Geetanjali Shree. (Twitter)
Ret Samadhi, Geetanjali Shree’s remarkable work of fiction, has won the International Booker Prize this year. This prize is given to a work in any global language, provided it has been translated into English and published in the UK. Daisy Rockwell, an American, translated this monumental work, and found a publisher in the UK. Hence it qualified for consideration, and became the first book in Hindi to win this prestigious prize.
Naturally, this is a matter of great pride. But there are troubling questions that must be confronted. Geetanjali, whom I know personally, is not new on the Hindi writing canvas. She has published four novels and two collections of short stories earlier, apart from a magisterial book on Munshi Premchand. Within Hindi literary circles she has won recognition and acclaim. But why did she become a literary superstar only when she won a foreign award?
This is an important — and uncomfortable — question. Somehow, foreign recognition is very important to us Indians. When the question of giving titles to loyal Indians was being discussed in the British Parliament in 1876, British PM Disraeli argued that Indians attach enormous value to such distinctions. The Booker, of course, carries considerable prestige, but that prestige is magnified a hundred times in India. Rabindranath Tagore deservedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, but his literary genius was fully accepted in India only after that. Ravi Shankar became a household name only after his association with the Beatles. Satyajit Ray became a legend for his own countrymen only after his films were hailed abroad.
Only when Arvind Adiga won the Booker Prize in 2008 for his novel The White Tiger — and received the prize in full British attire of a tuxedo and bowtie — did Indians recognise him as a literary hero. Something similar happened with the film Slumdog Millionaire. When the film won the BAFTA award in Britain for best film, it had not even been officially released in India. Even though most Indians had not seen the film, and could not, therefore, judge it on merit, the media was euphoric at this achievement. After the film won the Oscar in February 2009, all sense of proportion was lost. We went hysterical. Banner headlines announced the great victory for a film, which was, incidentally, made by a British film director.
For most Indians, winning the Booker is like being recognised where it matters, of being vindicated in the right quarters, of having glamorously arrived. But what about the departure lounge left behind? A leading Indian publisher pointed out in an interview that if an author gets the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in India, it makes a difference in sales of perhaps ten copies! In the case of the Crossword Prize, or the Jnanapith Award, there may be an additional sale of 1,000 copies. But with the Booker sales go up exponentially — anything from 50,000 to 150,000 copies. Booker winning novels leap out of shelves in India, bought by customers eager to read what the English have recognised.
Geetanjali’s Ret Samadhi was published in India by Rajkamal Publications in 2018. I spoke to Ashok Maheshwari who runs Rajkamal. He confirmed to me that until the Booker, the book trudged along fairly listlessly, selling far below its potential, and that Geetanjali herself was frustrated at the unremarkable response. Why should this be so? After all, technically, India is the third largest book market in the world. Hindi has a great lineage, and numerically at least, a very large market. Geetanjali’s first novel, Mai, was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in India, and translated in 2017 into English by an Indian. But none of this made her a "celebrity" author, widely read and admired by Indians, until she won the International Booker in the UK.
All this should make us seriously think. We are legatees of a great civilisation, where literature flourished when in most parts of the world people were still learning to speak. Why then is there such little literary discussion, reviews, appreciation and readership of our own authors in our own country? Do we really have to wait for an American, Daisy Rockwell — and she has, indeed, done an excellent translation — to bring our own books to our own readers? In a multilingual country where some 80,000 new titles — some of them showing great talent — are published in 24 different languages every year, why are good translations so rare? There is nothing wrong in foreign recognition, but that cannot be the only reason to awaken Indians to their own talent.
In particular, there needs to be much more of good translations in India. In the absence of this, works of great merit in our many languages remain limited to their specific linguistic silos, and are deprived of a wider readership and appreciation, including abroad. I have myself translated four volumes of Gulzar Saheb’s poetry into English, which have been published by Penguin. I have also rendered in English the poetry of Kaifi Azmi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Ghalib, also for Penguin. Apart from English, there is a dire need to translate books from one Indian language to another. In fact, the government should seriously consider setting up an institute of excellence only to encourage translations. Geetanjali, who would otherwise have been only read in Hindi, was lucky to get a Daisy Rockwell. We need more Daisy Rockwells of our own.
Incidentally, the deafening silence from the BJP to Geetanjali’s milestone achievement is indicative of a small-mindedness that is depressing. The BJP otherwise portrays itself as a champion of Hindi. But when a Hindi novel gets the International Booker for the first time, they are shy of felicitating the author apparently because in some of her books she has — rightly — been critical of communal divisiveness. Our PM, who tweets at a drop of a hat, lost his voice.
I am proud and very happy for Geetanjali. She fully deserves this belated recognition. But I would have been even happier if her creativity was more befittingly recognised in her own country before the Booker Prize.