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It shouldn’t have taken a Booker shortlist to recognise Geetanjali Shree

www.indianexpress.com | April 18, 2022
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Kunal Ray writes: Writers in Indian languages deserve recognition on their own terms.

Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi — translated into English as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell — has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Expectedly, this has energised the Indian literary sphere. There have been many articles and commentaries about the author and the translation since the announcement of the shortlist. In fact, it all began when the novel made it to the Booker Prize longlist. Any association with the Booker sends us into a tizzy. The Indian media ecosystem leaves no stone unturned in hailing such events as big moments for Indian literature. We adore the Booker.

Ret Samadhi was written in 2018. Geetanjali Shree is an important voice in contemporary Hindi writing. I have been an admirer of her fiction. Her novels such as Mai and Khali Jagah are also available in English translations. In fact, I read the Roof Beneath Their Feet (Tirohit) some years ago when I found a copy at a second-hand book shop in Pune. She has, therefore, an important body of work that is available in English translation and predates the recent Booker recognition. However, it took the Booker nomination for the larger literary sphere in this country to take an interest in the author and her writing. Does this attitude indicate a systemic malaise? Probably. It also shows that our literary discourse and conversations even today are guided by foreign awards or longlists and shortlists. It is not a culture that discusses writing or a writer for their own merit unless validated by a foreign award nomination or an award of some kind. Do we then have to wait for Bookers and other such awards to know writers Geetanjali Shree and many others like her that remain unknown and untranslated in India? Would we look at writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Vinod Kumar Shukla differently if they had received the award?

Having said that, does this nomination indicate better days for translations? It is a known fact that in the last few years, several leading English language publishers in India have focused on translations to identify contemporary texts from various modern Indian languages and make them available to a larger reading public. Some of the leading literary awards in India such as the JCB Prize have also gone to translated works of fiction in the recent past.

Are we to believe that there’s a newfound interest in translation among English language publishers. I think publishers too are looking for a new set of voices to bring to their readers beyond the monotony of English writing in India and the small cultural sphere it comes from. Translations help broaden our horizons and imagination about the country we live in and call home. They help us understand or at least acquaint ourselves with an India that exists beyond Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai or even show us sides of these cities that English writing doesn’t capture. Think of Malayalam author, M Mukundan’s Delhi: A soliloquy, for instance.

Translations are of critical importance, especially in a multilingual country like India but will this Booker recognition help to strengthen our interest in translated works? Will the interest survive after the award? These are important questions. The answers may not be known as yet but considering the way awards function or have functioned in the past, one can certainly deduce that at the most, they create a momentary interest in the author and the book. Such interest doesn’t sustain a literary culture. We, therefore, have to find our own parameters and create our own systems and networks to discuss books, writers and their writing. It is also a paradox perhaps that despite our linguistic diversity, we are unwittingly urged to believe that the only way to interact with the various literatures of India is through English, which is such a colonial attitude. The fact that the Booker is considered a marker of excellence is in itself an expression of servitude.

-Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature.

(Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/it-shouldnt-have-taken-a-booker-shortlist-to-recognise-geetanjali-shree-7873714/)