Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature: The (revised) longlist

(Following a clarification on the rules of eligibility regarding publication dates for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the jury is happy to announce the revised longlist. It was brought to the jury's attention that two novels previously discussed and endorsed were, under the rules, eligible for contention in the final analysis. Here is the final longlist.)

1) Upamanyu Chatterjee: Way To Go (Penguin)

2) Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals (Picador India)

3) Chandrahas Choudhury: Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins)

4) Musharraf Ali Farooqui: The Story of a Widow (Picador India)

5) Ru Freeman: A Disobedient Girl (Penguin/ Viking)

6) Anjum Hassan: Neti Neti (IndiaInk/ Roli Books)

7) Tania James: Atlas of Unknowns (Pocket Books)

8) Manju Kapur: The Immigrant (Faber & Faber)

9) HM Naqvi: Home Boy (HarperCollins)

10) Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)

11) Sankar: The Middleman (Penguin, translated by Arunava Sinha)

12) Ali Sethi: The Wish Maker (Penguin)

13) Jaspreet Singh: Chef (Bloomsbury)

14) Aatish Taseer: The Temple Goers (Picador India)

15) Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House)

16) Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart (Picador India)

(The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is in its first year; we announced the longlist today. This is a rough draft of my introduction to the longlist as chair of the jury.)

It gives me great pleasure to be here today at the invitation of the DSC group, and I’d like to say a special word of thanks to Ms Surina Narula for her unflagging and very gracious support of the prize, and her commitment to literature in a broader sense. I’d also like to thank Manhad Narula: the Prize is his brainchild, and his energy and enthusiasm fuelled the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

The need for a South Asian prize became apparent to many of us some years ago. India had some excellent literary prizes, but given the rich and the overlapping history of the subcontinent, we found ourselves missing the neighbours. There is an instinctive kinship among the countries of South Asia, and for readers, a Kamila Shamsie or a Romesh Gunesekhara would belong automatically on the same shelf as Vikram Seth or Sankar.

There was another problem, familiar to all of those who have administered literary prizes. I think of it as the Passport Control conundrum. Given the alacrity with which South Asians travel, and given that so many of us now lead nomadic lives, spreading ourselves out so that home could be anywhere on one or all of three different continents, it’s hard to identify who qualifies to be a South Asian writer. Too often, prize administrators have ended up in the uncomfortable position of being border guards—effectively checking the passports of authors to see who qualifies and who doesn’t.

The DSC Prize does away with the Passport Control problem in a way that’s highly unusual, but that reflects the realities of our times—it’s the content of the book that matters, not the nationality or place of residence of the writer. (The rules for eligibility are here.) The only criteria for eligibility is that the book should be set in South Asia, should feature South Asian characters, or should in some way concern itself with the history of South Asia. This makes, from the judges’ point of view, for fascinating reading. My colleague, Urvashi Butalia, had asked earlier this year whether we could arrive at a definition of South Asian fiction—I can only say, after reading the books in contention this year, that there is such a thing, and as a reader, you recognize it when you see it.

It was a great pleasure working with my fellow judges this year. We were, literally, reading on three continents. Moni Mohsin is a Pakistani writer and well-known columnist who has been part of that literary world for decades; Amitava Kumar is an eminent critic and writer whose most recent book, Evidence of Suspicion, addresses the euphemisms and lies behind the war on terror; Ian Jack, the legendary former editor of Granta magazine, is also an old India hand; and Lord Matthew Evans is the former chairman of Faber & Faber. We went through several rounds of debate and discussion, and immensely enjoyed the process of longlisting books for the DSC Prize. It was particularly illuminating reading works in translation alongside works written in English; it reflects the way we buy and read books in our everyday lives.

I’d offer just two suggestions for the future success of the Prize: to the Advisory Board, I would strongly suggest that they open it up further, and allow publishers to submit more books. It’s better to have an excess of entries than to run the risk of missing out on a potentially brilliant book, and part of the fun of reading as one of the judges is the discovery of a name or an author you haven’t come across previously. I’d also suggest, if I may, that the prize cover an entire year—for instance, the 2012 Prize would work even better if it were to cover as many books published in 2011 as possible. We offer our apologies to the authors who were not eligible for the DSC Prize because their books were published either too early or too late—any literary prize requires a little time to find its feet, and we hope you will be patient with us over the first two years.

