Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi, translated into English as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell, has made history by becoming the first Hindi novel – and the first from India as well as South Asia – to win the International Booker Prize for translated books published in the UK and Ireland. The book was declared the winner in a field of six in London on Thursday night, with Shree and Rockwell sharing the £50,000 prize equally.

Translator Frank Wynne, the chair of the jury, said, “This is a luminous novel of India and partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.”

Before the announcement, both the writer and the translator wrote about the translation and the excitement, respectively, exclusively for

The Tale of Two Translations

By Geetanjali Shree

A small tiptoeing back into the past will permit a foray into now!

Ret Samadhi had just come out. I could not join my friend and translator Annie Montaut in Jaipur that year. So I sent my new book with someone. She, unlike those who put a work away because it is demanding, stayed with it and not long after wrote she would translate it into French and find a publisher for it.

Strangely, almost at the same time, “matchmaker” Arunava Sinha, as Daisy called him the other day, wrote to me about the new novel’s possible English translation and publication, if it was free and I was interested.

Here began the tale of two translations and discoveries along the new way.

It was also a time when a few who read (and liked!) the novel commented that I had written my most untranslatable work to date. To which another translator friend responded “and what is a translator worth if she or he will not go for that challenge”.

Which is precisely what my two translators took on.

Working on it simultaneously in two separate continents and bombarding me with long questionnaires, often prefaced with I-know-it-I-think-but-need-to-make-double-sure. They were so diligent about this double and triple and more crosschecking, that I think all three of us are in strong competition in who is the most patient of us all!

Also, the dialogues in the course of the translation are another long, very long book, should someone be interested!

A writer works with an intuition honed over the years – funded with her experiences, observations, her history, geography, osmosis in the air, and an aesthetic sense – which constantly guides her to achieve the balance, even if a very adventurous and a risky balance often, between the various arts (all arts make every single work of art) in the work being erected. She lets herself sit quiet in the place where the muse will find her and the stories surging in her will slowly begin their unfurling.

And almost to the surprise of the writer, a work will begin its foray into a creative terrain, exploring paths, climbing slopes, plumbing depths, and mapping its own borders or choosing to skip across them. It is about an ongoing interaction between the writer and her medium where each bends the other. The operative organs are the senses, and not always at their overly conscious, but even subconscious and dare I say unconscious!

Geetanjali Shree, author, 'Tomb of Sand'. | Image credit: Andrew Fosker for Shutterstock.

Enter the translators and their curiosities and queries bring everything out on the table, demanding to be explained. This is what my beloved translators were asking of me. To know the context of things, the choice of words and other modes, the facts of things. Answering them was not always easy, given that I was not a researcher presenting my thesis. But it certainly took me along new paths.

Sometimes it was exciting – retracing my steps I could suddenly see my own pursuits and curiosities better. As with the back. The back of a tired-of-life woman turning into the back of a desirous old woman. The tired image started like a still-life image with me, atrophied almost, but slowly began getting animated with new wants, and turned into a spring-board for the story/ies to poise themselves on and take off.

At other times it flummoxed me – why did I write that? And like that? I almost needed to guess and maybe I invented anew!

But the translators were showing me my inspirations and making me aware of my own proclivities and visionary springs. Like holding up a mirror to show me my work and me.

When it came to Annie’s, I could not read her rendering. But her questions, her sensibility well steeped in Hindi literature and north Indian life and culture, plus the points in her reading when the audience would respond with certain recognisable emotions, deepened my faith in her. Her questions about language told me her sense of linguistic cultures. Our dialogue constantly enriched us both.

So also with Daisy. Her enjoyment of idiosyncrasies in language, her parallel play and inventiveness with English versus my Hindi, (look at the crow sequences where we both go crowing happily and independently!), her confidence sometimes in ‘ticking me off’ and quoting no less than A K Ramanujan, once her teacher, about the inventive independence of translation, all carried forward our dialogue and the translation.

A dialogue with new friends. Based more on a shared sensibility and recognition of the soul and essence of the text, rather than agreement about literalities.

This was about communication. What is communication and how does one communicate? Certainly not just by placing the meaning of the word in another language. Sometimes without words. As an animal and bird might with me. Sometimes without comprehending the other. As Cassandra struggled on and on to communicate to people who would not listen to her and believe her! Sometimes in confusion. As any two people do with each other even in the same language!

Something communicates, changes, even miscommunicates, but works if the essence and soul is at par. We think translation and communication is about exact replica, but it is not, it is about a shared rapport and meaning.

Meaning itself is mercurial – my own meaning is not a fixed and rigid thing!

Yes, I found the two experiences hugely layered and expanding of horizons. By the time we finished, it was no longer about me and her and her, but about two texts already different from this interaction, one learning from the other’s different ways of seeing, expressing, even being. It will change even me as a reader now to see Ma of Ret Samadhi in her English transformation full of nuances and cadences coming from a different milieu. And the reader of that milieu will forever now have samadhi and jalebi in their purview, to span the sublime to the ridiculous in a manner of speaking, but also as new philosophical constructs to understand an experience.

Quite simply put, in all its variations, the translation process for me has been about the vocabulary of life getting extended.

Notes from a shortlisted translator as she packs her suitcase

By Daisy Rockwell

Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen... why do these words echo through my head as I pack for London? I walk up the stairs…Ellowen DeeowenI do the laundry…Ellowen DeeowenI search for my cobwebbed suitcase… Ellowen Deeowen

Daisy Rockwell, translator, 'Tomb of Sand'. | Image credit: Andrew Fosker for Shutterstock.

I have read hundreds of books – maybe more! – set in London. I know Dickens’s London, and Austen’s, I know the Londons of Agatha Christie and PD James. I know Barbara Pym’s London, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s, Thackeray’s London and Trollope’s. There are childhood Londons: Mary Poppins’s London, and JM Barrie’s London. But here I am meditating on Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha falling, falling, falling out of a plane, hurtling through the air towards Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen .

When I try to shake that image, a more ridiculous one takes its place. A movie. Typical London landmarks. And Amrish Puri’s resonant, authoritative voice: “Yeh London hai. Duniya ka sabse bada shehar. Main bais baras se yahan reh raha hun. Rozana isi sadak se guzarta hun…” (This is London. The largest [greatest?] city in the world. I’ve been living here for twenty-two years. I walk down this street every day…). I’ve always remembered the opening lines of the Bollywood hit Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge because of that preposterous claim: that London is the largest city in the world. And from an Indian, to boot!

Later, as I continue to meander through the house finding things to pack, my feet padding to the steady refrain of Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen, I wonder why I am thinking of these Indian Londons, and my mind turns to other Indian Londons: to the legendary beginnings of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association in a bar or café or maybe a Chinese restaurant, attended by Syed Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand and possibly others. To the London of Qurratulain Hyder in her Urdu novel Aag ka Dariya (River of Fire), and the Londons of Goodness Gracious Me, and the Pakistani London of Hanif Kureishi. My Beautiful Laundrette; The Buddha of Suburbia. Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen

And as I prepare my readings for London Booker events, a murder of crows here, a Mahabharataesque family there, I realise that we – Geetanjali Shree and I – in our state of Bookershock, are hurtling together through the air, clutching our copies of Ret Samadhi and Tomb of Sand like they’re parachutes or maybe protective talismans, ready or not ready, about to make our own landing in Indian Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen.