Geetanjali Shree, winner of the International Booker Prize-2022 for translated work, was in Mysuru last month to attend the sixth edition of the Mysuru Literature Festival. Her award-winning book, ‘Ret Samadhi’ in Hindi (‘Tomb of Sand’ in English) is not just a story of a family or partition but also about global warming, feminism, ancient history and folklore. On behalf of Star of Mysore, Meena Joshi spoke to Geetanjali Shree. Excerpts:
Star of Mysore (SOM): What is your earliest memory of writing stories?
Geetanjali Shree: My mother recalls that unlike other children, instead of wanting to hear stories I preferred telling stories. So that seems to have been one trait in my early years that I recall. Then I remember as a young schoolgirl, as you know we went to English medium school and were reading Enid Blyton books. I think those books influenced me, and I wanted to write stories modelled on that.
Unfortunately, nobody preserved those stories, and I would love to unearth what I wrote then. It must have been a take-off from Enid Blyton books, set in India. Those must have been my earliest writings.
SOM: Your father was in the IAS, moving to different towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh. How much of this influenced your writing?
Geetanjali: I developed a strong desire to speak about the life I was seeing. I was influenced by the lives of the women around me in our household and lives of the so-called servant class. I was quietly observing and internalising all that. I was also observing how my brothers were given more freedom, how my parents were more protective about the daughters and kept us close to them. Since we were moving from city to city, we changed schools all the time, while the brothers were sent to Sherwood, Nainital, so that they could have a more structured, uninterrupted education.
SOM: Was it difficult for you to write in Hindi?
Geetanjali: Even with the English education, I already had a good grounding in Hindi, so my fluency in the language remained intact. Being in Delhi — in LSR and JNU, I developed greater confidence in myself and my language skills.
SOM: How long did it take you to write ‘Ret Samadhi’?
Geetanjali: It took me a long time, seven to eight years. At times it was excruciating to go on.
SOM: ‘Ret Samadhi’ is not just one story. In fact there are smaller stories within stories. Did you have a theme and the lesser stories already in mind or did they unfurl as you got deeper into writing the book?
Geetanjali: Actually, yes that’s what happened. For ‘Ret Samadhi,’ I did not have a theme. It often happens that something small triggers you. In this case, it was the back of an old woman, a common sight in many homes as though she is bored with life, does not want to live any longer. So begins by saying “Nahin, Nahin,” I won’t get up and then it turns to “Mein Nayi Uthungi” will get up new. As the story was unfurling what was fascinating in the writing process was the interaction taking place between the work and me. In a sense, the freer the work became, the freer it made me and vice-versa, it was like we were feeding each other.
SOM: Mother is the central character in both your first novel, ‘Mai’ and in ‘Ret Samadhi.’ Was this a conscious decision to show an evolution of the mother character.
Geetanjali: I was not thinking consciously about this. ‘Mai’ is outwardly shown as traditional, as society would like to see her. ‘Mai’ is not an unfree person. Biding her time, she would quietly do what the men in the family did not like or tradition did not allow. She has her own sense of freedom and negotiation; she intervenes and takes independent decisions. It was all inside her. Many of us had mothers who did not look like and behave like strong, confrontational, assertive feminist women, but they had their own sense of freedom, assertion and so on. This comes out later in ‘Ret Samadhi,’ so you can say there is a continuation.
SOM: You have given up your caste/family name and use your mother’s first name as your last name. What was the reason for doing this?
Geetanjali: It was not a conscious decision to give up a caste name, or even a conscious feminist decision. I just felt that my mother has played such a big role in bringing us up. Why is her name completely missing from everything? So I decided to make her first name as my last name. It was after I had done that, that I realised what kind of caste and feminist implication it had. I also realised that just by dropping our caste name, we don’t really drop our caste identity. In so many other ways, such as our choice of words or eating habits, we retain our caste identity.
SOM: Your writing reflects strong power of observation. Were you writing something new when covid set in and you were faced with the isolation of lockdown?
Geetanjali: I have a problem with space and getting solitude for my writing. I like to lock myself away when I am writing. When lockdown was suddenly announced, we as a family decided to move in together to be around with our ninety-year-old mother. So, for major part of the two years, we were together which meant there was just not that space and quiet to write as much as I would have liked to do. Also, the terrible scenes of death, the uncertainty of how long the situation would go on, did begin to affect me.
I began to question what my writing was about. When you don’t even know if there is a tomorrow, why am I writing? Everything became a huge question mark and meaningless. So, I decided to just be with my loved ones, live in the moment, and not think of anything else.
That gloom did get into my writer’s heart and head. I was writing something, so I just continued out of compulsion. It was like breathing so I kept doing it. I finished it, but I have still not given it to the publisher. Then the Booker happened, and in a way, it broke that stalemate. I did manage to get out of that mood which had frozen my creative juices.
SOM: This is your first visit to Mysuru. What was your impression of the city, its people and of the Literature Festival?
Geetanjali: The Festival, I must say, I liked very much. I think there is a huge contrast between a festival being held in a big city and a city like Mysuru. Big cities have that confidence in floating a litfest. This one had a certain kind of sincerity and commitment about it which made it very special. It’s on a smaller scale but was done with more earnestness. Mysuru is a beautiful city and these two days have been so welcoming, that my husband and I have begun to feel that this is the city to live in. However, it has been too short a visit. I would love to come for a longer stay and really get to know the city and its people.