An Elegy to a Pluralistic, Polyglot India Wins Readers and Critics in the West
When Geetanjali Shree’s novel “Tomb of Sand” was released in India five years ago, many didn’t know what to make of it. The story — about an 80-year-old woman who refuses to get out of bed — shifts perspective without warning, gives voice to birds and inanimate objects and includes invented words and gibberish.
Some declared it an experimental masterpiece. Others found it impenetrable. Sales in India were modest. So Shree was stunned when the book, in an English translation, captivated readers, critics and literary prize committees in the West — a rare, and perhaps unparalleled, feat for a book written in Hindi.
For Shree, who is 65 and lives in Delhi, writing in Hindi isn’t a political or literary statement, but an organic creative choice. “Hindi chose me,” she said. “That’s my mother tongue.”
Her decision, however, and her novel’s success, are having an impact in India and beyond, bringing attention to the wealth and diversity of the Indian literary landscape, often overlooked by the West, with its focus on English-language writing.
“Her insistence on holding on to her Hindi and taking it to the next level, it shows a path to other Indian writers who feel like they have to write in English because of the hegemony of English,” Jenny Bhatt, a writer and translator of Gujarati literature, said of Shree.
For decades, contemporary Indian literature has been largely defined in the West by English-language fiction writers of such renown they are practically household names, even in countries far from their own: novelists like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai.
Producing work in English has traditionally been seen as more prestigious and lucrative; English-language books are also more easily available to readers, both internationally and in India, a country with 22 official languages and more than 120 spoken languages, plus countless dialects, where English remains a lingua franca.
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All this made Shree’s commitment to writing in Hindi particularly striking.
A fixture of the Indian literary landscape for more than three decades, with five novels to her name, Shree had never reached a global audience. That changed last year, when the English-language edition of “Tomb of Sand,” translated by Daisy Rockwell, received the 2022 International Booker Prize, becoming the first translation from a South Asian language to win. Rights to the novel have now sold in a dozen languages, and a U.S. edition was published by HarperCollins last month.
“She is of the class and the educational background where she could have been another Indian English-language writer,” said Rockwell.
Instead, Shree has pushed the boundaries of experimentation within Hindi literature.
“She’s breaking narrative conventions and testing the limits of her form,” Rockwell said, and “reinjecting it into the Hindi bloodstream.”
“Tomb of Sand” remains a rare exception. Translations into English make up a small fraction of the books published in the United States; translations from South Asian languages are a minuscule portion of the total. Of more than 3,000 translations of fiction and poetry released in the United States in the last five years, just 20 were from Indian languages, compared to more than 100 from China and around 200 from Japan, according to a database of English-language translations on Publishers Weekly’s website.
Some translators attribute that gap to the global success of Anglophone Indian fiction, which has often overshadowed the literature being written in South Asian languages.
“That’sconsidered enough to represent the subcontinent,”Mahmud Rahman, a writer and translator of Bengali literature, said of Anglophone fiction. “The variety of writing that is available in South Asia is much bigger and more varied and complex.”
It’s not that the translation of Indian literature into English isn’t happening. It’s just largely happening within India. Rockwell has been translating from Hindi and Urdu for 30 years, and has published 10 translations, including works by acclaimed writers like Krishna Sobti and Upendranath Ashk, but she never had a translation released outside of India before “Tomb of Sand.”
“There’s a massive world of literature that’s not being seen at all outside the subcontinent,” she said.
Several major Indian publishing houses have expanded their efforts to translate works written in regional languages into English. HarperCollins India’s Perennial imprint publishes around a dozen English language translations a year — roughly half its list. Last year, Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House India, released 21 English translations. It currently has translations from 16 of the 22 major Indian languages on its list, including Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada, as well as from historically underrepresented languages like Odia, Manipuri, Bhojpuri and Assamese.
“If we want to be truly representative of the country, we have to do translations,” said Manasi Subramaniam, editor in chief of Penguin Random House India. “Even in India, people could be looking at translations in a whole new way due to the success of ‘Tomb of Sand’.”
Growing up in towns and cities around Uttar Pradesh, where her father worked as a civil servant, Shree was exposed to a wide range of spoken Hindi registers. She picked it up on the streets and at home, from poetry meets, from songs and movies. She studied history in college and graduate school, largely in English. When she began publishing fiction in the 1980s, she wrote in both English and Hindi, but soon found she could express herself more freely in Hindi.
“I’ve not had a conventional education in Hindi, which could have been a great disadvantage, but I also dare to think that I turned it to my advantage, by not carrying a baggage of conventionality,” she said. “There’s a lot of inventiveness in the language.”
Shree got the idea for “Tomb of Sand” when an image took hold of her: the sight of an elderly woman, practically invisible to those around her. Shree grew curious about the woman’s inner life. “Is that really someone who is sick and tired of life and waiting to die,” she said, “or is there some plot waiting to hatch?”
The question gave rise to Amma, the unlikely octogenarian heroine of “Tomb of Sand,” who refuses to get out of bed. To her fretting family, Amma looks inert and lifeless. Then things take a strange turn: Amma disappears, and when she turns up later, just as unexpectedly, she’s full of life, ready for adventure.
As Shree wrote about Amma’s metamorphosis — a journey that culminates in a fateful trip to Pakistan, which she had fled after violence erupted during Partition in 1947 — she found herself composing an elegy to pluralistic, polyglot India, a place teeming with a diversity of languages, religions, cultures and dialects.
“The book kept bringing up the kinds of divisions that have crept in and the unities that are being lost,” Shree said. “That’s what we seem to be losing, now that there’s a kind of monopoly of certain languages and cultures.”
Shree didn’t expect the novel to resonate with an international audience. Several of her previous novels had been translated into English, but none were released outside of India, and she had no reason to believe “Tomb of Sand” would be any different.
Then, an unlikely series of breaks vaulted her to literary stardom. After the Hindi edition came out, the translator Arunava Sinha reached out to Shree and introduced her to Rockwell, who was looking for contemporary feminist fiction to translate. Rockwell did a sample translation, and the publisher, Titled Axis, a small, independent British press, acquired it and secured a grant for Rockwell to translate the full text.
The English version was published in Britain in 2021. The following year, it won the International Booker, which is given jointly to the author and translator. “Tomb of Sand” sold 30,000 copies in Britain, an impressive number for a work in translation from a relatively unknown author. In India, the English edition sold 50,000 copies, making it a resounding success for a work of literary fiction, and the Hindi version, titled “Ret Samadhi,” sold more than 35,000 copies. The novel became ubiquitous in train stations and airports across India; Shree’s name was a question on a popular game show hosted by the Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. “Tomb of Sand” is now being translated into several other Indian languages, among them Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Assamese, according to Shree’s literary agent.
“It was considered a little bit out there,” Rockwell said. “Now everybody’s reading it.”
“Tomb of Sand” was a daunting text to translate, Rockwell said. The narrative is experimental, fragmented and dreamlike, full of language tricks and invented words. It’s laced with references to Sanskrit classics, Bollywood movies, song lyrics, prayers and chants, and contemporary Hindi and Urdu novelists. To capture the polyphonic flavor of the prose and Shree’s freewheeling sense of wordplay, Rockwell preserved fragments of the text from Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sanskrit, leaving them untranslated.
In a way, it’s fitting that “Tomb of Sand,” a novel about the permeability of borders — between countries, religions, genders, languages, ages, life and death — is transcending linguistic barriers, despite the obstacles.
“Language is not just a vehicle to convey a message, it’s a complete entity in its own right,” Shree said. “It has a personality, it has a cadence, and sometimes it has no message.”