Publish with us

Follow Penguin

Follow Penguinsters

Follow Hind Pocket Books

From The Writer’s Desk: Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell

The day we had all been waiting for finally arrived at our office some time ago. Our office doors swung open and in came the two women who created history by bringing to life, the first Hindi and South Asian language book to win the International Booker.  We look at them like icons, but they walk in like friends, friends who’ve returned home after becoming legends. And so, we sit with them for a quick coffee, some afternoon sun, and the rush outside with all the other employees getting ready to get their books signed.

Manasi: How does it feel to have made history? What do you think this kind of international recognition will mean for Hindi literature and translation?

Geetanjali: I am not quite able to believe it, but I do know that something amazing has happened. It feels great to be the chosen one. I think this achievement just makes the larger world discover a language called Hindi and the vibrant literature that exists in Hindi and the languages around it. Hence, it is a very important moment;, there are tremendous possibilities for the world which hasn’t seen a lot of this kind of literature.  

Daisy: It’s very exciting. Both of us have been working quietly for so many years, on our own. So, this is unexpected and very thrilling for us. We hope that the rest of the world will find out about all the amazing literature that comes out of South Asia. There has been translation all along, but I believe that Penguin has been bringing out a lot of translated literature since the early 1990s. Yet, it somehow never gets outside of the subcontinent. We hope that Tomb of Sand will help all these other books cross borders.  


Avleen: Speaking of translations, they once said in a movie, ‘Poetry in translation is like taking a bath with a raincoat on’. But then translations also seem to be the only answers to build a world where we share our stories with each other. So, here you are trying to do the impossible. What are your thoughts on translation and what is the process like? Is it all bits daunting that we assume it to be? 

Daisy: Yes, I think that’s a very negative way to look at translation. People keep asking me about the loss in translation, but I am much more interested in what we find! It is daunting but it is a very exciting experience for me! I love challenges and I love things that seem impossible to render in a language. A lot of people are even reading Ret Samadhi after reading Tomb of Sand, so, it’s taking people back to Hindi as well. So, translation for me is always about finding and discovering. 

Avleen: Geetanjali, even you’ve mentioned in other interviews that the translation process often makes you look at your novel with a renewed lens. Was there ever a moment where it led to a change in your perspective or feeling regarding some aspect about the book? 

Geetanjali: I don’t think it changed anything, but there was an enhancement of my perspective. A good translation brings out a lot of latent possibilities lying inside the work and that is an exciting discovery. But if it does something that changes a perspective, then it’s not a good translation. It should help in discovering something that’s there but may not be as visible or audible in the work. 

Manasi: So, tell me (Geetanjali), how does writing begin for you? Is it the idea first or do you start writing and then the idea comes?  

Geetanjali: Well, I don’t have a worked-out scheme. I think there’s a different trigger each time. It only happened once, when I knew I wanted to write about communalism. About Hindus and Muslims and how we seem to think that it is happening only among the uneducated in the old cities, when in fact, all of us have strange prejudices inside us no matter how liberal we consider ourselves to be. That’s the only time I had a theme in mind. Otherwise, the trigger can be anything for me! It can be an image or a wisp of a dialogue. It can be something very ordinary in daily life. And what I have discovered is that something that is ordinary is never only ordinary. It always gets linked to some very huge things. Something small sets me off and then keeps getting joined up with other things and the story keeps building, so it’s a very organic process.  


Manasi: And in terms of the collaboration between the two of you, do you talk throughout the process of translation, or do you deliver a full draft to Geetanjali? 

Daisy: I always do a rough and full first draft, trying not to talk to anybody at all. Even if I have a lot of questions and problems, I just write it all by hand and put notes. It’s like when you’re taking an exam, you don’t really know the answer to the first question but when you read the whole exam, you’ll find some of the answers at the end in the way the questions are asked. For example, why she’s using a particular word or why an image was used where? So, I go through the whole thing and after 2-3 drafts, I start asking her questions. LOTS of questions. And by the 5th or 6th draft, I send her the whole thing and she goes through it comprehensively and then there are more discussions. There are layers upon layers upon layers of conversations.  

