Hay-on-Wye, 7 pm. Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell had just returned from a long book-signing, where all copies of Tomb of Sand were sold out after an event celebrating their International Booker Prize win on May 26. Although tired, having travelled that morning, they were their cheerful and encouraging selves, ready for another conversation with Scroll.in.
I thought we would speak relaxedly, a chat instead of an interview, informal questions and leisurely responses, no less absorbing for that. Geetanjali Shree would probably question the “no less”; one of her pieces of advice, after all, is to be less of a Serious Son. What isn’t reflected in this transcript is all the mirth and laughter in this conversation; there were far too many to add action tags. What comes through, we hope, is all the warmth and the insight.
Was there any point you felt like you couldn’t do it anymore? You know, this is a huge novel in quantity and in scope, and creating it must’ve been a mammoth task. Maybe you were overwhelmed, maybe you just wanted to take a break, maybe you were tired…
Geetanjali Shree: With the novel or…
Either with the novel, or when working on the translation.
Geetanjali: I don’t think I ever felt like I can’t do this novel anymore. I sat with it for a long time, I was burdened by it. You know that Hindi saying? “Nigal nahin paa rahe ho, ugal nahin paa rahe ho”. (You can’t swallow it in, you can’t spit it out). That’s what had happened with the novel for me. Ugal, I couldn’t do. And during the final years – it did take six or seven years for me to complete this – I felt I was out of sync with the world, like I had plunged into another space and time. So I was in that kind of state, rather than thinking of giving up.
With the translation, too, no. You see, I’m not able to stop something in the middle after I’ve said yes to it. And also, the translation made me see the novel again and I learnt a lot from the process, both the English translation and the French translation. Because the translators would ask all these questions to me and I had to go back and trace my creative journey, which you wouldn’t have registered when you’re writing the novel. Of course sometimes it was difficult, because so much of it is intuitive, and I didn’t know how to explain, but it made me think more.
Daisy Rockwell: Well, I thought I couldn’t translate so many parts of it. But that didn’t translate to “I can’t do this anymore”. Although there was once that I was extremely frustrated. It was when I had emailed a draft of a section to Geetanjali, who had sent it back to me with all these edits. I began working on them and had made some progress when the computer shut down. And I couldn’t retrieve that work at all. I mean, I hadn’t lost my draft or her comments, but I had lost all the edits I had done after. It was painful but I remembered some of it, so…
To talk of the not painful things: you said that translations allowed you to come back to your novel anew. Could you give us an example? Of some part of Ret Samadhi that you saw in a different light, maybe, or something particular in the translation that let you see it?
Geetanjali: You know, you’re catching me at a time when I’m very tired, so I’m not able to remember them. I know I had that feeling multiple times. But…let me tell you about this question that made me think about the novel again. This isn’t something Daisy or Annie [Montaut, the French translator of Ret Samadhi] asked, but someone else asked me, maybe in a conversation, about why I was so interested in the old woman’s life. Even in my earlier fiction. Why the old woman, and so old at that, nearing eighty, who seems to have no interest left in life, who’s becoming selfish…
Geetanjali: You could call it that. So what is this interest in old women and their desires and freedom? I thought seriously about it, haan, why…
And I realised that it was because it is only in old age that a woman becomes truly free. I’m not saying that’s how it should be. But I did wonder a lot about women’s lives, how a greater part of it is spent in the service of other people. First she has all these roles and responsibilities, as a sister, a wife, a mother – roles that take a backseat as she grows old. And then there’s also the woman’s body, which is prized in a certain way and comes under the mores and codes of protection. After a certain age, her body no longer has that meaning, and so she becomes free in another sense.
These thoughts must have been there in my inner world, that I became interested in the image of this old woman leaning on the wall with her back to the world, the image that triggered this novel.
Also, when a woman has her youth and her body to experience and enjoy life, there are rules and regulations and ways of the world that constrict her; then in her old age, when she can enjoy herself, the body gives her pause with warts and aches and whatnot, you know, the effects of ageing on the body. I was interested in this irony. And curious about how it plays out in this woman who, in her journey, also rediscovers her body.
Daisy: I never ask a writer why they’ve written about a certain thing or in a certain way. But I remember I really couldn’t stop myself asking you about the sparrow…
Geetanjali: Isn’t it interesting that I can’t remember this sparrow now?
The red sparrow!
Geetanjali: Oh, the red sparrow. There, you see, I was trying to think about how a ritual or a custom begins, and how it becomes a habit with time, even as the meaning it had whenever the custom originated no longer holds. The origins of the story go back to Italy. In Italy, where I was at a residency, the sparrows seemed very shy. If they sensed a human being approaching, they would fly away, or hide themselves, and would not mingle with us at all.
Which I found very odd, you know, because back home sparrows are the friendliest creatures and are everywhere, inside the house, behind the photo frame. Then someone told me that there, these sparrows were hunted and killed. So there was a history of hunting for a long time. And now, even though they are no longer hunted – hunting is banned there – the sparrows continue to feel fear at the approaching human. That fear is from habit and memory.
It’s one of my favourite sections. Do you both have favourite sections, chapters, or sequences? Which were the most gratifying to work on? Daisy, was there something you translated, read later, and thought: wah, kya baat hai!
Daisy: I mean, the whole novel. Because of all its wordplay and language games, the range of its narrative styles, each chapter brought its own set of challenges, and it was very joyful to work on it.
Geetanjali: I don’t usually read the whole novel after it’s published. I want that kind of distance from it. So I have only gone through parts. But every time I read the section on the crows and the sarees…
Daisy: Oh, yes!
Geetanjali: …I cannot not marvel at it. I mean, why did I do it, how did I do it…
Yes, how did you do that?
Geetanjali: …why did I think that this part should be narrated with these crow narrators, and through different types of sarees.
Daisy: Yes, I love that section too. That’s one of the first things I translated. For the proposal, wasn’t it?
Daisy: I presented it in a translators’ reading at the annual South Asia conference at Madison Wisconsin, and the room was perplexed by what the story was. You know, people keep mentioning magic realism when they talk about it, but I don’t think that’s how you could classify it.
Is it because it’s a dream? The saree sequence, I mean.
Geetanjali: No, not because it’s a dream. The storytelling tradition…
Daisy: It’s like a Jataka tale…
Geetanjali: Exactly. Why, Vighnesh, all our stories…the Panchatantra tales – they have animal narrators. They feature animals and birds as part of the story world. So it’s not a new thing. In this novel, there are crows because they are a part of city life, adapted to the human world, everywhere, and are very intelligent creatures.
And can therefore hold meetings about climate change.
Daisy: These parts were actually quite easy to translate for me. Once I realised that you were playing with language there, I went on to do my own thing.
Geetanjali: Your crowlect, crowthority…
From kauvadhikar! Tell me, do you both have any writing rituals?
Daisy: Not really…
Or, I remember you said you were superstitious and so didn’t write an acceptance speech. Do you have superstitions?
Daisy: Yes, yes, look at all these charms!
Geetanjali: We’re realising through this meeting together in England that we’re both very superstitious.
Daisy: A very fitting pair.
Geetanjali: In the Booker event, our names were next to each other on the table. And Daisy moved them, saying we couldn’t sit next to each other…
Daisy: Well, that was Kanishka [Kanishka Gupta, Daisy Rockwell’s literary agent]. He was texting me that we should have my daughter sit in between the both of us, and that we couldn’t sit next to one another.
Geetanjali: He was having a great time at our expense, using our vulnerabilities.
In the same vein: writing oddities?
Daisy: We both write with a pen and paper, there’s that. And because I’m an artist, I also start drawing when I can’t get somewhere satisfactorily, only to realise later that I’ve filled the entire page with doodles.
Geetanjali: My mind just doesn’t work if I am typing on a laptop. I must hold the pen and bring it near the paper for something to happen. Even when I’m editing, Vighnesh, I can’t just scratch a word or a sentence and modify it. I must rewrite the entire passage again, and in that rhythm the new phrase arrives.
It’s like the brain doesn’t get a signal if you’re not holding the pen. No, I completely understand you. I sometimes even write my emails on paper first, so… Anyway, do you have writing gods? This isn’t the same as favourite writers, writers who have influenced you. And by gods, I don’t mean people who you’ve idealised. But just those people whose energy you draw from, those words that give you a kind of power…
Geetanjali: I know what you mean.
Daisy: I think it is Krishna Sobti for the both of us…
Geetanjali: Yes, she was a monumental presence for me. Is. This chunni I’m wearing is Krishna Sobti’s. Then I feel like she’s with me here. Spiritually.
Daisy: She was her own person. She had a great love for life’s possibilities. And designing her own clothes, these long dresses that covered entirely. She didn’t consider it fanciful but practical…
Geetanjali: …she was really about freedom and fearlessness, and I think that somewhere has always given me encouragement. I think I am that too, but having her behind me is like having the force of a guru who also says, “Yes, go ahead, just do what you want”.
Daisy: “Yes, do it, you can do this”. Both of us in our own ways were inspired by and felt guided by Krishna ji’s spirit. Geetanjali dedicates the book to her. And I had recently finished A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, which was also challenging and a translation that taught me that with experimental writing, you must push the realm of the possible beyond the accepted conventions. With Sobti’s writing, I had to learn to translate silences between words and gestures and passages that were more akin to poetry than prose. Tomb of Sand pushed me much further into that realm and I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t felt Krishna ji’s belief in the endless possibilities of literary expression urging me on.
You said the covers were inspired by Krishna Sobti, too.
Daisy: Yes, the painting I made for the Indian edition of Tomb of Sand. The illustration of the main character is based on photos I took of Krishna Sobti.
Tomb of Sand. Well, I want to try out something. I’m going to read two sections from the novel
Daisy: Oh, we’re going to have a reading!
…and you will tell me anything you think about it, feel about it, any responses whatsoever. So:
“But there’s no courtyard for Amma to have the beds made up outside, that’s what she doesn’t like about sleeping there, and so she keeps saying nooo nyoooo nyewww, poor thing, so tiny, just hold out your hand she’ll climb into it, like that little bird that Bade captured in the dark when we were children. No, no, I won’t hold it, I cried, and I ran, but Bade came rushing after me, and opened my hand and put the bird in. The bird fluttered, like my heart, which began to sink, and then it died right there, in my hand, and I couldn’t let it drop, but I couldn’t hold on to it either. It died, was killed, who killed it, will we ever be able to rise above the guilt?”
Geetanjali: (Mimes not having any words to say.)
Daisy: I’m always struck to hear other people reading the words, and we both are…you know, it comes alive anew…even reading aloud is a form of commentary, because I can hear what you feel about it, which is different from what I imagined…
Geetanjali: I won’t say anything clearly, but to me…it’s quite poignant.
Geetanjali: There’s something very vulnerable there…I find it sad…
Daisy: It’s very sad.
Geetanjali: I was trying to remember – it’s when Ma has disappeared, and this is a dream…
Yeah, there are three chapters with Bade, Bahu, and…
Daisy: The Beti one was really hard to translate, because it was so surrealistic, and you wouldn’t know what was going on, and where was the line between the past and the present.
Geetanjali: With the Holika references…I hear you and it actually brings other echoes. I can see Bade as a baby hankering for his mother. It brings back all other sad, vulnerable moments.
Daisy: And of their relationship when they really had one. They don’t have one now. They don’t speak to each other when the book begins.
Vighnesh: For me, the echo is with the foot hovering over the threshold of the door.
Daisy: Oh, yes!
Geetanjali: Again, see that could also have been an example of something I marvelled at in the novel – this door thing. How did it happen? I was only writing about Beti going in and Bahu going out. But this – about when she raised a foot, the door moved and heard something, and she didn’t know whether she belonged inside or outside: that whole description. Even for me, it was something I was reading of somebody else’s work. That’s quite a marvellous setup for me.
