Speaking Volumes: The Empire’s orphan children

(Published in the Business Standard, April 2010)

As a touchingly emotional Rana Dasgupta rose to receive the Commonwealth Award for Best Book on Monday evening, he joined a long list of distinguished winners, from Mordecai Richler and Rohinton Mistry to Peter Carey, Vikram Seth and Andrea Levy.

Dasgupta’s Solo, his second book and first novel, is a virtuoso performance, like so many Commonwealth Prize winners. Set in Bulgaria, it explores the painful consequences of the choices made by both nations and individuals. Ulrich is blind, living out his years in a city where all the stories have changed, after “the former villains were cast in bronze and put up in parks”. As his mind wanders through a real and sometimes imaginary past, his life seems like a settling, however unfair, of history’s accounts.

With Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Thomas Keneally and Chimamanda Adichie on the regional shortlists at one point, it seemed that Solo would be the dark horse of the competition, despite its obvious merits—but the final list of regional winners didn’t include any of the big four, making Dasgupta and Michael Crummey the front-runners for the competition.

For the Commonwealth Awards as they stand today, Dasgupta is the poster boy they need. His work is coldly analytical about globalization and its impact on both the Third and the First World; and he writes well outside the shadow of Empire. But this particular prize is at something of a crossroads in its history.

As with all literary prizes, it’s a big deal for the authors who win. Glenda Guest, who won the Best First Book award for Siddon Rock, pipping Daniyal Muenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was visibly moved: “I have to take a moment to breathe,” she said on stage, confessing that she really hadn’t prepared a speech. Former winner Githa Hariharan giggled about how her cheque for 3,000 pounds was received with immense gratitude in the days when writers took the “broke and struggling” part of the job description seriously.

But the blunt truth is that there’s no real reason to have a Commonwealth Prize, nor is there any commonality between the writers of the Commonwealth. I’m hardly the first person to make this point. Some years ago, Amitav Ghosh made waves when he asked for his book to be withdrawn from consideration: “The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace… I would [betray] my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of ‘the Commonwealth’.” If the award was called the Prize for Members of Former Colonies of the Erstwhile British Empire, which is effectively what it is, few writers would subscribe to its logic.

It’s worth noting that the impact of history may lessen over time. Salman Rushdie condemned the idea of Commonwealth literature in the 1980s, calling it an untenable ghetto; a decade later, he’d relaxed enough to allow his books to be entered for contention. What continues to make the Commonwealth an “anachronism”, as literary columnist Salil Tripathi called it recently, is that it is, unfortunately, anchored to its history. This has an inbuilt absurdity to it: Malaysian and Singaporean writers are eligible for the Prize, but not Vietnamese or Thai writers, excluded only because the flag of Empire was never raised over their soil. It’s similarly bewildering to have India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on the list, but not Nepal, Bhutan or Burma.

It’s with the question of languages that the most vexed issues are raised. The Booker Prize, similarly open only to works written in English, was founded explicitly as a prize intended to encourage reading in Britain. It expanded its frontiers over time, and cunningly included non-Commonwealth member Ireland (presumably because they have too many good writers to exclude).

The Commonwealth Prize had no such agenda when it began, and its inability to include works in different regional languages in English translation is deeply disturbing. The argument, made often, that this would render the Prize administration too complex is somewhat specious. One of the best contemporary literary prizes is the Impac, which treats works in English translation on par with works originally written in English. This still excludes original, untranslated works, but it has the merit of reflecting the way readers actually read—most of us grew up reading a Garcia Marquez or indeed, a Saadat Hasan Manto or Thakkazhi, without “seeing” the translation behind the text.

This shouldn’t take away from Dasgupta’s win, or indeed from the achievements of any of the winners and shortlisted authors in previous years. But the Commonwealth Prize does need to craft an identity for itself. Most literary prizes do that on the basis of a common language—the Cervantes Prize for works in Spanish—or a common historical or national identity, as with the Pulitzer. Sharing a history of imperialism really isn’t enough to create a body of works from the shortlist that would be of interest to most readers.

