Saturday, March 21, 2009

Commonwealth Writers Award, the Event

By Devaki Singh

What a delightful afternoon it was – especially for book lovers but also, and probably equally importantly, for raconteurs. The Commonwealth Writers finalists for Best Book and Best First Book from the Euro-Asia region were being announced and the Chair of the Jury – Professor Makarand Paranjape hosted the event at a book store – the Oxford Bookstore; a large labyrinthine maze dedicated to the bookish. The announcers were the media personality Karan Thapar and Cabinet Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer, 2 stars in the firmament of public intellectual life in Delhi. And, what a treat it was. Both personalities/celebrities are erudite and witty, had read thoroughly the books and writer they were talking about and, most amusingly, had tales to tell. Karan has a theatrical way with words. As erstwhile head of the Cambridge Union, he has honed his craft well and it was on full display. He talked at length about the author – Jhumpa Lahiri, about the book that made the final cut – Unaccustomed Earth and, read moving excerpts from it. Using a jocular yet intimate style of banter, Karan had the crowd engaged. It is a pity he had to leave early [Pakistan it seemed was imploding] because we would have enjoyed his verbal jousting during a discussion at the end. Mani Shankar on the other hand adopted a more sombre yet droll bearing. The book he introduced was A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif – a popular favourite – but interestingly, he wasn’t entirely taken by it. Staying true to form, Mani Shankar was honest in his opinions and as personal substantiation, shared with the rapt audience many little anecdotes about his days as Consul General of India in Pakistan where, the book is set. Now Mani is a well known conversationalist with a real gift for the language. Though he kept to the format that Karan also used to introduce the book, Mani laced his talk with little bubbles of delight. Vignettes from the social life of Pakistan in the days of Zia, salacious jokes that did the rounds of cocktail circuits, risqué rumours, and solemn tales all peppered his chat. He talked knowledgably about other writers who have written on Pakistan, quoted couplets from Urdu poetry and displayed a real understanding and affection for the divided state that is Pakistan. Because he ‘knew’ Zia, so to speak, it lent his conversation a certain credibility and gravitas when he reprimanded Hanif, the young writer, for his blythe treatment of fact and fiction. Even though the latter section went on a bit, not a single person in the audience either fidgeted or, got up to leave. The discussion at the end was short and mainly about Pakistan. I would have loved to hear both men, talk languidly and at length about books and writers, reading and learning and other such amusements. ‘Nuff said, it was in all a memorable afternoon spent in the company of friends. What, can be better …

Commonwealth Writers' Prize

By Makarand Paranjape
12th March 2009

I was a bit nervous on the eve of the Delhi announcements of Europe and South Asia region winners of Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009. To begin with, the event was supposed to be held on 11th March 2009, the same day that similar announcements would be made in the other regions—Africa, Canada and the Caribbean, and South East Asia and the South Pacific. There was to be an event in London itself on the 11th of March in which all the regional winners would be announced.

In our case, we had to push the date back by a day because the 11th was Holi, the festival of colours in India. Earlier the Commonwealth Foundation was reluctant to have another date, but when I impressed upon them that to hold the event on Holi would be like holding it on Easter or Christmas Day.

For me, it was a particularly busy day. In the morning, I was scheduled to go to an appointment with the British visa outsourcing service in Nehru Place. The appointment was at 8:15 in the morning. So I drove a fast clip to reach on time, pay the fees, submit the forms, and also go through the bio-metric finger printing and photographs. Luckily, everything went through rather smoothly.

In the evening, I was supposed to catch a flight to Chennai en route to Tiruvannamalai, where I had been invited to a conference. The organizers insisted that I come and said they would send a taxi to Chennai airport to fetch me. Eventually, I reached Tiruvannamalai at 3:30 a.m. the next morning. Reaching Delhi airport in the evening was no less an ordeal, with traffic backed up all the way from Dhaula Kuan to Sardar Patel Road.

The CWP event was scheduled at 4:00 PM in the afternoon, in between. The venue was the Oxford Bookstore in the Statesman Building, Connaught Place. I was busy in the morning, not just preparing for it, but worrying about a number of other things. Sureshika, Ashish, and Chinmoy-da, our photographer, agreed to meet in the JNU shopping centre parking lot at 2:45 to go there together.

I rushed to the office after the visa interview, got through some work, barely managed to get some lunch before I called a cab to take us to the bookstore.

In the parking lot we found that the taxi that they’d sent was too small, so we had to wait till a bigger car came along. Sureshika and Ashish who had barely had a bit to eat we a bit behind time. We waited outside their hostel for them. It was a fairly hot day and the taxi had no air conditioning.

Finally, we were off. The traffic was not as bad as it was half an hour later and we were there well on time. On entering the Bookstore, we were frisked and our bags checked. I advised the guard to be a bit more polite with our celebrity guests who were expected after 4:00. He smiled and said he’d remember.

The store was quite crowded because they had an annual sale on. Their Chai Bar is also quite popular for people to meet and congregate, stepping out of the street to take a break or browse through some books.

