Power to the pen

Business Standard,21 April 2010


Power to the pen

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize has been awarded, but the common jury is still out.

There I was, a complete wreck, heart sprinting, palms slightly clammy, stomach somersaulting, trying not to let it show as the moderator invited the guest of honour up to the podium to announce the winner. Television cameras panned the hall, and everyone was dressed to the nines. I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous. Who would it be?

I think my stomach actually climbed out of my mouth and tried to make its way down my chin when the minister opened the envelope. And when he leaned into the mike, and declared the name of the winner, my heart jolted painfully — in empathy for the winner and for all the candidates who didn’t make it.

If, like me, you had attended a fair number of the panel discussions and book readings that preceded the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in Delhi on April 12, you may well have been in the same state of nerves as I was. If there’s anyone more opinionated than a writer, it is a reader, each of us constituting little juries of one, handing down kangaroo court-style verdicts. But attending these sessions, talking to the authors and getting a sense of their books served only to interest me in all of them, and thoroughly confuse me.

I knew Rana Dasgupta’s Solo (eventual winner of the Best Book award), to be fully deserving of a prize because I’d read it; but then I began to think that so, for instance, might Michael Crummey’s Galore, which draws on the rich folklore of his native Newfoundland—a place that was largely illiterate until a generation ago, when the island joined Canada. Newfoundlanders still speak the medieval settlers’ English that has long died out in Europe.

I was equally drawn to The Adventures of Vela by the Samoan writer Albert Wendt, who also uses the ancient mythology of his country. His 280-page book, about a long-lived character who tells his story to a younger Samoan, is written entirely in verse. “I started this book in the 1970s,” Wendt said, “I’ve spent most of my life writing it.” Then there’s The Double Crown, by the South African writer Marie Heese, about the extraordinary Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, who proclaimed herself Pharaoh and ruled for twenty years, fending off all contenders to the throne. What’s not to love about that?

I knew Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders to be prize-worthy because I’ve read it, but it’s quite possible that I would have awarded it to Siddon Rock by Australian Glenda Guest, which eventually won the Best First Book award, or to the Under This Unbroken Sky by Canadian writer and filmmaker Shandi Mitchell, who is the first person in her blue-collar family to have gone to college. I know I’m dying to read I Do Not Come to You By Chance by the young Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, about the well-established tradition of 419 email scams originating from that country.

The judges, at one of the panel discussions, had talked about how hard it is to award consensus-based prizes from a cache of excellent books. I don’t envy them their job; and some of their faces, after the award ceremony, reflected an agonised sympathy for the authors who did not walk away with the big cheque.

The debate over whether the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is an antiquated concept with insidious political undertones leaves me about as cold as the idea of having tea with the Queen, which is what the winner traditionally does. We’re all aware that the sun set on a certain nameless Empire some time ago, so I’m over the politics of it. As long as we keep being introduced to the writers of good books, I’m all for some of them also getting large cheques.

[Mitali Saran is a Delhi-based freelance writer]