Daisy: It’s funny, because I overheard my father-in-law reading it – he’s reading it, and reading it slowly and carefully – and I overheard him talking to my mother-in-law that morning. He started to read out loud the part of the Bahu going out and the Beti going in, and she said something like, “Did you check the times of the train to Wimbledon yet?”
Geetanjali: Well, yes, would you call that magical realism? It’s how the world works.
Daisy: In parallel perspectives, where people are having these totally different experiences even though they’re sharing their lives together.
Next section, then?
“First and foremost…” No, I’ll begin here instead. “Julius’s eyes…”
“Julius’ eyes opened early each morning, after which he’d go out for his walk. The home of the irritable-faced neighbour, ie, Serious Son, was on the way, and Julius had got in the habit of seeing the irritable face grow more irritable the moment their eyes met. First and foremost, Serious Son was annoyed at his name: that it wasn’t just Julius, but also Caesar on top of that; and after that, Julius’s very British performances would start up whenever he bumped into anyone, and then Serious Son’s annoyance would know no bounds. This annoyance could be heard in the rustling of the breeze, which Julius Caesar detected as well, because his hearing was particularly sharp. Besides, he too enjoyed annoying the annoyed one, the way most others did. They would either change their route upon seeing him, or take pleasure in the encounter, out of sheer pig-headedness.
Today, as well, he was just about to make a show of his British manners when a new expression on the irritable face ruined his plans. So instead of the usual sit shake hands dance, he began to bark bark bark. The irritable neighbour had a weird sort of wrinkly mug. His lips looked like a cloth viciously ripped in two, with a scrap hanging down. His eyes were sunken into his flesh like two burrowing worms. Shoulders seized by earth shaking jerks and small shrieks burst through the cracks in the torn face.
Upon hearing the barking, Julius’s master…”– and that’s when Shree and I gasped and told each other, ‘he’s a dog!’–
“…also looked that way and shivered.”
Daisy: That’s a great example of these ambiguities. To translate it so that it’s still ambiguous while I knew what’s going on was really hard. Also, all the descriptions of the Serious Son’s face are very difficult. The ripped cloth. I went over that a lot. And to describe the dog’s behaviour in this very ambiguous way: is it a dog or is it a man?
Geetanjali: Oh, what do I say? Actually, when you were reading it out, I felt so…I don’t know why I keep saying poignant. It’s hilarious, no doubt, but also poignant. I think it’s not any one single person who is Serious Son, I think we all have something of Serious Son in us, that we just don’t laugh because the world is going so wrong.
When we hear people not speaking the kind of language we are speaking, we immediately say, look at the language they are speaking, look at this culture, this middle-class culture. You know the kind of comments we make: look what they’re doing there, look at that tasteless décor. We’re just making these snooty comments all the time, being contemptuous about things all the time, and we can’t just smile anymore, so there is that anxiety, but it is so hilarious – it has chosen somehow to come out in this book in this very hilarious way.
As you were reading it out, I was thinking: why haven’t people talked about this more?
Daisy: But it’s because there is just so much. People can’t…I think this chapter is great though, I love it, but…
I know. Our first draft was so long, and our notes even longer, and we had to cut it down in the end to a review that was itself sizeable!
Geetanjali: You know I have still not read it?
Daisy and Geetanjali: Superstition.
Geetanjali: I had this superstition. I am not going to read anything about Tomb of Sand till after the whole thing is over.
Daisy: We couldn’t mention “Booker” in front of her.
Geetanjali: Yeah, my sister would joke: the B word is not allowed.
Daisy: And in my house they were all like knocking on wood, and I was wearing all these charms for the…
Geetanjali: I was meant to read all these things after the announcement, whichever way it went, but after the announcement, we have been imprisoned in some other way world.
I remember that moment when the prize was announced, and you took a lot of time to register it, and when you clapped, it was a single clap.
Daisy: When they announced the Booker…
Geetanjali: Was I supposed to clap at all?
