Geetanjali Shree emerged on the horizon of Hindi literature with the publication of her first collection of short stories Anugoonj in 1991. Since then she has enriched Hindi literature with two novels and another collection of stories. Besides writing she has also been actively associated with theatre. This association goes back to 1989 when a group of theatre artistes, writers, musicians and painters got together to form Vivadi.
In the year of Vivadi's formation, she did an adaptation of Ghare Baire, teasing out the feminist potential of Rabindranath Tagore's famous text, which was staged at the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. The following year, she wrote an experimental play, Nayika Bheda, which was staged at the prestigious Prithvi Theatre in Bombay. In 1991, "concerned about growing Hindu fundamentalism and realising that the question of Hindu identity inescapably got embroiled in aggressive polemics the moment it was linked with the Muslims", she adapted Tagore's Gora, a work that does not ignore the dangers of ‘Hindutva' while probing, at a deep philosophico-existential level and with great sensitivity, the question of Hindu identity.
One of her most successful scripts is an adaptation of Hadi Ruswa's 19th century Urdu classic, Umrao Jan Ada, a novel about the life of a courtesan. Overturning the male vision of the original to attempt a radical feminist reading of the text, the adaptation was first staged at the Shriram Centre in December 1993. It ran to packed houses and has been staged many times in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Besides having been filmed for the Indian TV, it has also been the centre of discussion at seminars and in magazines.
An English translation of her adaptation of Umrao will be performed sometime between next June and September by a group called Rasik Arts at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.
Recently Geetanjali adapted Lao Jiu: The Ninth Born, a Chinese play by Kuo Pao Kun into Hindi, and in an Indian ambience. It was staged at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, as part of a festival where three different plays of Kuo Pao Kun were performed by groups from Japan, India and Indonesia. While the Japanese audience responded enthusiastically, Kuo Pao Kun himself liked her adaptation as an exercise in transcreation.
Among all this, it has been her debut novel, Mai, currently on the shortlist for the Crossword Book Award in its English translation, that helped establish her in the Hindi literary scene. In this interview to outlookindia.com Geetanjali Shree tells us about how she embarked upon writing Mai and what writing it meant for her.
Can we begin by learning about you? Your childhood, education and how you
became a writer…
My childhood was spent in different towns of UP where my father as a civil servant got posted. That’s where I received my early education in the local English-medium schools. My link to Hindi language and literature was informal and personal. My mother spoke almost only Hindi. All round me in the UP towns there was so much of Hindi. We also read, in my childhood, more Hindi magazines for children than English-school-going kids today. Like Chandamama, Parag, Nandan. Where we picked up, in however popular a way, ‘Indian’ lore – tales from the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Arabian Nights, Sheikchilli, Panchtantra, Kathasaritsagar, Bhootnath and Chandrakanta Santati. Perhaps the absence of the present-day glut of children’s books in English accounts for that. But it was a blessing in disguise. Then there was a retinue of so-called servants who provided a vibrant link to Hindi and local dialects, plus their store of rural tales, proverbs, superstitions.
Was there anything in your childhood and the environment you grew up in
that pointed you in the direction of writing?
My very close friendship with Munshi Premchand’s granddaughter and close links from my childhood on with her entire family, I think, played a very positive role in sensitising me to ‘culture’. Theirs was a household full of practitioners and learners of Indian music and literature.
Tell us about your
mother and your relationship with her?
My mother and I have a very special relationship. I have changed my second name to her first name – Shree.
Did your education and years at college and university have a bearing on
For my college I moved to Delhi, LSR and then JNU, and did Modern Indian History, though I was already feeling the tug towards Hindi literature. In the absence of formal Hindi education, History was the viable option, but I began doing tutorials using Hindi literature for the study of history and such like. For my Ph. D. I worked with a historian at the MS University, Baroda, on Premchand as a rich example of the 20th century nationalist intelligentsia. I made a book of it, the worth of which I’m not over-confident about, but that was my first full-fledged foray into the Hindi world, and no doubt allowed me to complete the transition from hobnobbing with Hindi to immersing into it.
Clearly these were important formative years and must have influenced my writing, quite how I’m unable to say, and have so far not felt self-indulgent enough to construct a narrative about it.
Generally, and mostly somewhat inarticulately, the idea that I’m a writer has been with me since my childhood! In early school I wrote adventure stories in English, directly reminiscent of Enid Blyton! Thereafter I suspect I got caught in a language mesh, and for many years remained unclear what my relationship to Hindi and English was, and which of the two was my ‘creative’ medium. As I say this to you I get the feeling that in my search for my language I actually made the tortuous journey of finding my feet in both Hindi and English, and developing with both a free and separate relationship. But I don’t want to over-stress this point about comfort – as a matter of fact, some tussle with and in both languages, some anxiety about their one-on-top-of-the-other attack on my senses does not leave me completely tension-free even today.
Were you a voracious reader? Who were your favourite writers? How did they
Basically I loved literature. Reading was a major pastime. Very haphazard though it was. Lots of the Russian greats, the Victorian women greats, French classics, an odd Knut Hamson here, a Max Havelaar there, later Calvino , Kafka, Kundera, Latin American literature, Japanese literature, Indian writers of Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Hindi writers upto my own times, like Krishna Sobti, Nirmal Verma, Shrilal Shukla, Vinod Kumar Shukla, etc. That made for an exposure to a wide range of styles, and again, though I don’t know about influences on my writing, they did instil in me a love for variety and dissimilarity in artistic endeavour. I would myself like to write very different kind of things and have people say it’s like a different author each time! To some extent I can claim that the three novels I’ve written could induce such a response!
Have you decided to stay away from India (she is currently shuttling between Paris, Endinburgh and London)? Seeking permanent residence
I do not live abroad. But I love travelling and have been lucky in getting chances to visit many different lands. This time I’ve come away just after wrapping up my latest novel (which came out in February), and I’m levitating in a gas-balloon manner – everything is very light and unconnected which sometimes rests me, sometimes seriously disturbs me!
How do you think the West perceives us? Is there any one image of India in
the Western mind?
The image of India in western minds? God, can there be one image! Except in the minds of fools. Of which there could be plenty here! But impressionistically speaking, what I find very energising is the invasion of the West by India – TV, clothes, décor, cuisine, people on the street, altogether our very lavish presence! While I’m no expert on interrelation relations I cannot believe this is not a very creative interactive relationship where new ‘cultures’ are being forged. And where India is not so simply a subordinate partner, whatever may have been the history of inequality between this West and India earlier and whatever it may still be in post-modern and world-globalisation times.
ever learnt creative writing? If not, how did you groom yourself?
No, I did not learn creative writing! Isn’t that a very American thing to do? I’m afraid I’m not bursting with admiration for America! Have their courses been responsible for any of the worthwhile literature coming out of there? How did I then groom myself? Like an Indian! I learn on the job! And get better and better!
How much do you think writers should engage themselves in public issues?
Public issues and writers. My personal predilection is for sensitivity and awareness vis-à-vis public issues. But I would have no quarrel with a writer who says she/he cannot, will not, make it their business. Most importantly I believe there are different ways of engaging in public issues. Not always direct action. The circuitous route of art, theatre and literature can create an ambience receptive to other voices and ideas. Take someone like J.M. Coetzee in our times. Or nearer home a very controversial and self-avowedly apolitical Bhupen Khakhar.
Have you involved yourself in social issues? When and what has
been your experience?
I’m not a jump-on-to-the-street-and-spout-fire type, but would willingly and quietly join demonstrations, as of the Sahmat kind. We’re living through stupefying times and ugly things are happening which I’m not able to shut out even if I only silently join the protestors and only infrequently.
How much influence has that had on your literary efforts?
Yes, some of these concerns do wend their way into my work. My second novel, Hamara Shahar Us Baras, is a take-off on the aftermath of Ayodhya and deals with riots under people’s skin so to speak. And is not a dismissable novel merely for engaging so totally and directly in a socio-political issue!
Are you satisfied with your creative output?
Satisfied with my creative output? Are you serious? Never! I’m still waiting to write the book which will slip completely out of my grasp and grow its own wings and soar high on its own making even me look agape with wonderment at its beautiful flight. I get inklings of that sometimes, but no more!
Would you say something about the germination of a work of literature?
What comes first? A general idea, a specific situation, a plot, a character?
How I conceive of a work is a bit of a continuous mystery. A discovery even for myself. I have no set formula and anything – a general idea, an odd sentence heard, a single image – can set it off. My latest novel is a case in point. All that got me going was the image of a large north Indian roof under which there are clusters of houses. Once I’d started I found that women who may not easily step out of these homes could very well find pretexts to go to the terrace and meet up and befriend someone who has reached up there from some other house by some other set of stairs. Once on the terrace the sky is their limit and boundaries are transgressed.
What is the place of plot? Does the plot take shape as you proceed or does
it grow from the character, from the idea itself?
Yes, something sets me off and then the work keeps unravelling, plot, characters, even the form choose themselves.
Is writing easy for you? Or do you find it difficult?
Is writing easy or difficult for me? Really I can’t say. I go on compulsively even if it’s excruciating and painful. Sometimes writing gives me a real sensual high, but sometimes suicidal depression and frustration. It is moody, and takes me with its highs and lows.
I write longhand. Anywhere that I’m for at least a month I work office-hours. Which means locking myself up in a room through the day, and reading, writing (taking notes if I’m not working on anything specific), staring out blankly. There’s something of meditation here, something also of the dogged, artless quality of labour!
How did Mai happen?
It was quite long ago, and I never recorded the process, so I’m making up a story now! But it was some desire to acknowledge women of my mother’s generation. It grew in me like an obsession, and unsure though I was of what I could do, it was like it just had to be done. This ground had to be traversed to be able to move anywhere forward. So even if it was going to be childish, elementary work, I had to do it, and become free for other ventures and adventures. As I wrote on, layers unfolded – them weak we strong? them passive we agents of change? I wrote draft after draft and stopped as I always do not when I was satisfied but when I felt this was my limit, I have to let go, or I’ll remain stuck here forever.
What were your first feelings after you completed Mai?
I mean the first thoughts… Can you recall them for us?My first thoughts I don’t remember, but I think I realised it was not as simple and elementary as I’d feared it might be, because all said and done, my mind is not so simple and unlayered and unsubtle!
What did you do immediately after the completion of Mai?
I can’t recall what I did immediately afterwards, but perhaps I plunged headlong with a theatre group. I was on and off work with it as script-writer. To get back into the world which my make-believe creative world of the last few months had made unreal!
Is there a difference between telling a story and writing a story?
I think there’s always a difference between telling a story and writing it even though the aim of both is to ‘tell’ a story. The different audience is a big reason. In one case it’s a changing and visible audience and the teller is also visible, allowing for a live, changing, extemporising performance in the ‘telling’. In the second instance the reader is invisible, and so is, soon, the writer, and the ‘telling’ turns into a relatively fixed ‘told’. There’s a changeable performance here as well with changing readers who’ll read/hear/see different meanings/cadences/visuals, but there’ll always come the point of that irreducible difference between the oral and the written.
Hindustani music seems to play an important role both in your life and in
your works. How much of Hindustani music do you listen to?
I love Hindustani music and listen to it most of the time. Mallikarjun Mansur and Amir Khan are my favourites. My collection could make a connoisseur jealous!
What has been your most satisfying endeavour? Has any of your works made you feel that it is not good enough?
I feel mixed about all works of mine. They seem full of potential and possibilities, and seem good in parts. But I have yet to feel about any work that it has all come out just fine. It is as if I’m in the process towards creating the ultimate masterpiece, but will even my last book be that?!
What are you working on now?
Working on what just now? Nothing! At the moment I’m dying, and wondering why I’m not dead if I can’t write!
Since Mai has been shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award tell us how important is winning prizes and
Prizes and recognition are great as fun and joy and encouragement, but if they get ‘political’ I’ll be wary of them.
Crossword. To get it would be an honour and a delight, and I’ll love the recognition and the greater readership it could bring. But my writer will not wilt if I don’t get it!
What is the current state of Hindi literature? Do you think it is rather
Hindi literature is a mixed bag of things. We’re talking of a large belt across north India and of greatly uneven literacy. Within that, however, it’s very vibrant literature, full of variety and lapped up by elitist, specialist, non-elitist, even popular, circles.
What do you think can be done to make it reach a wider audience?
To reach a wider audience education is a key necessity. But also better market network, better publicity, more quality translations, and as many kinds of literary forum as possible to give Hindi a platform.
Certainly my work in English would have reached a wider audience. In less than a year after Mai came out in English, I’ve been reviewed, interviewed, photographed more than in ten years since it came out in Hindi! But we write in the language we can in, and love, and get to love. But who would mind if translation gives them access to bigger readership and more money?!
What do you think of Nita Kumar’s translation of your book? How did it
Nita’s is a fine translation, and that’s what I’m repeatedly told. She read it by chance – a colleague of hers lent it to her – and she wrote to me asking if it had been translated, and could she? Just like that – a shot from the heavens!
What has been your contribution to it apart from the fact that you have written the original?
My contribution? Pretty nil. We did sit together once when she had
a major draft done, and went over it line by line, but mainly to tune our
sensibilities and to know how the other had read/written it. Once we struck a
wave length, I just handed it to her with trust.
Of course, if I may add a little naughtily, no writer feels the translation is better than the original! The materiality of Hindi is not the materiality of any other language, and I’m too attached to that!
But there’s also magic in good translation. It’s the magic of creation or rather of recreation, magic of becoming the other, and again yet another.
Are you as strong a feminist in real life as your book makes it appear?
I don’t know how, why, which kind of feminist you read in the book. I see myself as someone sensitive to women and their experiences, but not as a rigid ideological feminist.
Did you know from very early in your life that you were going to write
No, I did not know I’d write Mai.
You talk about getting stuck in the subterranean mixture of security,
safety and suffocation. Does it still bother you or have you tackled that and
how, if you have?
You ask as if the protagonist in Mai and I are one and the same!! Which is also linked to your view about Mai being autobiographical. Let me say a few things in response – To the extent that I, too, felt like the protagonist ‘stuck in the subterranean mixture of security, safety and suffocation’ then I think I would have got out of it before I could write Mai! All I can say is, at home and away from it, supported or opposed, I’ve always nurtured in me a fiercely independent spirit and that has still to die!