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A guide to Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell

All you need to know about Tomb of Sand, the first Indian novel to win the International Booker Prize, before you’re able to read it

Ret-Samadhi published by Rajkamal Prakashan and Tomb of Sand's Indian edition published by Penguin Random House India

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If it isn’t already, Tomb of Sand, the first Indian novel to win the International Booker Prize, will be flying off the shelves. Originally a Hindi book called Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree and translated into Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, the book is currently the most talked about title in India and perhaps even among all English book readers world-over.

It is a pathbreaking moment for Indian writing in translation to be recognised by the high-profile award. We are yet to see the sort of impact it may have, if at all, on the Indian language writing. But in the meantime, if you haven’t already read the close to 700-page (fast-paced) tome, here is a quick guide on the book, its author, and its translator, for it is bound to come up in conversations you may have over the next few weeks.

The book

Ret Samadhi was first published in 2020 by Hindi language publisher Rajkamal Prakashan. Before being translated into English, it made its way into French, thanks to translator Annie Montaut, as Ret Samadhi: Au-delà De La Frontière.

The book is about an 80-year-old lady, Ma who crosses borders, breaks conventions and goes on an almost-cathartic journey to contend with her experiences of going through the Partition of 1947.

For almost close to a 100 pages, Ma doesn’t get out of bed, as she slips into depression while grieving the death of her husband. Even through this initial inertia, there is much action — through the lucid imagery of the words, the cadence of the sentences, the dreamy lilt in the telling of the tale.

The book will make you reorient and unlearn your expectations of a sentence. But once you’re in the groove, you will be in for what could well be a fresh kind of magic realism. At various point, you will be surprised by the narrators, too.

Listen to Shree narrate an excerpt in Hindi, and get a feel of the rhythm in the text.

The author

Shree is a well-known and well-respected Hindi writer. She 64 years old, and based in New Delhi. Ret Samadhi is her fifth novel. Her first four are Mai (1993), Hamara Sheher Us Baras (1998), Tirohit (2001) and Khali Jagah (2006). Shree’s works — she has also written various short stories — have earlier been translated into German, Japanese, Korean, Serbian.

In an interview to Lounge, Shree said she views translation as a “dialogue and communication which establishes a new friendship between the two texts—the original and the translated…It really is about a dialogue between cultures which brings to both new ways of seeing, being, expressing.”

Having grown up in Uttar Pradesh, Shree credits her early exposure to mushairas and kavi sammelans, “still widespread in my growing-up years”, for her desire to write in Hindi.

The translator

Rockwell is an American translator of Hindi and Urdu literature. A painter who grew up in a family of artists, she did a PhD in South Asian literature, focussing specially on the work of Hindi novelist Upendranath Ashk. As a painter, she goes by the pseudonym ‘Lapata’, a Hindi/Urdu word meaning ‘missing’.

Fun fact: The art on the Indian edition’s cover of Tomb of Sand, is done by Rockwell.

Rockwell has also translated Ashk’s magnum opus, Girti Deewaaren as Falling Walls (2015) and Bhisham Sahni’s 1986 partition novel, Tamas (2016). She has also translated the Hindi writer Krishna Sobti’s final novel, A Gujarat here, a Gujarat there (2019) an autobiographical novel detailing the memories and experiences of living through partition days.

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