Geetanjali: And you know Daisy and I had not met during all of this. We just met a couple of days before the booker announcement. So, all of it was on email. 

Daisy: And it’s funny because all of it was during the pandemic and it never even crossed our minds to use Zoom. People thought that we were Zooming but we never had a voice conversation!  

Geetanjali: But the wonderful thing is that when we met, it didn’t feel like we were meeting for the first time. We immediately slipped into a very easy friendship. 

Manasi: Because you must have such a deep level of intellectual trust ion each other for doing something so big!  

Geetanjali: Yes, but we’re also very lucky! Because there was a risk. It could’ve gone any which way. And I always wonder if Daisy was very good at translation but didn’t have a sense of humour, she would’ve destroyed that book!  


Manasi: So, tell me about the title? I know that one of the only things you guys had a disagreement on was the title. So, Ret Samadhi becomes Tomb of Sand. Tell us how you arrived upon it? 

Geetanjali: Daisy was very wickedly supported by the publisher (laughs). I wanted the word samadhi to be in the title. And samadhi was already in the Oxford English Dictionary. And even if it wasn’t, I would’ve argued that words are constantly being taken into other languages, let samadhi go in the title. Let them learn a new word and concept. But I think Daisy and the publisher both felt, perhaps rightly so, that samadhi in the title might mislead people in bookstores to believe it is about spiritualism or yoga. They didn’t want to introduce prejudice. That argument made sense to me, but I was a bit concerned about the word tomb, because it is completely different from samadhi.  

Daisy: But when I chose ‘tomb’, I was thinking about the Gandhi samadhi. Because that’s a tomb that’s not a mausoleum, but a resting place. It’s sort of giving him a Buddha-like feeling, that he’s still there somehow. But a part of the compromise is that I went all out in teaching the word samadhi throughout the book. We have the definition right in the beginning and then I define it subtly within the text, and by the end I’m only using the word samadhi and not any of the translations of it. And I think we’re both very opinionated and confident in our opinions.  

Geetanjali: But I think we also know how to be a little detached. After a point, she is the translator. She knows English, she knows what the book is.  

Daisy: Yeah, I think people are always annoying Geetanjali with the question that why didn’t you write in eEnglish or why didn’t you translate your own book? And she says because Hindi is my mother tongue, why should I defend this? But if she was translating her books, she wouldn’t be writing books. That would cannibalize her work. And she doesn’t want to be a translator. And that’s part of what makes our relationship work. Because she doesn’t want to suddenly jump in and become the translator, she never wanted to be that. Our roles are clearclear, and we have a nice boundary between us. 

Geetanjali: Yes, but it’s a boundary that works as a bridge, it doesn’t divide us. 



As a bonus to our lovely readers, here’s a writing tip that Geetanjali Shree shared specially for you all:  


Geetanjali: If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  

Write, write, write. 

Writing is about looking at the world, dialoguing with it, sharpening your observation, trying to notice things. So, just do that. Hone your sensitivities and look around, look inside you, think about things, be reflective, be quiet, and write, write, write. 


The Brontë Sisters of Urdu Literature

In Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard, Aliya lives a life confined to the inner courtyard of her home with her older sister and irritable mother, while the men of the family throw themselves into the political movements of the day. She is tormented by the petty squabbles of the household and dreams of educating herself and venturing into the wider world.
But Aliya must endure many trials before she achieves her goals, though at what personal cost?
Here is an excerpt from the afterword of the book by translator Daisy Rockwell, titled The Brontë Sisters of Urdu Literature.

