Interview

Discover the shortlist: Geetanjali Shree, ‘As a writer, stories imbue your senses’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Geetanjali Shree is the author of Tomb of Sand.

In her novel, Shree has written a protest against the destructive impact of borders. Here, she discusses the importance of a global worldview in literature.

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize?

Nothing less than wonderful, and with each passing moment yet more wonderful. For bit by bit it dawns better on me what a fine recognition this is. And greater exposure for my work. Even if the Booker focus is on the English translation it willy-nilly casts a light on all my work, in the original and in other language translations.

This is not just about me, the individual. I represent a language and culture and this recognition brings into larger purview the entire world of Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature as a whole. It also brings into view the fact that there is a vast world of literature with rich lineages which still needs to be discovered. I am pleased and humbled to be the conduit for this.

What first inspired you to write Tomb of Sand?

I actually am fully in tune with what the famous poet A K Ramanujan writes in his diaries: ‘You do not choose and pursue your poems. You put yourself in a place where they happen to you.’

If you are a writer it becomes your way of being to have stories imbue your senses all the time and also to realise that everything is a story and everything tells a story. This becomes as natural as your breath. Or is your breath!

Then you wait. The muse sees you are alone and receptive and descends on you and some trigger sets you off and the story unfurls itself slowly and surely.

In the case of Tomb of Sand, the image of an old, bed-ridden woman’s back, who seemed to care to live no more and pushed deeper into the wall, as if to bury herself in it, gradually took hold of me. It aroused my curiosity: is she indeed tired of life and the world and so turning her back to them, or slowly readying herself for a new and different innings in life? When she seems to want to disappear in the wall, is she wanting the end or actually wishing to burrow through and come out on the other side?

What’s your earliest reading memory?

Tales from the Panchatantra and children’s magazines of my childhood like Chandamama.

Geetanjali Shree

There is a vast world of literature with rich lineages which still needs to be discovered. I am pleased and humbled to be the conduit for this.

What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?

I am not sure how to use the word impact here. So much impacts a writer’s way of being but it is not an impact she can consciously gauge or define. I prefer to say many many writers inspired me. They opened up other worlds for me and showed me myriad ways of employing the craft. So I can talk about writers who enriched my being and who brought to my notice different ways of telling the tale. Krishna Sobti showed me the importance of the smell of the earth, the cadence of the language, and the sheer materiality of description which makes the narration pulsate with life; Nirmal Verma dispensed quite a bit with the much-touted need for dialogue in his writing, and let atmosphere take over, thereby creating another kind of breathing in writing; Intizar Hussain enriched my imagination with his very ‘eastern’ way of telling a tale within a tale within a tale and blending epic, folktale, and mythology with the contemporary and everyday; KB Vaid thrilled me with his risky and risqué games with form and language; Sri Lal Shukl with sardonic humour coloured the personal with political; Vinod Kumar Shukla gave the mundane a slightly askance gait, thereby drawing attention to things and people forgotten or taken for granted. These are only the fewest of my contemporary Hindi greats! Outside Hindi there will be another huge galaxy that kept enriching my imagination and honing my literary consciousness. Very randomly let me mention Coetzee, Dostoevsky, Haldor Laxness, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez, Kundera, Borghes, Osamu Dazai, Alice Munroe, Tanizaki, Unamuno, Gao Xingjian, and so many others.

Tell us a lesser-known (fact about you.

I hum/sing vintage Bollywood songs just all the time.

And an interesting fact about the book.

The way anything and anyone narrates some part of the tale - birds, butterflies, even doors and walls and the road, and also a character who apologises for joining in the narration since he does not belong to the story, but is doing it since he happens to be there on the spot by chance!

It somehow became emblematic of the unity of all things and also of the rich plurality of the world. And, of course, it kept showing the fallaciousness of borders.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

The Mahabharat. It is not for nothing that it is said to contain everything. All possible stories, all possible ways of telling them, they are all there. It is audacious, wise, mad, humane, and clairvoyant. Perennially unsettling and inspiring.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Be yourself - let no one peep over your shoulder to tell you how and what you may write.

What book haven’t you finished?

The Name of the Rose. Perhaps the moment in which I picked it up was wrong. I got lost in the maze of the medieval monasteries and I think I found it peopled with too many men!