Fictionalising Trauma

By Ratan Bhattacharjee

Memory dilutes, but the object remains unaltered, wrote Aanchal Malhotra in her book Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory. This year, Geetanjali Shree became the first Indian winner of the International Booker Prize for her riveting book that fictionalises the trauma of material memory.
Tomb of Sand, Shree’s Booker-winning novel, opens thus: “Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float in the wind, that bend with each blade of grass.”
The International Booker Prize, formerly known as the Man Booker International Prize, was introduced in the United Kingdom in June 2004. The prize was then given every two years to a living author of any nationality for a body of work published in English or generally available in English translation. It rewarded one author’s continued creativity.
Since 2016, the award has been given annually to a single book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland with a £50,000 prize for the winning title shared equally between the author and translator.
The Man Booker Prize was open only to writers from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe while the present Booker was open to all nationalities who had work available in English including translations similar to the Nobel Prize for Literature.
For the 2022 prize, the judges were Frank Wynne (chair), Merve Emre, Petina Gappah, Viv Groskop and Jerem Tiang. The long list was announced on March 10 and the shortlist on April 7. Finally, on May 26, the winner’s name was announced.
Shree, who got the prize for her only book available in English translation, wrote it in Hindi as Ret Samadhi in 2018. US translator Daisy Rockwell translated it into English as Tomb of Sand. It is broadly categorised as Partition literature. Shree was born in Mainpuri town of Uttar Pradesh. As the daughter of a civil servant, she lived in various towns but mostly in a Hindi ambience. It was her upbringing in such a background that she felt inclined toward Hindi writing.
During her PhD on Premchand from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, she had her fictional debut and there was no looking back since the publication of this short story. She felt privileged to be a writer in Hindi as she proudly 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.”
Frank Wynne, the chair of judges, said the panel members were “captivated by the power, the poignancy and the playfulness” of her novel. In his opinion, “This is a luminous novel of India and Partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weave youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.”
Shree is the author of several short stories and five novels. Her 2000 novel Mai was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in 2001 and its English translation by Nita Kumar was published by Niyogi Books in 2017. Tomb of Sand inspires one to approach reality anew. It gives a jerk to make people look inwards, to re-examine this ‘age of excess’. The contours of consciousness are hazy and miracles are allowed to happen. Tolerance is taught and the message is clear about being respectful of one’s choices.
This book will instill faith in literature. It traces the transformative journey of 80-year-old Ma who becomes depressed after the death of her husband. She then decides to travel to Pakistan confronting the trauma that had remained unresolved since she was a teenager who survived the Partition riots – all, however, imagined by the author.
Shree wrote: “Anything worth doing transcends borders.” The Booker Prize authority hailed the novel as an “urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries –whether between religious, countries or genders”.
There are many stories that came together in the book but the most motivational aspect is that the old woman gradually rose up from her deathbed to reinvent her life. All of human history, literature, art, thought, and politics have been at the service of this story of the book in the autonomous narration.
The relief came from the writer’s playing with words for the sake of wordplay, and her digressions asides, all come to make a full circle in the end. Rockwell found the translation difficult because of its ‘experimental nature’ and ‘unique use of language’.
“I never dreamt of the Booker, I never thought I could,” Shree, the writer of the 725-page novel said after bagging the International Booker Prize as the first Indian on May 26, leaving behind five other shortlisted titles by Mieko Kawakami, Bora Chung, Jon Fosse, Claudia Pineiro and former winner Olga Tokarczuk. This is different from the Man Booker Prize which is for English novels and has been won by Indians in the past, including Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga.
It is a matter of pride for all, that she is the first among the Asian, Indian and also among the Hindi writers to get this prestigious award. Her work has been translated into English, French, German, Serbian and Korean and the award is likely to acquaint the rest of the world with her body of work as well as Indian literature.
As she rightly said in an interview on the Booker Prize website: “There is a vast world of literature with rich lineages which still needs to be discovered.”

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