reach. In music we say the musician is trying to get to the ultimate note, anhad naad, but that is the note none can reach. So you are just trying, just reaching out, just approximating towards a classic. Which, as Italo Calvino said, is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Geetanjali Shree is an Indian novelist and short-story writer, born in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1957, who works primarily in her native language, Hindi. Over the course of her expansive career, Shree has published five novels and several short stories, garnering critical acclaim for her contribution to contemporary Hindi fiction. Shree is known for her experimental writing style, feminist narratives, and uniquely poetic prose; her works have been translated into several languages and have often generated immense praise within the international literary community. For her novel Tomb of Sand, Shree was awarded the 2022 International Booker Prize.

Reya Divekar is a student at The American University of Paris, pursuing a degree in History and Comparative Literature. She enjoys all things editorial and is presently Editor-in-chief of Peacock Magazine, and an assistant at AUP’s Centre for Writers and Translators. Mostly, she wishes she were on a beach in Goa, curled up with a good book.

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