Ret samādhi. Beyond the border by Geetanjali Shree

AND‘ since 1993, when it came out Neverhis debut novel, which Geetanjali Shree tirelessly explores what it means to be a woman in Indian society. He also does it with Ret samādhi – Beyond the border – winner of the International Booker Prize 2022, a prestigious award given for the first time to a novel written in Hindi – which traces the transformation journey of eighty-year-old Ma, who fell into depression after the death of her husband and of her decision to return to the place where she was born, today in Pakistan, facing the unresolved trauma of Partition and the riots that followed. The mother’s determination to challenge her conventions will force the daughter to review many of her beliefs about herself, about the relationship between generations, about feminism.

In the forests of eastern India, the silk revolution 2.0

She writes it from the first page: “If there is a woman there is a story”. Do you think this because historically many of the stories concerning women have not had enough opportunities to come to light?
This is one way of looking at it. However, there is also another one. My fiction, both novels and short stories, has definitely explored what it means to be a woman. This happens not only because there are stories that have not yet come to light, but also because new stories are continually being created in this rapidly evolving world of male-female relationships. Also, the exploration of women in my fiction may take place within the Indian context, but what is explored are women in general, not just women in India. That said, my fiction is about other things too. I like to believe that it’s about humans and the world that, thanks to our shortsightedness, is becoming a dangerous place to live. That’s what makes it Beyond the border an elegy for our times.

Stay in the place where you were born or leave

There are two explorations that fascinate me in her book, the mother-daughter relationship, which could go on forever thanks to the mystery it contains. And the one about the decision that every human being must make at a certain point in life: to stay in the place where he was born or to leave. What reflections did you make on these two cornerstones of history?
Readings like this, which he considers the “two cornerstones of the story”, make writing rewarding. Thank you! There is only a small hint about the agency implied in his use of the word “decision” to describe one’s migration from the place of birth. No decision is truly a decision if it is caused by coercion. Which, unfortunately, is what millions of migrations – national and international – are today. Of course, there are voluntary migrations, adventurous migrations worthy of celebration. We must distinguish between decision and compulsion.

Geetanjali Sheer. Photo: Gagan Brar.

I am fascinated by the way in which the creative process in the book comes out into the open as punctuation of the narrative, or rather as part of the narrative itself. Why was it so important for you to share this with the reader?
He’s right. That little of the creative process that comes out is an integral part of the narrative, not just its punctuation. As for why I felt compelled to share it with the reader, I’m afraid I can’t say much that’s definitive. As a narrative develops, the act of writing acquires its own logic and dynamic. Writing carries the writer with it rather than being carried by her.

Borders can be important characters in a narrative. The border in his novel is full of meanings, sometimes it goes beyond the historical-political and becomes metaphysical.
I’m happy you notice it. Very often people saw only a historical-political boundary and described the book as a Partition novel, limiting it to the 1947 partition of India (which led to the birth of Pakistan, ed). The novel constantly discovers and challenges boundaries of innumerable kinds.

She was born 10 years after Partition. What were the stories of that event that you grew up with and how much did they influence your writing?
No matter how long after Partition you are born, you grow up hearing stories of that event and, even more so, living with people who went through traumatic experiences as a result of Partition. This is especially true for northern India and throughout eastern India along the Bengal province. I know stories of people who have fled for their lives, leaving home and hearth behind. I know intimately families who have some of their loved ones on the other side of the border, left behind or who have chosen to stay. And there are unspoken tragedies floating in the air, violent experiences, people missing or maimed for life. But I also know human impulses and touching experiences of kindness and love. All these stories circulate all the time. The question is: what do we do with it? Do we make them cautionary tales to learn what we shouldn’t do, or ammunition to keep old animosities and arguments alive? The second option, unfortunately, occurs today more than the first.

Ret samādhi. Beyond the border of Geetanjali Shree, Solferino546 pages, €20

Geetanjali Shree, let yourself be chosen by the language

In his acceptance speech for the Booker Prize, he describes the book as a “laughing elegy that maintains hope in the face of fate”. Has coming from a multilingual, polyphonic and pluralistic society (and this is reflected in his writing) helped to infuse humor into his novel which also deals with violence and political and social injustices?
It seems like a fair summary of the book to me. However, if that humor were truly a function of my multilingual, polyphonic, pluralistic society, humor would be more common than it actually is. Moreover, this type of humor is also known among societies that are not multilingual, polyphonic and pluralistic.

Handling heavy things with lightness is a truly special talent. What can you share about how it works?
It comes naturally to me. But it is a widespread strategy for dealing with life. Examples abound artists/writers who say the most touching things through humor. Charlie Chaplin. And Italo Calvino, Jaroslav Hasek, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, the painter Bosch, and others. I think I would say in capital letters: HUMOR IS SERIOUS!

He has been writing for more than thirty years and three of his previous books have been translated into English. Why do you think this struck such a chord with readers and Booker Prize judges?
The English translation is not enough. To be eligible for the International Booker Prize, a book must be published in the UK and Ireland. And my other books aren’t bad either! Check them out!

The word granted by Geetanjali Shree to inanimate subjects

In the lecture he gave at Azim Premji University entitled My Language: Why and How Hindi (“My language: why and how Hindi”) and who is now on Youtube, says that in her career as a writer “Hindi chose me” and not vice versa. Unlike Anglo-Indian writers, from Salman Rushdie to Amitav Gosh, do you think this can be seen as the poetic reaction of someone coming from a colonized country?
Yes, I feel it was the language, Hindi, that chose me. And I’m lucky that it happened. But I doubt that not writing in English was a response, poetic or otherwise, to the colonization of my country. I have no hostility towards English. I also write in English – not narrative works though – and I love the language. I love all languages ​​and don’t distance myself from any. A language does not belong exclusively to a person or a people, nor can a language be said to be a single homogeneous and immutable entity. English does not belong only to the colonizer. The colonized have appropriated it and made it into something else, another Englishman, many Englishmen, injecting it with new nuances starting from their own different cultural backgrounds. Aside from that, isn’t it natural to write in your native language? My lecture at Azim Premji University addresses some aspects of these questions.

When he bounces between (often inanimate) narrators he seems to practice the philosophy of the unity of all things and creatures in the world, a happy bond between animate and inanimate things. Do you recognize its roots?
Looking back, the advent of non-human, non-sentient narrators does not appear to have been spurred by any conscious philosophy of the unity of things and creatures. But life, my cultural anchors, my readings, have given me the feeling that animate or inanimate are both inanimate entities in a certain sense, until the response, the testimony, the experience of something, revives them. At various moments in the story, it seemed imperative to me to provide testimony, for example, of the door which, alone, had witnessed everything that, over the generations, had happened in the family. Or of the road, the Grand Trunk Road which, over the centuries, had witnessed what was happening in the country. Neither the street nor the door, having seen all they have seen, could be numb!

She makes fun of the banalities of everyday life, but is never cruel to humans, as in the description of the insect-humans who wander the airport: she treats them with benevolence. The feeling we get from it is: yes, we are insignificant, but this writer loves us…
Obviously! Thanks for noticing.

Friendship with a Hijra, transgender person

I would like to ask her about the choice to give new freedom to her mother through her friendship with Rosie/Raza, a “hijra”, one of the categories under which transgender people fall in India. They are both people who are not really listened to in society. Is this what they have in common?
Who am I to give, or deny, freedom to any character, not just Ma and Rosie/Raza? They may both be misfits, but that’s not all they have in common. They are also defiant, full of joie de vivre and determined not to give up.

At a certain point in her life she decided to change her surname, choosing her mother’s name instead of her father’s. Why? Is this an eccentric choice in India?
Isn’t that an unusual choice anywhere?! Most companies – including yours, I think! – continues to be patriarchal and guided by patriarchal norms. The male name perpetuates the surname. My choice was completely personal. I wasn’t thinking about the feminist implications of her when I thought that Mom raised us and has always been there for us and it’s unfair that her name is nowhere in our names. So I decided that my middle name will be her name. Not my father and, later, my husband. The name I live with is my mother’s.