Links: The Observer review of Solo
Glenda Guest on winning the Best First Book award for Siddon Rock
Salil Tripathi’s column questions the raison d’etre of the Commonwealth Prize
Amitav Ghosh’s 2001 letter withdrawing The Glass Palace from consideration for the Prize





6 responses to “Speaking Volumes: The Empire’s orphan children”

  1. Rohan Nair Avatar

    "its inability to include works in different regional languages in English translation is deeply disturbing."This is the sort of hypocrisy that doesn't hold up to examination. How many translated Indian-language books have you (for instance) reviewed or talked about over the last year? Or even Indian-English books that pass under the mainstream-upper-class-English scanner? (books released 'locally' – Bombay-wide or Chennai-wide – circulated in perhaps book-clubs and then stocked in smaller bookshops — has an effort been made to pick the best of these sorts of books?)Among the Indian reviewers Chandrahas Choudhury (who I only know through reading his blog btw) is the only one who seems to accord SOME genuine space to such writing.The others, they talk, about how a faraway prize should include other languages – without acknowledging the problem is perhaps much closer home…

  2. nilanjanaroy@twitter.com Avatar

    Thanks for your comments, Rohan, and I think I'll have to gently reject your accusation. I haven't reviewed many books over the last year at all, so it's through my columns that you'll have to make your call. Over the decades, you'll find that while the focus is heavily weighted towards English fiction–English being the language I speak, think and write in–there's also been a strong referencing to Bengali writing–Bengali being the second language I speak and think in. When I ran book review pages, we treated translations into English on par with other works, and you might enjoy my personal list of favourite works in translation:http://akhondofswat.blogspot.com/2009/04/amit-chaudhuri-on-indian-writing-from.html

  3. Rohan Nair Avatar

    Nilanjana, thanks for your response and for your list of Indian writers in translation (it is now on my saved pages). Don't mean to nit-pick, but I'm still thinking that as long as they're bracketed as such (labelled "Indian writers in translation", and listed on a separate page as you have done), we're not being as egalitarian as we ought to be, and fall short of bringing regional Indian writing onto the same stage as other writing. Contrast this with a recent post titled 'The Middle Stage's Books of 2009: Fiction': here there is no separation, Ishiguro, Pamuk as well as Salma and Surender Pathak are spoken of in the same list, in the same vein. This, IMHO, is the surest way to bridge the gaps that exist.(http://middlestage.blogspot.com/2009/12/middle-stages-books-of-2009-fiction.html)

  4. nilanjanaroy@twitter.com Avatar

    Rohan, I wish you'd taken the trouble to scroll through some of my older work, because you're putting me in the embarrassing position of having to list my credentials. I'm just as likely to write a tribute to Faiz as to Agha Shahid Ali, or compare Chowringhee with Ali Smith's writing on hotels. You'll find columns on Partition literature that discuss Manto, Khushwant Singh, Kamleshwar and Chaman Nahal with equal ease, columns on Delhi novels that include Krishna Sobti alongside Ahmed Ali and Ranjit Lal–no one who writes seriously in this country can maintain the artificial separation between "writing in English" and "writing in other Indian languages". I'm slightly annoyed at having to point this out–I don't expect you to have followed my work over the last two decades, but you've made your accusation with no basis in fact. Works in English predominate because I'm covering the English language publishing industry, and there's an unfair skew towards Bengali and Hindi because they are the only other Indian languages I read. But please don't tell me to do what I've already been doing for the last 15 years as a critic.

  5. Nilanjana Roy Avatar

    P.S. I should add, though, that I share your admiration for Chandrahas's reviews–and his other writing.

  6. Rohan Nair Avatar

    Nilanjana, I didn't mean to "tell you what you've already been doing" as a literary critic. I have now gone back and read some of the pieces on the writers you've mentioned that are available on this blog. I guess my little rant was directed more towards english-language literary-criticism (professional as well as coffee-table!) in urban India in general – it shouldn't have been directed towards you. Apologies. Rohan.

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