Khadija Mastur and her sister, Hajira Masroor, have been called the Brontë sisters of Urdu literature. This comparison seems to have been made primarily on a biographical basis— they’d led tragic lives, were meek and unassuming in person, but wrote with conviction. But from a feminist perspective, the comparison is quite apt. Khadija Mastur wrote two novels and five collections of short stories in her fifty-five years, and it is a rare story that does not contain a critique of patriarchy, chauvinism and misogyny. Happy endings are few and far between.
Though the Brontës’ books are often described as romances, they too took a bleak view of male behaviour. The Brontës sometimes came up with a ‘happy’ ending, though it often feels tacked on, for the sake of the formula. ‘Reader, I married him’—Charlotte Brontë’s famous last line in Jane Eyre cannot be seen as a truly happy ending to the brutal tale. After all, our romantic hero is by now old, blind, disabled and semi-homeless. Mr Rochester, as has been explored in countless retellings and analyses, is not a very nice man: one who locked up his mentally ill Creole first wife in the attic, and then lied about her very existence. It is only when Mr Rochester is tragically maimed and reduced in the eyes of society that Jane Eyre can hope for a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. In fact, throughout their works, it is clear that the Brontës did not have a high opinion of male motivations and behaviour—as with Anne Brontë’s description of married life in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which even the supposedly positive character of the male narrator often behaves poorly himself; or the unappealing and disappointing male love interests in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.
Unlike the Brontës, Mastur and Masroor came of age writing at a time when there was a strong progressive writers’ movement. Though they could have chosen to write romances, they were politically engaged, Mastur for a time serving as the head of the Pakistani Progressive Writers’ Association. Because of her political views, shaped in part by a youth marked by poverty and deprivation, Mastur felt no obligation to deliver happy endings to her readers. It is clear from her writings that she saw patriarchy and classism as systemic poisons that destroy and kill women intellectually, emotionally and physically.
Not that Mastur treated her female characters with unstinting kindness either. Far from it. In characters such as Aliya’s mother and grandmother in The Women’s Courtyard, Mastur paints a detailed and unforgiving portrait of the role that women play in perpetuating the rigid bonds of patriarchy and class hierarchy. Indeed, Aliya’s mother and grandmother play active roles in destroying the lives of those who dare step outside the boundaries of tradition. The behaviour of these women is so brutal at times that they end up looking far worse than the actual patriarchs in the family, whom Aliya regards with love and respect despite their neglect of their families in favour of outside political involvement. Aliya’s mother is by far the most toxic character in the novel; she makes it clear that she considers her mother-in-law a flawed role model, one who ruined the family by failing to poison her own daughter when she was discovered in a romantic liaison with a lowerclass man.
Aliya herself wonders what it is that makes her so forgiving of her father’s and uncle’s neglect of their families’ welfare:

How she wished that Amma hadn’t driven anyone from the house; it was Safdar who had divided everyone, and then Abba was so busy with his animosity towards the English that he wouldn’t even turn and look at anyone. He didn’t even acknowledge her love. But she couldn’t say any of this out loud. She herself wondered why, despite Abba’s indifference, she still loved him the most. Abba’s affectionate eyes were so expressive. She’d never been able to say even one word against him (see p. 77).

Aliya sees her father and uncle as brilliant, politically principled men, even as their families are slowly wiped out financially and emotionally by their failure to step into their roles as patriarchs. But Aliya’s love is an intrinsic part of patriarchy as well—she has infinite forgiveness for her male elders, but little sympathy for the shrewish women who work desperately to keep the family and class structure in place.
Still, Aliya knows that the worst thing she can do to perpetuate the system is to step into the role awaiting her as a wife—specifically as wife to her cousin Jameel. Despite her suppressed love for Jameel, and a certain physical attraction to him, she sees capitulation to his advances as a sure way to end up just like her mother and aunt: a whinging housewife with a neglectful and politically active husband. The only way she can see clear to break the cycle is by refusing to marry. Implicit in this choice is the belief that marriage is a tool to perpetuate the system of patriarchy, a notion that is still radical more than fifty years after the publication of the novel.

The Women’s Courtyard cleverly brings into focus the claustrophobic lives of women whose entire existence was circumscribed by the four walls of their homes, and for whom the outside world remained an inaccessible dream. For more posts like this, follow Penguin India on Facebook!

error: Content is protected !!