Vishnu Makhijani –
It’s created an enviable niche for itself in a overcrowded world and now, the $25,000 DSC Prize For South Asian Literature is set to become even more inclusive as it brings Cambridge University into its fold to create a parallel award for students around the globe because “that’s the way forward”, its co-founder Surina Narula says.
“I don’t want to be stuck. We need to move on, because I feel unless you catch people young, at an early age, they are not going to be better humans and understand stuff. Where I live in London for example, there is this great suspicion of the other…students who are not from South Asia are getting suspicious. So we need to create more understanding. What we as civil society can do is add to their understanding by encouraging them to understand South Asian literature and write about South Asia,” Narula, who divides her time between Britain and India, told IANS in an interview.
“So we are starting this prize with Cambridge and it is the students of Cambridge who are going to be administering it. I want to add things so it will increase the potential of today and not have nostalgia. I don’t like nostalgia. I’m not one of those who likes to look back. I just feel that everyday, we have to move forward. I feel that if this prize is won by a British person, it will be my ultimate goal; that it should be Americans winning the prize…the British…somebody from New Zealand…who understands South Asia so much that he writes about it.
“That means our prize is winning, our concept is winning. So that’s what we are aiming for…translations…that’s the way forward. It could be a guy in Sweden writing in Swedish and if it is translated into English, why not? That would be a amazing,” Narula added.
To understand this philosophy, it must be kept in mind that the prize was created nine years ago during the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) which began in 2006 when she put in the initial corpus at the urging of Sanjoy Roy (currently its producer) and author Namita Gokhale (currently its co-director).
“That is how the first year of Jaipur happened. The second year, my husband came and he said this is wonderful; let me sponsor it for 10 years. Call it the DSC Jaipur Literary Festival. Ten years’ funding was assured but five years later, it had become really big. So my friends (Roy and Gokhale) came to me and said ‘Look we are getting five times the funding; we are committed to you for 10 years so can you kind of…so I told them, you are my friends, I’m not doing it for any commercial reasons, so take it. So we walked out and they gave it to Zee,” Narula explained.
“I used to bring my friends from all over….20-30 delegates who were with me and we had our own space, which I used to fund extra. We would bring our own food, set up a restaurant but were a part of the same festival.” she said.
That was the impetus for her to read more South Asian literature “which I hadn’t read before because we are all brought up in English medium schools and we read (Thomas) Hardy and Shakespeare etc; we never get to read Rabindranath Tagore and our own Asian writers; study our culture and literature. So it gave me an exposure,” Narula added.
There was also the realization that there were so many prizes like the Booker and others but there was nothing for South Asian literature and thus the DSC prize came about.
“We gave it there for 2-3 years and then we realized that Jaipur was becoming so big that we were no longer required there. In a way, because there was so much going on there, the prize was lost. I mean music was on at night when the prize was being given. Before, the prize used to be the center of everything. But suddenly the prize became a thing on the fringe. So we decided to take it to other places.
“Plus it gave me a chance to see the South Asian countries we’ve given it in (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal in 2019 in keeping with its peripatetic nature). That opened up my eyes more because I would read the shortlisted books and visit the countries. It just made me realize how close our culture is, how our histories are intermingled,” Narula said.
“This journey has been very interesting for me. Its going to be the 10th year next year. I dont’ want it to perpetuate the same stories again and again. Everything has to move. I’m not one of those people who says this used to happen before. I’m one of those people who says this is the future, here we are…how can life be wonderful now because every day is a new day.
“When you look at something, you change it – it’s even known in physics. You change a thing when you look at it, you change its composition. Can you imagine how dynamic our world is? To say that yesterday was better than today is nonsense, tomorrow is going to be even better; it’s just for us to understand that,” Narula concluded.