The past is ever present, realized
by us in bits: GeetanjaliShree
Shree spent a large part of her childhood in the eastern
Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where her father was posted
as a civil servant. She graduated from Lady Shri Ram College
in New Delhi and later did her Masters in Modern Indian
History from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her doctoral thesis
was on 'Between Two worlds: An Intellectual Biography of
Her first story Bel Patra appeared in 1987 in Hans,
a literary magazine, but she was noticed as a writer after
the publication of Anugoonj , an anthology of short
stories in 1991. However, it was the English translation
of Mai that catapulted her into fame. The novel,
a story about three generations of women, is now being translated
into Russian and Korean.
Author of three novels and two short story anthologies,
Geetanjali Shree is now bring touted as one of the most
promising young writers in India.
She has been given the prestigious Indu Sharma award and
has been a fellow of Ministry of Culture, India, and Japan
She also dabbles in theater and works with Vivadi, a theater
group comprising writers, artists, dancers and painters.
Geetanjali Shree now lives and writes in New Delhi.
us begin with Mai, the book that catapulted you into
fame. It tells the story of three generations of women and
all through the book the reader hears two voices - the voice
of a girl child juxtaposed with the voice of an adult narrator.
The style helps you weave a rich tapestry of images and
events. Why this style of story telling?
The answer, to some extent, is there in the question itself.
The two voices allow me to weave a rich tapestry of images
and events. All this however, is post facto understanding
and explanation. Style, like much else in a creative work,
evolves and unfolds as the work goes along. The plot, the
denouement, the characters, all influence each other, and
in a manner of speaking "choose" the style. Mai is/became,
among other things, a novel about missing out on comprehending
another person (here Mai), because of a fixation with one's
own perception as the 'correct' and 'constructing' the other
in those terms. In this novel, the child does that - simply,
but with an innate, unconscious arrogance - and the adult
narrator begins to question the 'seeing'.
But I repeat, none of this, is according to a planned formula.
What strikes me most in Mai
is a metaphor, the metaphor of Mai's back. The contours
of the naked back seem to compensate for everything - the
pain, the facelessness, the weakness… Why a naked back?
Why not the face? The breast? Or a wrinkled hand?
In art and literature, a 'journey' is undertaken, and things
are 'discovered' on the way. I discovered the back, rather
than the face, the breast or the hand. And it kept saying
more and more to me - about its owner's weakness, about
her unrecognized sexuality, about her being a body, not
mere air or spirit. Perhaps I needed to see a hidden part
of her anatomy to be struck by all this. The hand and face
would not have done, the breast is too loaded and coded
with meaning. The back became a powerful image for it was
so banal and ordinary and yet secret and telling. A metaphor,
a mere inanity in one go.
In the same book you dwell on the
past. You say, "The past is that god - or devil - whom we
cannot worship but who is present everywhere, surrounding
us inside and out, holding us in its clutches. We are merely
a miniscule part of it. We are helpless". Is past really
the defining factor?
Yes and no. The past is ever present, realized by us in
bits, consciously and debated on sometimes; unconscious
and undiscussed other times. It is not just a weight we
carry, it is also a refuge, a familiarity we return to.
I am qualifying it with a 'no' because as much as the past,
the present too impinges on us. We constantly form our past
with our present. In Mai, the present is also weighing
on the past. The children's present as it were swallowed
Mai's past. It is a jolt for them to realize that she has
Talking of Mai, the novel brought you immense fame
only after it was translated into English by Nita Kumar.
It is also being translated into Russian and Korean. Officially,
there are 366 million Hindi speaking people but when it
comes to fame beyond the Indian boundaries the writer, almost
always, has to hop on to the bandwagon of English translations.
Doesn't that make you angry?
No, I do not and would never wish to waste an important
emotion like anger on anything like this. At any given time,
any historical juncture, there will be a politics of language,
market, whatever different power equation at work, but artists/writers
will continue to work in different languages for reasons
other than its potential of worldly success. It maybe the
language they feel involved in, only language available
to them, a love for it inculcated at birth and upbringing
in a particular society. Primarily, the writer writes for
him/herself - a dialogue with myself, an exploration of
me and the world, for myself. Only after that, readers and
others and thoughts about larger and better vehicles of
communication figure. These are important - success is heartening
and is also intoxicating! - but not the decisive factors.
And in any language, a living and practiced one, there is
a world to be reached out to. It may be a small geographically
and weak politically in the global world but it has its
own network of contacts and communication and achievement
to strive for. No less viable or valuable than the more
obvious larger and stronger world.
Besides I want to write a great novel measuring up as great
in terms of literature. That's success. More than being
better propagated geographically. Of course, that is fun
too and why wouldn't it. I want Nita Kumar to translate
all my work into English and have more and more people appreciating
my work. But my supreme judge is literature and that is
where I must measure well.
And I don't care if I sound rhetorical. I am in fact saying
something very simple and surely understood by everyone
of my ilk.
You have straddled different genre - novel, stories and
writing for theater. If you were to choose one, which one
would be your favorite pick?
Today a novel , tomorrow a story, the day after a play.
For theater again you have straddled
various languages - you have adapted tales from Urdu, Bengali
and Chinese literature - Umrao Jan Ada, Hadi Ruswa's
19th century Urdu classic, Gora by Nobel laureate
Rabindranath Tagore, and Lao Jiu: The Ninth Born,
a Chinese play by Kuo Pao Kun. Plus, you also did an original
experimental play in Hindi. Considering the fact that the
idiom, the settings, the language are entirely different,
how easy are these adaptations?
They are great fun and very challenging, that is what a
writer/artist would want. Who cares about how easy? You
want to steep yourself in a time, an idiom, a setting, a
language and play with it, molding from the variables, shapes
and games that can startle you too. What I have liked about
my theater work is not just the way I transcreate and adapt,
but how my adaptation is adapted but the rest of the troupe,
transcreated yet again and again by the renderings into
acting, design, music and of course, direction.
More importantly, you always give
the perspective a different twist. In Umrao Jan you
turn the male perspective on its head and attempt to give
it a feminist touch - after all it was the tale of a courtesan,
who as a child, was kidnapped by bandits and sold to a brothel.
Yes always, a different twist. Since you mention Umrao,
the courtesan, let me say that Umrao was not just a courtesan,
but a woman like us, forced by her time and circumstances
to become an entity, performer, practitioner outside the
home. To deal, like us modern women, in a man's world too,
without the protection of the four walls.
When the male perspective is drowned,
writers, who are women, are often hurled into the "you are
a woman that is why you write like this" category. Does
your being a woman take precedence over your being a writer?
No, fiercely no. My being a woman creeps in just as being
other things - my age, my nationality, my trivial seeming
and my so-called momentous identity markers, all - also
creep into my writing, showing me ways and views, but no
not to take precedence over my 'writer', never the woman
to do so above all others. After all, literature is about
imagination, about trying to get into other skins - of men,
of animals, trees. Even when its my own skin I get into,
I create someone else, and another skin.
You flit between London, Paris and
India; is there anything remarkably different from a writer's
point of view? It is often asked whether it is easier being
a writer in the West, do you think so?
I do not really flit between London, Paris and India as
much as I would want to. Basically I write in Indian and
live there and travel as much as I can. Exposure to different
skies must open new vistas in my writer's world - at least
I hope so - but let us not make too much of outer travel.
There are writers living in their physically small worlds
and traveling vast spaces in their literature. It's mental
space that counts.
Is it easier being a writer in the
on what you refer as 'easy'. Living off pure creative energy
is not easy anywhere. But obviously people do not do it
for a living but under a compulsion. Nor does that make
them martyrs and suffering souls. They find their way, supplement
their income, live frustrated and lost or humor-full and
getting on with it. A whole range of possibilities must
be there and unique individual trajectories too. I do not
like glorifying the struggle of a writer above that of anyone
in any other field. Perhaps in India, there is less recognition
of writing, art as a vocation.
How do you conceive a book? You write long hand, what emerges
out of the blank sheet first - a specific character, a scene,
the prologue or the denouement. Or, you just let them take
Anything can set off a book - an idea, a dialogue, a chance
image and it is built upon. It takes shape as it goes along,
apparently on its own volition too, but still I would not
say effortlessly. The very fact that a writer works, reworks
and goes on working till such time he/she feels this is
it or this is as far as I can take it, implies effort. Let
us not valorize spontaneous outpouring in artistic endeavors.
That's only a part of it.
You confess that you do not often write non-fiction. Why?
Inadvertently or not, a lot of truth weaves into fiction.
Do you create watertight compartments where you don't allow
truth to trickle in, or do you at times unconsciously leave
the door open?
I have not chosen fiction over non fiction because it allows
for greater truth. Truth is not prerogative of any single
mode of discourse. We are all looking for truth and do it
through different media. Once I got involved in fiction
I just plunged in and that does not leave me too much time
and energy for non-fiction. That's all. So far.
In the same breath you had said that
you would want to write very different kinds of things and
have people say that it's like a different author each time.
Have you been able to achieve it in your three novels? And
where do you go from here?
I do like variety and like the prospect of traversing different
grounds in literature. But my purpose in life is not to
appear like a different author each time. It has happened
to some extent - and I am told so too - in my three novels
so far. It does not excite me. It may well have to do with
the fact that I have not found my ground yet! But I don't
mind that as long as I am finding grounds interestingly
and better. I am working on other things - a novel and some
stories now. Let's see if they are by another author!