The government’s silence on Geetanjali Shree’s Booker win reveals the hollowness of its nationalism

25 August 2022

In May 2022, Ret Samadhi, or Tomb of Sand, a Hindi book by an Indian woman writer won the first International Booker prize to be awarded to any south Asian language book. The deathly silence by the ruling party and the government on this achievement speaks volumes. After the award was announced, an otherwise publicity savvy and publicity hungry establishment made only perfunctory noises. The noise and elation that usually marks other Indian accomplishments was missing. Unfairly, it is Geetanjali Shree, the book’s author, who has been asked why this is the case. Instead, this question must be posed to those in the establishment. It is important to examine why this win has not warmed the hearts of the ruling party, and the politics that drives their silence. Their silence tells us a lot about their purported love for Hindi language which is touted as the reason for Hindi being imposed all over the country, crushing India’s linguistic diversity.

Shree’s book creates a very capacious and cosmopolitan world. That the author has also written a powerful novel capturing the angst of the year when the Babri Masjid was demolished, titled Hamara Shahar Us Baras, would make the ruling regime doubly uncomfortable. She has five novels to her credit. Her background is as a scholar from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Those she cites as inspirations include Krishna Sobti, Intizar Hussain, and Premchand for his social realism. The other creative artists she admires—SH Raza, MF Husain and others—challenge the narrow worldview of Hindutva. She isn’t a placard-carrying writer for any particular group and that makes it tougher to dismiss her. Shree has made it clear that she stands for a progressive, plural world and is assertive about doing it in her own idiom, which is in Hindi and is popular with readers. Now that a woman-writer, uninhibited and a citizen of the world, has found international acclaim, it makes her a real challenger to parochial ideas furthered by the ideology currently ruling India.

Among the reasons that the award-winning book perhaps rings alarm bells for the ruling party are Ret Samadhi’s characters. The lead, particularly, is an 80-year-old Hindu widow who breaks all possible stereotypes. She had a Muslim partner in her pre-Partition life across the border. She travels to Pakistan to seek him out. Battling all jibes and sarcasm, she also continues to be friends with and fully supportive of Rosie, a transgender person, vital to the plot. The lead character’s wilful disregard for and breaking of borders would give puritans and conservatives sleepless nights.

Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. She was formerly the Delhi editor for BBC India and a deputy editor at the Indian Express. She is the co-author of Note by Note, The India Story (1947-2017) and the author of Anees and Sumitra, Tales & Recipes from a Khichdi Family.

Keywords: Hindi literature Booker Prize South Asian literature Caravan Columns