By Anjan Roy
To speak of coincidence, ‘Geetanjali’ got lucky for the second time in a hundred and ten years. For the first time, Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry book, Geetanjali, won him a Nobel Prize for literature. Now, more than a century later, another Geetanjali, the Hindi story writer, is awarded the prestigious International Booker Prize for literature.
Geetanjali Shree’s storybook Ret Samadhi, translated as “Sand Tomb” by American translator Daisy Rockwell, has been described as a masterclass exploring the nuances of typical Indian family life, the relationships between people of different ages, young and old, between men and women, in the context of a vast country undergoing a painful political transformation.
Her story is woven around a typical reality of an elderly Indian lady from a large Indian family who suddenly gains the freedom of her life after the death of her husband. This reality is not an unknown in a subcontinent Indian family. Geetanjali Shree, born in Uttar Pradesh in 1957, could not have been insensitive to these upheavals in a family’s life.
Geetanjali’s original Hindi has been translated into English by Rockwell, who will share the prize money with the author. The total prize money is fifty thousand pounds sterling. Speaking of his translation, Rockwell admitted that it was a difficult task, given the subtle ways in which Geetanali used the language to carry out his narration.
Ridiculed and condemned as a bastion of the obscurantism of a traditionalist caste society, Geetanjali’s depiction of a Uttar Pradesh house arguably captures the quintessential elements of Indian reality. The ecstasies and tragedies of this reality is what illuminates the entire narrative of this subcontinent.
The International Booker Prize is different from the Booker Prize. The first is an award for books written in English and published in Great Britain. The first is for books written in languages other than English and translated into English and published in Great Britain.
This is the first time that a subcontinental author has won the International Booker Prize, unlike the Booker Prize in Literature, which has been claimed by several Indian authors such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Arvind Adiga for their novels written in English.
Announcing the award, International Booker Prize Judging Chair Frank Wynne noted: “This is a luminous novel of India and partition, but one whose fascinating panache and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, man and woman, family and nation together. . into a kaleidoscopic whole”.
The central human elements aside, the background is also critical to the transcendent appeal of Geetanjali’s novel. This is the division of the country for seventy-five years and the lingering social agonies of that cruel episode.
Simply put, even after an interval of so many years, we have not been able to completely forget and overcome it.
Partition appears as a psychosis in sensitive minds and insinuates itself into the dialogues. The fact that it touches a raw core is why it enters the conversation and why a modern woman’s romance would still reverberate with those muffled sounds of long ago.
Even in 1938, just ten years before the country was divided, serious efforts were being made to avert catastrophe. As President of Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose offered Muhammad Ali Jinnah the first prime ministership of undivided India.
Shortly thereafter, Subhas Bose was expelled as president of Congress by Gandhi, and Zinnah refused to make any contact with that “sly old fox”, that is, Gandhi.
Like the inevitable destruction of the dramatis personnae of Greek tragedies, it didn’t take long for Ziinnah’s total disillusionment. H had been uncomfortable with the idea of Pakistan.
In her final days, Zinnah would have written a personal letter to the Indian prime minister if he could live in her beloved home in Bombay. His desire remained unfulfilled in his dying days, which were not long in coming.
But consider this. How irresponsible, insensitive and selfish were the actions of politicians. Millions died, were left homeless, generations were traumatized and disinherited at the whims of the few leaders.
Seventy-five years later, this now appears to have been a wasted effort, like Russia’s war in Ukraine today.
This is the ultimate inevitability of history that humanity must continue to commit weaknesses from time to time.
The history of mankind is a grave of sand. (IPA Service)
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