about us | contact us | home

The past is ever present, realized
by us in bits: GeetanjaliShree

G eetanjali 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 Premchand'.

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 Foundation.

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.


Let 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 a past.

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 West?

Depends 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 shape effortlessly?

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!

    >> features
    >> profiles
    >> interviews
    >> education
    >> diary