What is ‘common’ about this prize?

Mint,8 April 2010

What is ‘common’ about this prize?

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is anachronistic in the diverse landscape of world fiction
Salil Tripathi

Winners: (left) Amitav Ghosh turned down the prize in 2001; Daniyal Mueenuddin won this year’s prize for his debut novel. Photos: Manoj Patil / Hindustan Times and Cecilie Brenden

As literary awards go, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize appears to be as anachronistic as the institution itself. Neither a geographic entity, nor one uniting similar cultures and societies at similar stages of development, the Commonwealth is a group of highly diverse countries brought together only because Britannia once ruled the waves, and the Union Jack fluttered over the official buildings in those colonies (only just, though: Mozambique, which was never under British rule, is now part of the Commonwealth, and the US, which overthrew British rulers more than two centuries ago, has never been part of the Commonwealth).

Today, authors of the Commonwealth write in a remarkably disparate manner, and Britain, or the shared experience of being part of the empire, is only marginally part of the writers’ consciousness. Ironically, the one author who has written most interestingly about the shared links across countries once ruled by the British empire, Amitav Ghosh, famously turned down the prize for Eurasia for his 2001 novel, The Glass Palace. Indeed, his current project, starting with the novel Sea of Poppies, suggests a ruthless examination of the cultural dislocation the empire brought about in India, Mauritius and Hong Kong. But Ghosh had good reasons not to be part of the celebrations: Celebrating a shared experience without reflecting on the pain was wrong in itself; not recognizing the rich profusion of languages spoken in the Commonwealth, and focusing only on English was, to him, another major problem.

That has not prevented other authors from agreeing to be nominated for the prize, and accepting the honour when they have won the prize. And the decision to accept—or not—an award or nomination can only be up to the individual’s conscience. John Berger famously gave half the money he received from the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G., to the Black Panthers (and the other half to fund a project on migrant workers), to protest the activities of the company which funded the prize—Booker-McConnell—in the African sugar market. Other writers, including some from Africa who have strong views on slavery, did not object to being nominated for the prize. Ghosh’s was a major political response to the Commonwealth prize.

But it is fair to ask what is the rationale of the Commonwealth prize. If the writers do not share commonalities, except high school education disproportionately influenced by Keats and Wordsworth, and similar penal codes with similar sections outlawing similar types of behaviour Victorian moralists did not like, what is their common identity? Romesh Gunesekera of Sri Lankan origin, who has lived in the Philippines and is now in Britain, once said that it was odd to bracket Sri Lankan writers with their cousins from India or Pakistan. This is not because he shunned competition, but he felt writers from islands have a different sensibility. There are probably more interesting linkages between writers from Sri Lanka and the Caribbean, than between Sri Lanka and India, for example.

A shared post-colonial sensibility is a good starting point, but it is not strong enough as a glue to hold the structure together, because the very idea of post coloniality implies resistance to the empire, and the implied purpose of the prize is to celebrate what unites the new nations of the former empire. Furthermore, many of the countries draw inspiration from elsewhere: Hong Kong is now firmly Chinese; Singapore and Malaysia don’t look to Britain for leadership in almost any sphere; African states are far less dependent on technical cooperation from the Commonwealth, now that China is willing to assist without preconditions; and Canada’s existential quest is to remind itself—and others—how different it is from the US.

All smiles: Mandla Langa, the 2009 winner of the African section. Rajesh Jantilal / AFP

Among South African writers, it is the politics of apartheid and its aftermath that often appear predominant, and understandably so. Nigeria’s best writers are focused on their internal conflict.

Within the South Asian region, the resurgence in Pakistani fiction is shaped far more by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its aftermath, including the unending war on terror, which has made the Pakistani narrative complex and exciting. Indian fiction may have emerged from the shadow of Salman Rushdie, but is far more interested in the society within, than in the influences without. And when it does look at the world beyond, it does so with decidedly Indian eyes, with Britain—or the Commonwealth —appearing only in the periphery. The links to the “mother country” are weak.

The mother country itself is interested less in the former colonies (except in some romantic, nostalgic novels) and more in looking at itself. The Commonwealth is absent in the writing of Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, or Will Self; even among hyphenated-British writers, the stories are about assimilation within the island, and not so much about the lands their parents came from. That has to do with Britain politically veering further away from the Commonwealth than at any time. Its starkest reminder is at the arrivals lounge of British airports, where black, yellow or brown visitors are more likely to be asked to step aside, questioned more closely, and their bags searched more thoroughly. Britain has also made it harder for students from the Commonwealth countries to get here to study (there is always that lurking fear, that Britain will be overwhelmed by immigrants, and European legislation which requires Britain to open its borders to EU nationals first doesn’t help people from former colonies to come to the mother country.)

As those gaps widen, the shared experiences shrink. That does not make the works by writers from the Commonwealth any less interesting; it remains useful to ask, though, what’s common about this wealth. Rana Dasgupta’s Solo will charm and delight in any case, as would Chandrahas Choudhury’s Arzee the Dwarf, exploring the humour of a city’s underbelly. Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohur Tree, perhaps the one coming closest to that shared experience, is an evocative recreation of a vanishing generation in Pakistan. In the competition this year, there are other fine works in contention, and many books are a joy to read. But the question remains: What has the Commonwealth got to do with it?

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize will be presented on 12 April at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.