I think the longlist this year reflects some of the best of Asian writing, with three languages—English, Bengali and Tamil—represented, and authors from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and the US. In the end, this is what makes any literary prize exciting—the quality and the breadth of reading it covers, and the fiction on this year’s longlist was, for all of us on the jury, truly a discovery.

We will be announcing the shortlist of 5, or perhaps 6, titles on October 25 in London.

The BS column: Naipaul's twilight travels

(Published in the Business Standard on September 12, 2010)

“I think it’s very good to ask yourself who you are and why you’re here and what has made you.” In 1974, when V S Naipaul made that statement to an audience of students, he had been asking himself those questions for over a decade. Twelve years had passed since he had written The Middle Passage, his first collection of travel writings; 16 since he had written his first novels.

The Middle Passage is still an essential Naipaul work. It was a brave book to write at the time, and it set some of the rules by which Naipaul would travel, then and later. Intended as a kind of triumphal tour—the Prime Minister of Trinidad sponsored the trip around the Caribbean and some of the colonies of South America—The Middle Passage became a savage portrait of lost men, living in a “borrowed culture”, unaware of the extent of the losses colonialism had inflicted on them. He set down his own responses—flinching, as when he infamously described the sound of the steel bands of the West Indies as noise, often repelled—as faithfully as he did the lives and responses of those whom his open, merciless gaze fell upon.

“Other travelers, more haunted, carry questions, not answers or explanations, around with them wherever they go, and look to everywhere to give them some understanding, or even movement towards resolution, of the issue that is their lifelong companion (V.S. Naipaul is the archetype of this),” wrote Pico Iyer in a recent essay on different kinds of travelers. This is an accurate portrait, perhaps more accurate than the one we currently have of Naipaul the curmudgeon, or Naipaul the genius: polarizing labels that over-simplify one of the world’s most complex writers.

In his seventies, Naipaul had no need to embark on a journey to Africa. This decade is set aside for the writing of memoirs, for late novels, or collections of essays: it is not, conventionally, an age at which most writers would set themselves the task of another exploration, or undertake the discomfort, physical and mental, of a journey with the intention of understanding the beliefs of a continent. But in the decade before he wrote The Masque of Africa, Naipaul had remained a traveler, choosing to meet revolutionaries in India as part of the research for his most recent novels, Half a Life and Magic Seeds. (It was a journey of mutual disillusion.)

The Masque of Africa will not go down in the ranks of Naipaul’s greatest travel writing. “I found the place eluding me,” he writes of his return to Uganda after 42 years, and as he travels through Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa, the continent remains elusive. His explorations take him to witch doctors, animist shrines, forest initiation ceremonies. His observations on the thoughtless cruelty of some Africans to animals, especially to cats, who may be killed in a variety of ways of ascending brutality, become a running refrain, a sideways comment on the conflicts and bloodshed he doesn’t directly address. He ends by referencing Rian Malan, the author of My Traitor’s Heart—handing us over to a writer whose understanding of Africa is deeper and more nuanced than Naipaul can manage himself.

The Masque of Africa has been judged harshly for its stereotypes (“rubbish is the African way”, he comments of the piles of garbage he sees everywhere in Uganda), and for its limitations—Naipaul, once the most incisive of travel writers, can barely go beyond the surface of things in this book. This is Naipaul as a tourist rather than a travel writer, and it is his honesty about the narrowness of his journey that stands out.

Naipaul struggles with the difficulties of understanding cultures where the history is oral, not written. (In his view, not shared by Wole Soyinka and others, the oral tradition is always inferior to the written, because memory will not last beyond a few generations and may be wiped out entirely in a bloody war, a famine.) It is the practice in this century for journalists and travel writers to edit out the many filters between them and their experiences: the reader rarely sees the fixers, the interpreters, the useful local characters who will offer potted histories of a place.

Naipaul makes it clear that his African visit is mediated: he is too often at the mercy of those who take him around, as in one comic case where he walks too far, and is offered a wheelbarrow (inadequate to the task) for the next leg of his journey. He sets down the omissions and the gaps in each stage of his journey, and it is this honesty that may redeem an otherwise unconvincing, limited travelogue. As an inquiry into belief, The Masque of Africa falls short of Naipaul’s other journeys into faith and belief; but as an explication of the necessary limitations of travel writing as a genre, it is a surprisingly candid work.
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