A prize with a difference

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

The final awards ceremony of the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2000, which was hosted by India, was a meeting ground for great writers and fine talent.


THE suspense was over. Salman Rushdie did indeed come for the much publicised Commonwealth Writers Prize. He lost in the final leg of the race to J.M. Coetzee of South Africa, but he came. The press was incredibly delighted. We who were boxed into our co rners by other invitees knew he had arrived because a huge swarm of cameras moved like giant mechanical bees from the back of the hall to the front and then slowly back again as the organisers encouraged Rushdie into a less public space. An announcement for journalists followed. "A certain person" was willing to give interviews.

Perhaps the interview was very long, but whatever the reason, dinner was delayed. Many newspapers carried relatively banal reports of the interview the next day. Or perhaps the interview was banal.

As mere observers, we felt sorry for Rushdie. It must be difficult to live with this publicity. Whatever the man does is reported as controversy. Thus the publication of his new novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Launched at the same time as Vikra m Seth's An Equal Music and like Seth's book, with music as its focus, it was said that they were rivals. Two such different books and writers cannot be serious rivals but the terms of presumed rivalry in journalistic writing were the market and sales ra ther than literary merit. Readers should in fact consider themselves privileged that two such astonishingly gifted writers exist.

The Booker Prize renewed interest in Rushdie's novel. Would The Ground Beneath Her Feet get the Booker or not? It did not. It lost to Coetzee's Disgrace. When Rushdie won the Eurasian region Commonwealth Prize for best novel, there was a li ttle heart-burn that Seth had not made it. Intense drawing room discussions followed. Would Rushdie make it to the final prize? He did not. Coetzee's Disgrace won again.

Personally I was delighted. But the reading world seems to be divided between those whose molecules are soothed by Rushdie's exuberant prose and those who prefer a quieter and more linear narrative. The ones whose molecules prefer Coetzee and Vikram Seth .

The Commonwealth Writers Prize is unique in its two-tier judging system. First come the regional awards. For the purpose of the prizes, the Commonwealth has been divided into four regions. Africa-the Caribbean-Canada; Eurasia (England, Malta, Gibraltar i n Europe as it was wryly announced by Professor Valentine Cunningham at the awards dinner amid laughter, and some Asian Commonwealth countries); Africa; and the South Pacific and South-East Asia. Each region has three judges, one of whom is a chairperson . All the judges have some connection with books. They are academics, writers, and so on.

After the judges have read the books in an unrealistically short time, each short-lists some and then meets with the other two judges of the region. There are about 15 books per region when all the regional judges put their lists together. This year, the Eurasian region judges, Chandra Chari of the Book Review, India; Stephanos Stephanides, Professor of English, University of Cyprus; and Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and chairperson for the region, met in En gland in February.

The other regional juries met at the same time. The four regional awards were to be simultaneously announced on February 14, but Africa did not decide on its winners in time, so the regional winners were finally announced on February 20.

Regional judges pick a best book and a best first book. Collections of short stories were also considered. Prize winners get a 1000 each and are invited to the place where the Commonwealth Prizes will be decided. This year India hosted the finalists for the first time since the prize was instituted in 1987. Regional chairpersons are the final judges, while the host country provides a chairperson. This year it was novelist Shashi Deshpande.

Another unique feature of the prize is that the eight regional winners and judges are invited to the host country and all of them live in the same hotel for a week. "Executioners and executionees together," as someone put it.

The Commonwealth Writers Prize is administered by the Book Trust which administers many literary prizes and whose current executive director is Chris Meade. Apart from administering prizes, the Book Trust, I am told, sends a gift package of books and mem bership to the local library for the parents of any child newly-born in Britain. This is by way of popularising reading. Maybe the next Commonwealth Prize will be won by someone who considers a similar thing happening in a more populous country. India, p erhaps.

As is the practice, books published in 1999 were sent directly to the Trust for the 2000 Commonwealth Writers Prize. The Trust then sent these books, between 60 and 77 for a region, directly to the regional judges. The last date for submission by publish ers each year is November 15. Publishers know this, apparently, but Penguin India missed the deadline for this year's prize. Thus there is many a slip that leaves out possible prize winners.

Indian writers have figured in the Commonwealth Writers Prize since its inception in 1987. Nayantara Sehgal, the 1987 Eurasian regional winner, was the guest of honour at the prize-giving ceremony this year. The 1987 finals in London, she told the audien ce, were prizeless. The regional winners went to London but the judges could not decide on a finalist, so the writers were sent home.

In 1987 and 1988, there was only a final prize and a runner-up. From 1989, there has been a best book and a best first book. That was the year that Alan Seally's delightful Trotter Nama was in the running. Perhaps it is just my deep respect for Se ally's work that makes me believe that his novel had something to do with the changed format. He won the best first book award that year.

This year, J.M. Coetzee's powerful and moving novel Disgrace was adjudged the best book, and Jeffrey Moore's delightful Prisoner in a Red Rose Chain the best first book. Both, oddly, are "academic" novels in that their writers and protagoni sts are teachers of English. Both are immensely readable, without any of the mere cleverness of style and form that in contemporary novels is so often the substitute for a good read. Coetzee received &pound10,000 (and a case of wine from the sponsors of the evening), Moore &pound3,000 (and a case of wine, etc.).

How does the Commonwealth Writers Prize compare with, say, the Booker Prize? Professor Valentine Cunningham, who has judged both prizes, was quite clear. Writers need money and if prizes can help them get some, prizes are a good thing. A prize also ensur es that a book will be widely read. When the prize goes to a book as good as Coetzee's Disgrace, which charts the fears of a white man in a country that the whites once administered brutally, it seems almost an advertisement for literary prizes.

Professor Cunningham, more than once on the Booker Prize jury, said that he was struck by the seriousness of discussion between the Commonwealth Prize judges. Even though the arguments did not necessarily go in his favour, he was impressed at the way jud ges came prepared to listen to and be convinced by others' arguments. In contrast, the Booker discussions, he said, were marked by their casualness and brevity.

Some people feel that prizes catapult a writer to fame at the expense of other writers. Readers know better. The year 1999 saw a huge number of really bad "library" books where the writer selects an event or a character from the past, sits in a library, researches the matter, and serves it up cold, with equal measures of prose description and dialogue. On the whole, the Commonwealth Prize judges seem to have steered clear of these.

Literary prizes often make one wonder what norms were used. Why was a far better writer not selected? This year, too, there have been murmurs about how this writer or that ever found a place in the regional short-list, let alone won a prize. But the fina l Commonwealth Prizes for 2000 have gone a long way in reconciling sceptics to the worth of literary prizes.

Shobhana Bhattacharji is Reader at the Jesus and Mary College, Delhi.

Indian Winners: 1987-2000

The Commonwealth Prize was instituted in 1987. That year, Nayantara Sehgal won the regional prize for Plans for Departure. Subsequently, India has figured often in the list.

Alan Seally, Trotter Nama (best first book, 1989). Shashi Tharoor, The Great Indian Novel (best book, 1990). Amit Chaudhuri, Strange and Sublime Address (best first book, 1992). Rohinton Mistry, Such A Long Journey (best book, 1992). Geetha Hariharan, Thousand Faces of the Night (best first book, 1993). Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (best book, 1994). Vikram Chandra, Red Earth, Pouring Rain (best first book, 1995). Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (best book, 1996). Vikram Chandra, Love and Longing in Bombay (best book, 1998). Manju Kapoor, Difficult Daughters (best first book, 1999). Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (best book, 2000). Raj Kamal Jha, The Blue Bedspread (best first book, 2000).

It is only in 2000 that writers who are claimed by India, Salman Rushdie and Raj Kamal Jha, have made it to the first position in the Eurasian region's best book and best first book categories. And in the 13 years of the prize, only four Indians have mad e it to the final stage: Vikram Chandra, Geetha Hariharan, Rohinton Mistry (twice), and Vikram Seth. Salman Rushdie has never won the overall Commonwealth Prize. Perhaps this is a recognition in itself. The list of Nobel non-winners for literature is as illustrious as that of Booker non-winners.

Regional Winners: 2000Best Books

Africa: J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (Secker and Warburg, United Kingdom). Caribbean & Canada: Shauna Singh Baldwin, What the Body Remembers (Doubleday, U.K.). Eurasia: Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Jonathan Cape, U.K.). South-East Asia & South Pacific: Lily Brett, Too Many Men (Picador, Australia).

Best First Books

Africa: Funso Aiyejina, The Legend of the Rockhills and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, Canada). Caribbean & Canada: Jeffrey Moore, Prisoner in a Red Rose Chain (Thistledown Press, Canada). Eurasia: Raj Kamal Jha, The Blue Bedspread (Picador, U.K.). South-East Asia & South Pacific: Kapka Kassabova, Reconnaisance (Penguin, New Zealand).

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