Daisy: Well, I was…
No, you stood up and were visibly excited, but you took more time to react.
Geetanjali: I don’t think I understood the moment.
Daisy: I felt like I had been hit in the head or something. Or, if you’ve been in an accident and you have to follow protocol. If you’re driving, and you know, where I live, it gets really icy, and as you’re driving on and it starts to skid, you have to steer with the skid or you’ll start spinning. So I’d memorised what I had to do in case of an emergency. I had to stand up, get my speech out of my bag, and I knew I had to get Geetanjali because I knew she’d be worse off than me. “Put on your own mask first and then on one for your children”.
Geetanjali: I think it was also the way Frank announced it. It was really funny. Nobody really knew what was going to happen. It could be this or that. It could be this because theoretically it’s possible. The way Frank did it: he was speaking in this tone, and talking about everything, and in that very tone you didn’t even realise he’d started making the announcement and he said Tomb of Sand. There was no change of register.
I don’t think I realised for a long two seconds. I don’t know what made me realise. One was my nephew who, in front of me, began dancing.
Daisy: Who is named Sid. I said I couldn’t believe I’m meeting a character from the book.
Geetanjali: So I don’t think I understood. My sister and all didn’t hear very clearly, but at the very moment the screen changed, and I hadn’t seen that.
Daisy: Yeah, but by then I had come and got you.
And have you understood it now? Heard the announcement now?
Daisy: Sinking in…?
Geetanjali: I have heard it now, because there’s such a din in the country.
Amul Butter is also telling you! Now I want to ask you about music. Music appears in the novel too. I wanted to know your relationship to music, both of yours.
Geetanjali: I love music. There was a lot of Hindustani classical in my house. My husband also knows it very well. My father-in-law, who was also a very beautiful man – he loved music. Whenever he stayed with us, he said “Give me a little cassette player”, and he would hold it to his head because he didn’t want to disturb us, and he would just keep on hearing like that till the wee hours of the morning.
He said, “When I die” – he was a religious man, in a generous, gentle way – “Gita ka path vaat mat karana, Fayyaz Khan ka gana lagana (please don’t have a Gita reading, play Fayyaz Khan’s music instead)“. Indeed when he died, my husband, Sudhir, played Fayyaz Khan. That’s the kind of family he comes from. We played it all the time. Unlike him, I also like other music. Technically, I don’t know very much about it, but I like Western classical, Jazz, Bollywood, especially the old songs.
(Interrupted, for a brief discussion on where to have dinner. We decided on the masala dosa stall because “god [had] answered [Daisy’s] prayers.” And as we walked to the food court…)
Geetanjali: Talking of music, many people have said – “The first hundred pages or so, nothing happens in the book, it’s moving in the same plane, what’s going on…” As they were saying that, I kept thinking that they’re talking about music. Usme jo vilambit hota hai, jo aalaap hota hai, usme toh kuch nahi hota hai, na? Notes hote hai. Woh hi chalte rahte hai. (The slow-tempo in music, the aalaap, in that you could say nothing really happens, no? There are the notes. And they’re developed and improvised upon.) So meditative and beautiful. For a long time. The longer they go on, the more we like it. So maybe I had that structure in my head without knowing it.
I actually thought your first section was a set of small bandishes, and the second, actually, was a long aalaap. Even though they were shorter chapters, they felt like short phrases in an aalaap, and then another phrase, but a slow, slow, unfolding.
Geetanjali: That works too. So you could say that the book has a musical sensibility.
Daisy: My husband also loves Indian classical music, and he learnt to play the sitar. He studied it a lot. So if there was anything music related, I always went to him.
We could keep going on…
Daisy: But it’s time to eat and keep talking…
…outside the interview. Thank you, thank you for this conversation.
And so we continued talking of masala dosas, the weather in Vermont (which doesn’t allow dosa batter fermentation), Oxford and Delhi, and the long days of summer at Hay-on-Wye, which was especially bright and shiny at 8 pm.