First International Booker Prize for an Indian language book: With win, Indian publishing hopes for revolution

While India has several writers writing in English, translations of Hindi as well as regional language books into English has been picking pace in recent years.

geetanjali shree tomb of sand
The novel is the story of an 80-year-old woman who gains a new lease of life after being depressed after the death of her husband. (Twitter/The Booker Prizes)

As India’s literary circuit celebrates the first-ever International Booker Prize for an Indian language book, Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, a translated version of Ret Samadhi in Hindi, the mood is upbeat for publishing in regional languages.

As if taking a cue from Frank Wynne, the chair of the judges for this year’s prize, who said in an online news conference that the recognition for Tomb of Sand was important given its language, as tens of thousands of books are published every year in Indian languages, yet few are translated into English, publishers back home feel this will just energise an ecosystem that is already on its way to revolutionise Indian publishing.

Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, which published Tomb of Sand in March this year, said, “It’s a landmark day for Indian publishing. This win honours Geetanjali Shree’s genius and Daisy Rockwell’s brilliant translation. Just as excitingly, it also opens up possibilities for so many other writers and translators who can hope to reach international readers.”

While India has several writers writing in English, translations of Hindi as well as regional language books into English has been picking pace in recent years. From pulp fiction like Surendra Mohan Pathak to titles like Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, the repertoire of translations has been all-encompassing. However, today’s win will bring much-needed impetus to the translation market. A recent study, ‘India Literature and Publishing Sector Study’, also pointed out that Indian literature in translation needs to be more visible to Anglophone publishers, and this also requires promoting writers and translators, and inviting publishers to India to engage with the publishing and literary ecosystem.

As Udayan Mitra, executive publisher, HarperCollins India, said, “Some of the finest and most interesting writing in India today is happening in the languages; this makes the availability of these works in English extremely important. A greater recognition for the sheer quality of translated fiction in India would be useful for readers in general. There are literary awards in India that still exclude translations from the ambit of literary fiction. And to qualify for many an international prize like the Booker, the book has to have been published in the UK. Restrictions like these sometimes make it a little difficult for some excellent works of fiction coming out of India to find the recognition and readership that they deserve.”

On the awards front, several domestic awards have been championing translations for some years now. The $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature instituted in 2010 specifically focuses on south Asian fiction writing, which encourages writing about the region, its people and cultures. Translations of writings in local languages of countries of the region are also eligible for the prize.

The JCB Prize for Literature established in 2018 carries a $33,000 prize for a work of fiction by an Indian writer writing in English or translated fiction by an Indian writer. Mita Kapur, literary director for the JCB Prize, said: “That an international prize like the Booker has recognised a translation from Hindi is indeed a stupendous triumph. The JCB Prize for Literature has had an equal focus on translations and books originally written in English since the very beginning. Three of our winners in the last four years have been translations, which is a testament to the plethora of exceptional storytelling in our regional languages across the country.”

Mitra of HarperCollins India added, “It has been gratifying to see that several of our translations — Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur; Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana; S Hareesh’s Moustache, translated by Jayasree Kalathil, to name just a few — have won major awards and found appreciation among readers as well. It is my hope that more readers will turn to the rich treasure trove that literature in translation presents.”

Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Publications, which published Ret Samadhi in 2018, said being selected for the International Booker Prize was a special achievement for literature being written in all Indian languages, including Hindi.

The novel is the story of an 80-year-old woman who gains a new lease of life after being depressed after the death of her husband. Geetanjali Shree said in her acceptance speech, “There is a melancholy satisfaction in the award going to it. Ret Samadhi/ Tomb of Sand is an elegy for the world we inhabit, a lasting energy that retains hope in the face of impending doom. The Booker will surely take it to many more people than it would have reached otherwise, that should do the book no harm. Ever since the book got longlisted, much has been written about Hindi making it for the first time. It feels good to be the means of that happening but also obliges me to emphasise that behind me and this book, lies a rich and flourishing tradition in Hindi and South Asian languages.” Translator Daisy Rockwell was heard saying, “I am mostly going to give thanks.” The book has also won the English Pen Award.

“Hearty congratulations to Geetanjali Shree ji & @shreedaisy for winning the International Booker Prize 2022. This is a big boost to the literary translations in India and Tomb of Sand showcases the depth and richness of literature in various languages of India,” the official Twitter handle of Sahitya Akademi wrote.

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