Geetanjali Shree wins International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand, first Hindi novel to claim feat

US-based Rockwell, who joined Geetanjali on stage to receive the award, described the novel as a “love letter to the Hindi language”.

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)

Geetanjali Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand has become the first book in an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize. Originally published as Ret Samadhi in Hindi, the book has been translated into English by Daisy Rockwell.

During her acceptance speech in London, the New Delhi-based author said she was overwhelmed with the “bolt from the blue”. The prize, worth £50,000, was shared between Geetanjali and Rockwell.

Tomb of Sand is set in northern India and follows the journey of an 80-year-old woman dubbed by the Booker judges as a “joyous cacophony”.

“I never dreamt of the Booker, I never thought I could. What a huge recognition, I’m amazed, delighted, honoured and humbled,” Geetanjali 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.”

The book narrates the journey of an 80-year-old woman, Ma, who suffers from depression following her husband’s death. She finally overcomes her depression and, much to her family’s consternation, wants to travel to Pakistan to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Reflecting upon becoming the first Hindi author to win the prestigious prize, the 64-year-old author said: “…behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages. World literature will be the richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages. The vocabulary of life will increase from such an interaction.”

US-based Rockwell, who joined Geetanjali on stage to receive the award, described the novel as a “love letter to the Hindi language”.

The jury were impressed that rather than respond with seriousness, Geetanjali used a playful tone and exuberant wordplay that is “engaging, funny, and utterly original”. It is simultaneously an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries.

Judging panel chair Frank Wynne said: “Ultimately, we were captivated by the power, the poignancy and the playfulness of Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree’s polyphonic novel of identity and belonging, in Daisy Rockwell’s exuberant, coruscating translation.

“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.”

Tomb of Sand was among 13 long-listed novels translated to English from 11 languages. The long-list included novels from 12 countries across four continents. Uttar Pradesh-born Geetanjali has authored three novels and several story collections. Her work has been translated into English, German, French, Korean, and Serbian. Originally published in Hindi in 2018, Tomb of Sand is her first book to be published in the UK in English.

Geetanjali’s novel Mai (2000) was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award. Mai a huge success and was translated into several languages. Nita Kumar won the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize for translating Mai into English. Known for her hard-hitting subjects, Geetanjali’s second novel, Hamara Shahar Us Baras was based loosely on the Babri demolition. Khali Jagah, published in 2006, was translated into English by Nivedita Menon. 

With inputs from PTI

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