‘It’s the best way to live!’: International Booker winners Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell

“If you handle a heavy thing with lightness, you actually increase the poignancy, and it puts a different kind of focus on it.” Geetanjali Shree is talking to me about her novel Tomb of Sand, which, in its translation from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, won the International Booker prize on Thursday. It’s now early Friday morning and Shree and Rockwell join me from London’s Groucho Club – bright, fresh and talkative despite the night’s festivities (Rockwell was still tweeting about it at 2am).

Shree has been writing for more than 30 years, and three of her previous books have been translated into English. Why did this one strike such a chord with readers and judges? “I think it speaks to the pluralism of the world, the polyphony of the world, and that somehow captures the imagination of people. I also think there’s a lot of inventiveness in the language, which seems to have appealed.”

That is certainly true. Tomb of Sand is a sombre-sounding book – about an 80-year-old woman, Ma, who slips into depression after the death of her husband – and daunting at almost 750 pages. But it’s playful and funny, light but not slight, a carnival of characters. “It’s an important way to focus attention,” says Shree. “It’s also the best way to live! To get some fun in spite of the serious things.”

The serious things in the book are borders and divisions: between religions, genders and nations – notably between India and Pakistan, as a result of the partition of India in 1947. Shree, who was born 10 years later, says that even though her generation does not remember the partition, “we very much live with it, particularly the ideology it has unleashed, [that supposes] that these two major communities in the subcontinent cannot live together.”

Shree was born Geetanjali Pandey but changed her surname to her mother’s forename. “It was in adolescence, when I got my first bank account, and 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.”

The process of translation for Tomb of Sand was collaborative, via emails throughout the pandemic between Rockwell in Vermont and Shree in New Delhi. Shree speaks English (“like many Indian people, because of the Raj!”), which helped the process, though she insists that her English “may sound fluent, but it’s a very formal, schooled English”. As a child she was encouraged to read: “That was the time of the new independent India. There was a lot of idealism afoot and as a result we as children were exposed very much to our language and literature, compared to the children of today. The world has turned to corporate success stories, and they don’t need India and its culture in the way that in my time, people felt they needed it.”

One quality of the International Booker prize is that it recognises – and shares the £50,000 prize money between – both author and translator. In Rockwell’s view the prize has “a lot to do with the recognition of the translator” that we are seeing now. This includes a campaign for translators to be named on the covers of the books, spearheaded by Jennifer Croft, who Rockwell notes is not named on the cover of her own International Booker-shortlisted translation, Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. “I think she’s pretty peeved.”

An artist and writer as well as a translator, Rockwell comes from a creative family. Both her parents are artists and her grandfather was Norman Rockwell, the celebrated painter who held a mirror to American social history. Was she encouraged to pursue her creative impulses? “They wouldn’t have known any other way to raise me. I tried to be an academic, but it didn’t work!”

Indeed Rockwell painted the cover images for both Hindi and English editions of Tomb of Sand in India. Why didn’t the UK publisher use her covers? “I don’t know! I think they should issue a commemorative edition with my cover on it!”

A few years ago, when Rockwell had just agreed to translate Tomb of Sand, she spoke of how, having translated only men for some time, she was focusing exclusively on female writers. Since doing so, she says, “I think what’s been really important to me is to realise how women’s voices are left out of literature by men and are sidelined. So I’ve enjoyed really thinking about women’s experiences and women’s lives. I’m not really that interested in going back.” She laughs. “You know the way people can be annoying, they say, ‘I’ve cut sugar out of my diet, and now I hate sweets.’ So I’m kind of like that!”


An excerpt from Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are. This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. 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 setting sun gathers fragments of tales and fashions them into glowing lanterns that hang suspended from clouds. These too will join our story. The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration. It will emerge from within a volcano, swelling silently as the past boils forth into the present, bringing steam, embers, and smoke.

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