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

ILLUSTRATION BY SHAGNIK CHAKRABORTY
Elections 2024
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.

The language is rich Hindustani, full of life, humour and global references to artists and creative works across languages and countries. It is a slap on the face of stereotypical constructs of those demonising things that do not look or sound like those from the Hindi-belt should. The book’s popularity rebuffs attempts to tie Hindi tightly to a leash. That the kind of Hindi winning this award is Hindustani in spirit, as much Hindi in parts as it is Urdu, written with an effervescence that is not exclusionary, makes the book bigger than itself. It is a challenge to an entire worldview being pushed as being the authentic Indian view—one that believes in excluding certain citizens as being treated as fully Indian or changing names of places and places of worship. The book goes a long way in challenging all these prejudices without explicitly spelling it out.

Efforts were made till 1960 to push Hindi as a premium language. But with 22 official languages and no language being defined as a “national” language, it was believed, at least till eight years ago, that the language question was now effectively settled and many languages, all equally “national” would flourish without fear or favour. If anything, more languages and dialects sought a place in the national imagination and sought to be heard and read as equals. But this government’s real intentions became clear quickly when just days after it assumed office on re-election in 2019, the draft education policy spoke about teaching Hindi in non-Hindi speaking states. It was only after a furore led by Tamil Nadu that the government withdrew, with a senior bureaucrat maintaining that it was only a “draft,” not the policy. Since then, Hindi has been enjoying a place well beyond being the first amongst equals. It is clear as day that it is the chosen language of the union government for communication, never mind the state or the people the communication is intended for.

The BJP government’s non-recognition of such an important award won by Hindi shows that the BJP has no real love for Hindi as a language itself. If it did, the book and the author would have been embraced and hailed. The absence of this makes it even more clear that the drive to promote Hindi is merely part of a political Hindutva package. “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” is a slogan from the late nineteenth-century, refurbished for use later that captures the essence of the Hindutva project. The call is for purported unity in India, but it is not a “unity in diversity.” It is a unity that is deliberately confused with sameness and uniformity, all under Hindu identity, making India about Hindus alone.

The writer, the book, the language and its peripatetic characters, especially Chandra Prabha’s quest for Ali Anwar in a borderless world, are directly at odds with ideas of domination and “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” that are sought to be pushed as ideals in India today. It took an Uttar Pradesh-born woman writer’s unconventional voice in Hindi to break through on the international stage and unwittingly expose the narrow political project that guides the ruling party’s philosophy. “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” is shorthand for a Hindu supremacism sought to be imposed across India to muzzle diversity. True national pride and love for Hindi would mean all patriotic Indians would rejoice in an Indian winning a rare honour like this. But when everything is evaluated with an intent of aiding the Hindutva project, congratulating the writer of Ret Samadhi becomes anathema.

“Nationalism” or pride over recognition on the world stage is held to be very close to the heart of the BJP. Photographs of Narendra Modi with world leaders are routinely meant to signify India standing tallest on the world stage. Becoming “vishwaguru” or world leader, is a stated objective of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, said India would teach dharma to the world. “The world needs dharma that gives balance and teaches coordination,” he said. “Only Indians can teach the same to the world. Not a single Indian abroad has a blot on his character. Indians become assets to foreign countries.”

International acclaim means a lot to this regime. Why then are they not embracing a unique moment of prestige that an Indian won the International Booker prize for her Hindi writing? To not do so reveals the hollowness of nationalism which is peddled as pride in Indians being “assets.” Trying to ignore a big and well-recognised literary award only underlines the emptiness of this “nationalism.” The BJP has failed its own test by ignoring the book and the award.

I spoke to Shree in an interview for The Quint. She is respectful of all other languages, a fan of the idea of “borrowing, learning between all Indian languages.” This destroys the narrow supremacist idea to which Hindi and national pride is now being tethered to. True love for the language and all things Indian, should prompt us to be like the many creatures, crows, butterflies and even the door in Shree’s book that have wings, eyes and arms wide enough to embrace all of India and beyond. That would be truly reflective of the spirit of 75 years of India’s freedom.