Late last week, at a cocktail event following the longlist announcement of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature-2019 in New Delhi, HS Narula, chairman of the infrastructure giant DSC Limited that funds the prize, came up to Niraj Bhari, publisher of FinePrint Books, and asked why Nepali publishers had repeatedly failed to submit their books for the award.In the eight-year history of the DSC Prize, which was established to celebrate the written word from and around South Asia, only one book—Samrat Upadhyay’s Buddha’s Orphans (2012)—has been longlisted.
Bhari seemed flabbergasted by the question. That evening, Bhari said something to the effect that some good translations were coming up this year, and that there would definitely be an entry for the next year’s prize. But, conversely, the question could have been asked of the prizegivers as to why they have failed to traverse the boundaries created by established literary canons of Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan English writings and reach the margins of the region as far as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal.
A straightforward answer to these questions is that there aren’t enough English writings or translations coming out of these countries. Those that have indeed come out may not have been submitted by their publishers, or those that were submitted and were really good may not have caught the fancy of the jury members.
Eight years is quite a short period to gauge the impact of a prize or any such endeavour on an entity as vast as South Asian literature. However rigorous its benchmarks, it may not be able to choose the best of South Asian fiction published in a particular year—because, indeed, there can’t be a single best book out of the total entries submitted. But even in its short history, the DSC prize has established itself as a major literary landmark in the region, not only for being the most significant regional literary prize—it comes with a cash prize of $25,000—but also, arguably, the only regional award South Asian writers and translators could aspire to.
Even a quick glance at the books longlisted for this year evinces the length and breadth of lives in the region and outside—a filmmaker’s quest to avenge the death of his lover in post-war Sri Lanka; a celebrated Hindi novelist’s confrontation of personal tragedies even as he tries to make sense of post-Independent India; a Bengali immigrant’s search for home in America; a Karachi slum-dweller’s attempts to escape poverty; an Afghani-American’s confrontation with American soldiers in war-torn Afghanistan; young Naxal recruits’ efforts to make sense of the insurgency; Bengali freedom fighters’ struggle for an independent nation; a young woman’s travails in Kashmir trying to find the reasons of her mother’s death; and much more.
Despite the obvious lack of representation of the diverse works of literature of the region, the numbers are already quite impressive. Of the 90 eligible entries submitted for the 2019 prize, 42 are written by women. Of the 15 titles longlisted, seven are written by women and seven by debutants. The list also includes three translations—one each from Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam. Of the 88 eligible entries submitted for the 2018 prize, 48 were written by women and two by debutants. The 2018 longlist included four translations—each from Assamese, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi.
The 2018 longlist included South Asian literary heavyweights such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Arundhati Roy, Anuradha Roy and Jeet Thayil. But the prize finally went to a relatively lesser-known Kannada writer, Jayant Kaikini, and his translator, Tejaswini Niranjana. The 2019 longlist may not be as power-packed as the previous one, but it has a fair share of excellent established and new writers alike, including Fatima Bhutto, Akil Kumaraswami, Amitabha Bagchi, Perumal Murugan, Manoranjan Byapari, and Shubhangi Swarup.
The list reflects the growing prowess of South Asian literary fiction and has brought global recognition to South Asian writers. It has been won by four Indian authors—Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis, 2013); Cyrus Mistry (Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, 2014); Anuradha Roy (Sleeping on Jupiter, 2016); and Jayant Kaikini (No Presents Please, 2018). Two Sri Lankan authors—Shehan Karunatilaka (Chinaman, 2012) and Anuk Arudpragasam (Story of a Brief Marriage, 2017). An American writer of Indian origin, Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland, 2015), and an American author of Pakistani origin, HM Naqvi (Home Boy, 2011).
It is not only the authors contesting the prize that has a South Asian character. In line with the South Asian ethos, it is a travelling prize—as it is announced from different locations in South Asia. It will still be a little known prize when it comes to Nepal this December, but it might encourage more Nepalis to write or translate in English and submit their work for the upcoming editions.
And as an aspirational prize of the region, it has shown how literary texts can transcend national boundaries and help people come together to think of a ‘South Asian’ experience. At a time when the drumbeats of nationalism have turned neighbours into enemies, literature provides a necessary window to understand the ‘other’ from across the border. The question is, are we reading enough about our neighbours to know more about them? The answer may not be very positive, but endeavours such as the DSC prize have certainly helped a section of readers, however small, understand the complexity of the enigma that is South Asia, and assisted them in understanding each other better.
However, one prize or one festival is just not enough. There is a dire need of literary awards and grants that would cater to the growing demands of, among other things, translating from one regional literature to another—with or without English as the link language. There is hardly any institutional support for translations, which leaves the excellent works in many languages untranslated. Also, there is a severe lack of good translators between various South Asian languages. If we are to understand our neighbours well, we’d better brush up our skills at ‘other’ languages to read, and if possible, translate. This is also a commitment we need to make to ourselves especially today, September 30, which is celebrated as international translation day.