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.
This made Shree’s commitment to 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 “re-injecting it into the Hindi bloodstream.”