Hindi Novel Wins International Booker Prize for the First Time

LONDON — “Tomb of Sand,” a novel about an 80-year-old Indian woman’s sudden decision to travel to Pakistan, was named on Thursday as the winner of the International Booker Prize, the prestigious award for fiction translated into English.

Geetanjali Shree, the book’s author, and Daisy Rockwell, who translated the 739-page novel from its original Hindi, will split the prize of 50,000 British pounds, about $63,000, which they received at a ceremony in London.

The novel claimed the title despite not having been reviewed by a major British newspaper. It is the first in an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize, and the first in Hindi to even secure a nomination.

Frank Wynne, the chair of the judges for this year’s prize, said in an online news conference that “Tomb of Sand” was “overwhelmingly” the judges’ choice, deserving to beat the five other shortlisted novels. Some of those books were by internationally well-known authors, including “The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist, and “Heaven,” by Mieko Kawakami, the Japanese author best known for “Breasts and Eggs.”

Daisy Rockwell, who translated “Tomb of Sand,” and Geetanjali Shree, who wrote the novel.Credit…Andrew Fosker

Wynne called “Tomb of Sand” an “extraordinarily exuberant and incredibly playful book,” even though it deals with such topics as bereavement and India’s partition from Pakistan. Set in northern India, the book’s protagonist falls into a depression after the death of her husband, then travels to Pakistan to confront the traumas of her teenage years. Wynne said it was “a novel of partition unlike any novel of partition I have ever read.”

The book includes some sections told from the perspective of inanimate objects, and much of the original novel depends on wordplay in Hindi. Rockwell’s work on the book showed “the small miracle of translation,” Wynne said, borrowing a phrase from the Italian author Italo Calvino.

In a review for The Hindu newspaper, Mini Kapoor wrote that “while it may often appear that Shree is playing with words for the sake of word play, and that her digressions are asides, in the end nothing turns out to be self-indulgent or extraneous.”

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year to the best book translated into English and published in Britain or Ireland. It is separate from the better-known Booker Prize, awarded for novels originally written in English, but it comes with the same prize money and has helped turn some authors into stars.

Last year’s winner was “At Night All Blood Is Black,” by David Diop — a novel originally in French, and translated by Anna Moschovakis, about a Senegalese soldier’s descent into madness as he fights for France in the trenches of World War I.

Shree’s novel was published last August by Tilted Axis Press, a small imprint set up by the translator Deborah Smith after she won the International Booker Prize in 2016 for her translation of “The Vegetarian.” It is Shree’s third novel and her first to be published in Britain, although another had been previously translated into English.

At the news conference, Wynne said the recognition for “Tomb of Sand” was important given its language. Tens of thousands of books are published every year in Indian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Malayalam, yet few are translated into English, he said.

That was partly because some Indian authors write in English, he said, but it may also be because some readers “feel we have the Indian writing that we need.”

“Tomb of Sand” had yet to secure an American publishing deal, Wynne said, but he was aware that conversations were underway. Given the novel’s win on Thursday, he added, “I fully expect those conversations to conclude tomorrow with a flurry of offers.”

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