For nearly two decades, the International Booker Prize has helped launch authors who may be unfamiliar to English-language readers into international stardom. The prize is presented each year to the author and translator of the best translated novel published in the United Kingdom or Ireland, and previous winners include Polish Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk and Israeli author David Grossman. But the prize committee has never recognized literature translated from one of the world’s most spoken languages—Hindi.
That changed last week when, for the first time, a Hindi author won the prize. As the New York Times’ Alex Marshall reports, author Geetanjali Shree and her translator, Daisy Rockwell, won the award and joint cash prize of £50,000 (about $63,000) for Shree’s third novel, Tomb of Sand. This is the first time a Hindi novel has even been nominated for the prize, and the first time a book originally written in any Indian language has won.
On its website, the Booker Prize committee calls the book, which centers around the personal and political chaos created by the seemingly arbitrary drawing of borders by a colonial power, an “urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders.”
In Tomb of Sand, Shree tells the story of an old woman called “Ma” who travels to Pakistan after the death of her husband, confronting her grief along with trauma from her past as a teenager during the partition of India and Pakistan.
When Britain’s parliament passed the Indian Independence Act in 1947, it ordered that India and Pakistan, which had been integrated as British India under colonial rule, be formally demarcated into separate countries within a month. Boundary commissions attempted to draw border lines so the maximum number of Muslims would be in Pakistan and the maximum number of Hindus would be in India.
Chaos ensued after the new borders were announced. Muslims within Indian boundary lines left their homes and fled to Pakistan, and Hindus in the area now designated as Pakistan did the reverse. An estimated 14 million people abandoned their homes, and somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people were killed in the ensuing madness.
Despite the heavy subject, Shree took a light-hearted approach. Frank Wynne, chair of judges for this year’s prize, tells the Guardian’s Sarah Shaffi the book is “extraordinarily funny and fun” and a “charming…perfectly decent beach read for absolutely everyone,” He that despite a “passionate debate” among the judges about the other books, Shree’s novel ultimately “was overwhelmingly the book chosen by the judges.”
United States-based translator Daisy Rockwell tells the BBC News’ Zoya Mateen that while translating Shree’s novel was “great fun,” it was also one of the biggest challenges she’d taken on due to Shree’s “unique use of language.” Shree sometimes writes from the perspective of inanimate objects, and often relies on Hindi wordplay.
"All of human history, literature, art, thought, politics have been at the service of this tale that's telling itself—and while it may often appear that Ms. Shree is playing with words for the sake of word play, and that her digressions are asides, in the end nothing turns out to be self-indulgent or extraneous,” the Hindu’s Mini Kapoor wrote in a review of the book.
Wynne tells the Guardian he hopes Shree’s win spurs more translations of books in non-European languages, calling it “a pity” that very few books written in languages from the Indian subcontinent get translated into English.
The New York Times reports that in a news conference on the prize, Wynne said this was probably because some Indian authors write in English, leading English speakers to erroneously believe they “have the Indian writing [they] need,” when in fact tens of thousands of books are published each year in Indian languages, too.
That lack of translation endures despite the fact that Hindi is the third-most spoken language in the world, behind English and Mandarin. Over 606 million people speak Hindi worldwide.
India itself has a booming book market, with nearly 250 books published every day, the Hindu’s Dyuti Mishra reports. But the majority of books published in India are also English-language, with only 35 percent of the country’s books published in Hindi, and author and journalist Meghna Pant tells the Hindu that Indian readers “are particularly hungry to read in English.”
That doesn’t dissuade authors like Shree from writing in Hindi—and the author says the prize is a chance for readers to expand their literary horizons.
"Behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages,” Shree said in her acceptance speech, per the Press Trust of India. “World literature will be the richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages."