Geetanjali Shree is the author of four critically acclaimed novels – Mai, Tirohit, Hamara Shahar Us Baras, and Khali Jagah – and six collections of short stories, in Hindi. She has also published an intellectual biography of Premchand, in English. Often described as a lyrical and uninhibited writer, she has received the Krishna Baldev Vaid Sammaan, Hindi Akademi Sahityakar Sammaan, Dwijdev Sammaan and Indi Sharma Katha Sammaan for her contribution to Hindi letters.
Shree’s fiction has travelled far and wide in translation, with versions published in English as well as German, French, Serbian, Czech, Japanese, Bangla, Urdu, Malayalam, Oriya and Gujarati. The Empty Space, Nivedita Menon's English translation of Khali Jagah, which unfolds against the backdrop of a bomb explosion, was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2002, Nita Kumar's translation of Mai won the Sahitya Akademi award for English translation, and was also shortlisted for the Hutchinson-Crossword Translation Award. Hamara Shahar Us Baras (1998), which traces the slow communalisation of an imaginary city, was staged as a play by the National School of Drama Repertory in 2011-2012. Most recently, Tirohit (2001) has been translated into English by Rahul Soni as The Roof Beneath Their Feet (2013).
The writer speaks on her beginnings as a Hindi writer, the experience of being translated into English and other languages, and how the Hindi literary milieu differs from the Indian English one. Excerpts from an interview:
You've been publishing fiction since the 1980s. When and how did your writing start to be appreciated by Hindi readers?
I was lucky to have a good start. The leading Hindi publishing house, Rajkamal, then in the hands of one of the most dynamic entrepreneurial figures, Sheela Sandhu, immediately took to my writing and agreed to publish me. That was straightaway an acknowledgement of the quality of my work. Then the senior writer Rajendra Yadav did something similar – he brought out three of my stories in succession in his very popular journal Hans, as a special introduction to a new writer. These two events were a great launch for me and I got noticed quickly.
How much of that attention, and the actual copies of your books sold, do you think, was a result of book reviews, media coverage and/or literary awards in Hindi?
Book reviews, media coverage, awards have an uneven importance. Who has spoken up for you is more determining. And in the final analysis, a wider readership, with or without the above, plays a role.
When were you first translated into English?
My first novel Mai was published in English by the publishing house then called Kali for Women. Nita Kumar, a well-known scholar, cared for the book for its “feminist” potential, apart from other merits, and took the initiative to translate it. Urvashi Butalia approached me just at that time for the possibility to publish my work. The two fitted together quite providentially.
Has the Indian readership for English translations from Indian languages grown larger and more interested in recent years? If so, is it because the quality of translations has improved, or for some other reasons?
I think it comes in a package. Publishing itself has increased in all languages, and book launches, promotions, book-talk have grown phenomenally. So too translations. The attempt is to capture the market as widely as possible. But, no, it hasn't led necessarily to better translations. Sometimes it is only quicker translations! A readership is forming for translations, but it is still haphazard and abysmal compared to English originals.
How was the media reception to the English editions of your books different from that in the Hindi Press? How would you compare the two experiences in terms of the texture and insight of conversations and coverage?
The reception is on different platforms. English took my books to new spaces, including English centres located in other regions and languages. English enjoys a prominence in today’s world which comes across as greater visibility and coverage. I was a little seduced by that initially.
But – and I want to underscore this – while English gave me some access to an English market and readership, mostly within the country, the lag between the interest in English in translation and English in original showed up clearly as I went along. And my Hindi books have sold better than English translations, for sure!
This has nothing to do with the worth of a book, but more to do with the atmosphere available for its reception. There are attempts to create this, but a large part of the hegemonic and powerful world continues to be Anglophile!
Each language has its own world and centre, some better than others, Hindi being one of them. And while everyone has begun to care for being translated in the more “powerful” languages far and near, it is from within their own world teeming with activity and exchange. Not, I wish to make plain, a case of sitting in neglected corners and looking hankeringly at the world (English!) out there!
How would you evaluate the Hindi literary sphere, in contrast to the Indian English one?
English has come in later – new confidence, new ways of the market, and has moved into it aggressively and efficiently. The Hindi literary universe is older. But there are Hindi events and there are enough Hindi speakers too, even if they sometimes lack some of the glamour and glitter of the English world.
Would you agree that it was the translation of Mai into English that brought you nation-wide fame? What is your take on that experience?
English has given me some new access but so far it is Hindi which has got me fame. A notable contrast was the interest other languages across the world, such as German, French, Russian, Korean, Italian, Polish etc. have shown in my work. And mind you – again I wish to underscore this – they have reached me through Hindi, not English! I have been taught in some of these languages and translated too, in and from the Hindi, not English. My writing continues to be routed through Hindi.
Were there miscommunications, misreadings when people read your work but didn't understand the context in which it was written?
Different contexts? Yes and no. We belong to the same opened-up world and many of us are evolving our languages, whether Hindi or another, in this new context. It is not like one language belongs to an archaic world and another to a current one!
Would you say that being translated into English led your work to be seen as part of a national conversation in a way that it wasn't before? Also, has the English version of your book brought you interesting and different reactions than the responses you have received from the Hindi-reading world?
Becoming accessible in any language brings another world to one, but why talk as though that happens only through English?! We are a polyphonic country and world and conversations keep flowing in a very creative “cacophony”!
Is being translated into English different in impact from being translated into any other language? What have been the pros and cons of being translated into English for you?
English can give one entry into many more markets because of its spread in the world. But these things don't happen automatically. It is wrong to presume that a good book comes and is straightaway seen. There were good English writers before Rushdie and those who followed, but they never got the stage these later writers got.
Some combination of factors which “prepares” the market for the new “cuisine”, as it were, is the condition for its success. It is great to be available in other languages, including English. But the showcasing has to be worked on for its real success. That has to be done by publishers, readers/reviewers, writers, sellers, et al.
As someone who writes in Hindi, and has also been translated into English, what is your response to the recent comments of Bhalchandra Nemade on Indian writing in English, and the use of English in general in India?
It is as stupid and “illiterate” as the one made by Salman Rushdie years ago! (Interviewer: “The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind,” Rushdie wrote infamously in 1997.) What also tells a tale, though, is the furore Nemade's rubbish created and not Rushdie’s. Think of the “prejudice-rubbish” too that many of us thereby reveal.