All of us have stories to tell. Some we hear, some we live, and some that we are. In the opening sentences of her PHENOMENAL, immensely, terribly invigorating book, Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell), International Booker Winner Geetanjali Shree suggests that stories have a (strange) way of telling themselves. They find their hinges and their music on their own. Language, one might argue, is secondary to stories. As to what, instead, is the primary requirement and demand of stories is something unpinnable, something inherent and intrinsic.
The literary community in India has actively followed the journey of Shree's 2018 novel ambling its way to the winning spot. On the day of the announcement, 26th May, social media boomed with joyous congratulations to the author and translator, and many users mentioned how this felt like a personal victory to them. A lot of us ordered the book on the day of the announcement. In fact, the Hindi publisher, Rajkamal Prakashan announced that the book sold 35,000 copies within 5 days after the announcement. Somehow, I believe, this feat is a much bigger victory for the book, than the Booker itself.
We are a vastly populated and diverse country, but our reading habits are truly concerning. This study, for instance, is quite dismal, I think. While we consume non-fiction and self-help books voraciously, literary fiction or poetry contributes negligibly to our reading matrix. Seemingly—and rather crudely put — we read to learn how to earn more, not necessarily how to read more. Clearly, our book-reading habits reveal the conditions we have developed them in. As a postcolonial nation, our romanticism and reverence for English are derived from our deeply set fear and anxiety. English is the language of opportunities, growth, sense, and sensibility. Like all languages, it has its own set of rules, and to flout those is unacceptable. So we abide by the grammar and work tirelessly to master our sentence structure, punctuation, and pronunciation. We often make fun of people who make errors, take pride in being called a 'grammar Nazi' (I will never understand how this term even exists). I remember how until the first year of college, the extent of my vocabulary was informed directly and solely by the media I consumed. I borrowed sentences from TV shows, witticisms from movie dialogues, cultural references from American/British novels, and repeated them in my daily conversation. I would later recognise that this was a pattern for most postcolonial people. Homi K Bhabha theorised this tendency when he wrote about 'mimicry' and imitation as the first stage of becoming 'Western'.
All of this is to say that how we approach English Studies is not to tap into the possibilities of language, but the (professional) prospects that it may offer. So we learn how to use a language, but not necessarily how to utilise it, fall in love with it, and read and write poetry in it.
At this point, a segue becomes necessary.
As a reader based in India, how often do we read books by Indian writers or translators? How often do we break away from the timeless, relentless TBR of British/American classics and find ourselves immersed in contemporary literary fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter)?
My own answers to these questions are embarrassing. I started reading as a child with Hindi stories – as most of us do – but was jerked rather rudely into an unsettling terrain: reading English stories and books instead. Until the fifth standard, I was terrified of English exams. In retrospect, perhaps the fault mostly lies with how we approach English Studies in our schools, even our universities. English, despite its intermixing with our cultures, remains the language of 'elites', a 'relic' of a civilization that despite its brutal cultural genocides and lootings is still considered the most supreme. We were never told that language could be a space where you find yourself. About how it's a world where you create meaning, by stringing words into streams that nourish everything you inhabit: stories, thoughts, emotions, life. I never fell in love with words in school, because I never learned how that could happen.
Image Credits: Painting by Daisy Rockwell
A language, when treated with sacrosanct integrity, might fail to sustain itself in a community that uses it. Languages belong to communities—developing as cumulative landscapes through usage and exchange. Even as our obsession with English has blocked our access to our rich regional literatures, over the years, for instance, Hindi has also changed. It has become a complex broth of technicalities. In its 'purist' (shuddh) pursuits, it uses words that often isolate our experiences of the language as everyday oral users. Which is to say, that Hindi is being gatekept by adding disorienting technicalities to its syntax and vocabulary. Shrilal Shukla's Raag Darbari deals with this issue in a charmingly hilarious way by taking jibes at the education system, which is being pulled to shreds by linguistic infighting—do we use Sanskritic equivalents for foreign words, or do we surrender to a paradox called untranslatability and permit the foreign language to invade a pure native land? For example, a word like ‘artificial intelligence’, translated to Hindi, becomes ‘kratrim budhi’, which is not easily comprehensible for a common reader.
In a time where the return to a glorious past and a 'pure' language (case in point, renaming cities in India) is a menace of its own, Geetanjali Shree's inventive prose is not only timely, but an essential reminder that languages have their own lives, and to control them to behave in certain ways is to cage them. I always associate the books I read with metaphors and images from the book, much like Daisy Rockwell, Shree's translator, who is also an excellent artist. This pervasive metaphor or image becomes my lens to read or view the book in retrospect. The image that best describes reading Shree for me, is that of a cantering antelope rifling through a sea of tall grass, making its way through it, with wind in its spirit and step.
Ret Samadhi is a story about an eighty-year-old woman finding her courage to be and exist as her own self. But it is also an ode to languages. The one that it is originally written in, and the ones that it has been translated to (and will and should be, in due course). It is because languages have their lives that stories can tell themselves and be alive in their own right. In turn, we learn to fall in love with stories because language is alive. Words, characters, lines, everything becomes memorable, since they have, through our act of reading them, accessed a segment of our lives. Entombed in our conversations with ourselves and others, as memories and stories.
Ret Samadhi does not need an endorsement at this point. We will – most of us, one hopes – find our ways of reading it, or at least reading about it. But the most pressing takeaway from the first Hindi writer/book winning the Booker is something else. Something that cannot really be nailed on a board in mere words. Language betrays us in matters of utmost importance.
Awards are given for recognition, but obviously the responsibility of sustaining this recognition lies with us as readers. This unbelievably important win for our nation is an opportunity for us to open the floodgates of our languages, to permit their meandering across borders, and to immerse in the rich experience of stories about our homes. It's only the most magical of coincidences, that a book that is essentially about border-crossing and subversions is the driving force behind very huge expectations of communal harmonies and linguistic symphonies. But in the moment that we are living in, and reading in, such expectations, for all their airy complexities, must comfort us, and compel us into action. To read more stories about our homes, from people who have lived in them.
The Booker is just a beginning to a much larger project. One hopes.
Until next time,
By Kartik Chauhan (Columnist)
(Probably) pursuing a postgraduate degree in English, Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. Interested in poststructuralisms and postmodernisms, he finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Alternatively, he is also very suspicious of ‘isms’. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary. Occasionally, he goes out, only to return home with more books. For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques.