A year after Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell won for Tomb of Sand, they talk about how the prize has brought them closer – and expanded their world 

Written by Max Liu

Publication date and time: Published

The Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and her American translator Daisy Rockwell have experienced a whirlwind year since the night last May when they won the International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand. But the evening did not get off to the most auspicious of starts.

‘The judges kept it very well hidden that we had won,’ says Shree, speaking over Zoom from her home in Delhi. One of the judges, she recalled, shook her hand, then quickly looked away and walked on. 

Rockwell, who is joining our three-way Zoom call from Vermont, laughs and says: ‘All the judges tried to avoid us beforehand. But they just didn’t want to give it away.’  

Afterwards, the judging panel, chaired by translator Frank Wynne, were much less enigmatic when it came to describing how much they had loved Shree and Rockwell’s book, which is the first novel written in Hindi to win the prize. They hailed the ‘power, the poignancy and the playfulness’ of Tomb of Sand, a polyphonic novel about an 80-year-old woman who, after becoming depressed following the death of her husband and lying in bed for most of the book’s first 200 pages, embarks upon a journey across her country and into her past. They called it ‘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’. 

The reaction to Tomb of Sand’s International Booker win was even more rapturous in India. ‘Thousands of people got up at 2 or 3am to watch the ceremony live,’ Shree explains. ‘I found that very moving. They were not my family or friends, just people who love literature and the language and had so much investment in it. They were completely ecstatic.’   

Her mother’s response to the win touched Shree deeply. ‘She is 96 now and was so delighted. One of the biggest moments for me, bigger even than when the Booker was announced, was when my mother gave me a hug and said: “I knew one day you would reach here.” That meant everything to me.’ 

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree_shortlist

When we met finally it was really quite amazing because in one single moment we were as thick as anything. It was like we had been meeting every day for years

— Geetanjali Shree

This was fitting because Tomb of Sand is very much a novel concerned with the family. ‘It is a microcosm of what is happening outside, a rich subject where you can find the politics of the country and of the world. Everything is in the family,’ Shree says. It’s a theme which, she adds, runs through her oeuvre, which includes four previous novels. Tomb of Sand is her first work to be translated into English and her first experience of working with Rockwell, who had previously translated works of classic Hindi and Urdu literature. 

The two of them met in person for the first time a few days before the International Booker ceremony, but they had corresponded via email about the English language translation of Tomb of Sand for two to three years. Both emphasise the way winning the International Booker Prize has cemented their bond.   

‘When we met finally it was really quite amazing because in one single moment we were as thick as anything,’ says Shree, who is 65. ‘It was like we had been meeting every day for years.’  

Rockwell, 54, smiles, adding: ‘We were on stage at the Kolkata Literature Festival this year with [2022 Booker Prize winner] Shehan Karunatilaka and the moderator referred to “both of the three of you”. Geetanjali loved that phrase. She said: “I am glad you have recognised that we are one person.” We have fused.’    

Winning the International Booker has had a transformative effect on their book, too. Before it was longlisted for the prize, the UK edition of Tomb of Sand had sold just 473 copies. ‘We were so morose,’ Rockwell says, ‘because it was a big fat book and only our husbands and a few diehard fans had read it.’ 

Then came the Booker longlisting in February 2022 and UK sales increased to over 5,000 copies before the end of May. But in the nine months following its International Booker win, the English edition soared, selling a further 25,000 copies. Rights have been sold in a dozen languages and a US edition was recently published by HarperVia. 

Geetanjali Shree, winner of the International Booker Prize 2022 for Tomb of Sand

The book is now an international phenomenon. But have Shree and Rockwell noticed different responses to Tomb of Sand in different parts of the world?  

‘I can’t say it’s different in a different place necessarily,’ says Shree. ‘There are different types of readers everywhere. So, yes, I get different responses, but they could occur in the same place. Every reader brings something different to the novel. We are living in very eclectic times. Readers are very open and adventurous.’  

Rockwell agrees: ‘There are a lot of cultural references in the book. Some people I know who have read it said: “I don’t know anything about India, but I still enjoyed it.” There are a lot of non-Indian cultural references, too, to English literature and world literature, that some readers might not get. But the people who don’t worry about that are the ones who enjoy it the most. They are curious about what Geetanjali refers to, but are not troubled if they do not get the reference.’  

Tomb of Sand was the first novel translated from any Indian language (the country has 22 official languages) to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize. After it won, Shree and Rockwell both said they hoped that their success would encourage readers outside of India to further engage with Indian language fiction. Do they feel that has happened in the past year?  

‘Yes, it’s very visible,’ says Geetanjali, ‘but I don’t want to go into ecstasies yet, as I want to see how it is sustained. How much of this is going to be hype that doesn’t last? And how much of it is going to be soberly sustained.’  

She hopes their win might give [Indian language writers] ‘encouragement and hope that they are not going to be sitting in a corner, lost and forgotten, if they write in a language that is not the most powerful in the world’.   

One of the ways – besides the International Booker – that South Asian literature may start to reach western readers is through the recently-announced South Asian Literature in Translation (SALT) initiative. The project – co-led by Jason Grunebaum at the University of Chicago’s department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations and translator Daniel Hahn, who sits on the Booker Prize Foundation’s advisory committee – will provide mentorships, funding and a literary translation school.

Rockwell, who is on SALT’s advisory board, says: ‘Both Geetanjali and I are intent on not letting the door close behind us and SALT is one of the ways that I hope Hindi writers will start to be heard outside of the Sub-Continent. It is going to provide funding that publishers can apply for. In many countries, such as France and South Korea, language translations are funded by government and government-affiliated arts councils, but that is not the case in South Asian countries. Maybe it’s better that way. We wouldn’t want to politicise what gets brought out.’  

Daisy Rockwell (translator) wins The 2022 International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand

If you are interviewed over and over, some of it is repetitive, but it can also bring things out of your head that you didn’t know were there. You remember why interacting with human beings is an important thing

— Daisy Rockwell

Shree and Rockwell’s conversation is full of laughter and, even talking over Zoom, their enthusiasm is infectious. This is apt for the exuberance of Tomb of Sand, a novel which, at over 700 pages in Rockwell’s translation, may looked daunting at first glance, but is in fact a light and luminous read, thanks to the way the translator captures the author’s wit and verbal energy. The English version has nearly twice as many pages as the Hindi version – ‘That’s because I put chapter breaks between the sections so there is much more blank space,’ Rockwell explains. ‘The Hindi is all pushed together, but I thought the [English] reader needed to breathe after each section; you can’t just be pushed into the next chapter. It makes me sort of dizzy.’ 

Did she manage to enjoy the novel while she was translating it? ‘This book was very difficult to translate,’ she admits. ‘There were long periods when I could not enjoy any bit of it at all. There’s a passage where Geetanjali compares the human brain to a jalebi – a curly Indian sweet – and we went back and forth many times trying to describe that. It was only when it had come together and I read it that I thought: “This is a fun and breezy passage”. Other parts were fun to translate but I don’t think readers would be able to tell which were the fun parts and which were difficult, and that is as it should be.’     

Will they work together again? ‘We haven’t stopped,’ Shree says. ‘We are addicted to each other.’  

Rockwell adds: ‘I have proposals on two works that Geetanjali has never had translated, a collection of stories and a novel. Also, Geetanjali has an unpublished novel that she has not had time to edit yet. I am waiting for it to come my way. I know it has an untranslatable title, so I am looking forward to the challenge.’   

Writers often say that for a while after winning a major prize, such as the Booker or the Nobel, their schedules are so packed with publicity commitments that they have little time for writing. Shree and Rockwell have been busy talking about Tomb of Sand for almost a year now, but have they been able to do any writing or translating in that time?  

‘I have not done much work [in the past year]’, Rockwell admits, ‘but I feel a renewed sense of purpose. If you are interviewed over and over, some of it is boring and repetitive, but it can also bring things out of your head that you didn’t know were there. You remember why interacting with human beings is an important thing. It’s about a very real connection with people who love to read.’ 

Shree feels similarly: ‘A writer needs her solitude, her silence and there is none of that at the moment. But the thing I realised is that just before the Booker happened for me were the pandemic years… Slowly, many of us were going into a depression, not only because of the anxiety about the pandemic but about all the other things that were happening; the politics of the world, which were creating borders, making people suspicious of each other and so much more unfriendly.’  

Winning the International Booker Prize with Rockwell has, Shree thinks, been an antidote to the despair she felt in the years prior to her victory. ‘It returned a world of literature to me,’ she says. ‘Suddenly, my world expanded and it was all about readers and writers and books again. It was life-affirming for me, to know that while many things may be going wrong there are still these things to celebrate and there are people who are totally immersed in literature.  

‘I feel, in some strange way, that while I have not been able to write a single line [in the past year], and only reading intermittently, my connection with literature really has become so much more intense after winning the International Booker Prize.’ 

Daisy Rockwell, translator, and Geetanjali Shree author of Tomb of Sand

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