The store manager, Vijay Singh, and the head of the Delhi operations, Atija Bose, were at hand to welcome us, as was Prachi, the PR executive. I made some suggestions about the dais and the seating, then proceeded to try to print out the announcements in both the Best Book and Best First Book categories. I’d forgotten the announcement sheets and home in my hurry. I had, of course, sent them to our guests of honour earlier, but wasn’t sure they would remember to print them out and bring them along.

So I looked on to the bookstore computer and after some fumbling with alien machines, wires, and printers, managed the two pages. This proved to be timely because neither of the celebrity guests had printed out his sheet.

Before leaving, I had spoken to Karan Thapar, who was to announce the best book. He said, “I’ll be there at five to four—but I hope you don’t mind if I leave a bit early. Pakistan is on the boil and we media men have to be on standby.”

Nawaz Sharif was planning his long March to Islamabad from Lahore, so there was a lot of turmoil in our neighbouring land.

True to his word, Karan showed up exactly at 3:55. He had a business suit and looked quite smart. Most of the rest of us were more casually attired. The minister, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he came a few minutes later, was in a black kurta. While he ordered his favourite cuppa, he said to me, “The influence of the British empire persists; I cannot do without my afternoon cup.” He was disappointed, however, that neither of the winners was present. It turned out that they couldn’t come to the London event either.

Some of the guests had arrived and were already seated, but the press was late. I took the matter up with the PR agency we’d hired. Their executive was busy phoning people with his two mobiles. He said, the press was on its way.

I knew Karan had to leave by 5:15 so was on tenterhooks.

Finally, we started at 4:30. Atija welcomed everyone to the Oxford Bookstore. She said they were happy to be associated with this event, which they had hosted last year too.

I spoke next, adding my words of welcome to hers and spent a few minutes trying to explain why the CWP was important, what made it special. It was a two-tier competition, with regional and final winners. This way eight writers, two each from four prominent regions of the Commonwealth, were recognized. In addition, we had two categories of winners, Best Books and Best First Books. The latter was a special way recognizing new talent. Each regional prize winner would win pounds 1000 each and also have a chance to compete for the final prizes which were much more substantial.

Both Karan and Aiyar spoke next, announcing the awardees in their categories, Jhumpa Lahuri for Unaccustomed Earth (Best Book) and Mohammad Hanif for The Case of Exploding Mangoes (Best First Book). They first announced the short listed entries in each category before declaring the winners.

Karan made a brief witty speech about how he had intended to read Lahiri for years, keeping her books by his bedside table, but, for some reason or other, postponing reading them. Thus he added Namesake to Interpreter of Maladies to his pile of unread books. But with this invitation, he finally got down to reading Unaccustomed Earth. He had chosen his own passages to read, though I’d sent some suggestions. He read these and commended the distinctive prose style.

In our phone conversations, Karan had told me that he was hopeless at public speaking. I asked, “How is that possible; you are one of the most articulate of our TV show hosts and news commentators?” He replied, “O, that’s just on TV. In real life, I am rather tongue-tied.” Not true, I felt, as he spoke with flawless poise, panache, and brilliance. I remembered hearing somewhere that he had been President of the Cambridge Union, so how could I have falling for his line that he was a bad speaker?

Mr Aiyar, our Minister for Youth, Sports, and Panchayati Raj, spoke next. He had earlier been a member of the Indian Foreign Service and posted in Lahore. He knew Pakistan intimately, especially the Zia years which the book covered. He regaled us with many a personal insight and anecdote of those times. He spoke at length not only about the book but also on India-Pak relations and a host of other issues. We all heard him spell bound. Karan had to leave, as he had forewarned, at 5:15, so couldn’t hear all of Mr Aiyar’s remarks. The Minister also read from the book some of his favourite passages.

By about 5:30 we were more or less through. In the interactive session the audience and the press asked a few questions. I was later interviewed by the TV channel CNN-IBN, with the young reporter nodding and prompting me encouragingly as I spoke. The Minister was mobbed by friends and fans, getting his views on the book and on other thigns.

I was happy that function went off really well in the end. We had video taped the whole event as had one of the TV channels. We also had many still photos, some of which are posted on this blogsite.

Karan was very polite and sent an sms apologizing for having to leave in a hurry. I replied a bit later to thank him for his great show.

Now we wend down to look for my taxi to the airport. The man was nowhere to be seen. Finally discovered that he had been prevented from entering the premises by the security guards. I had to go to gate of the building the ask the guards to allow him in.

12th March at Oxford Bookstore

By Syeda Bilgrami Imam

One goes quite avidly to anything that has to do with books, but half expecting to be disappointed.

One was not.

The curiosity about which two writers/books made it to seizing the Commonwealth trophy - was not subjected to suspense.

The two books were up there on the table propped up and unmissable. But in the event, even those who hadn't read them were not overly surprised.

Professor Paranjape touched on the lore of how the Commonwealth continues year after year to reward its denizen writers, the established and the aspiring. He gave the how and the why.

One had hoped to hear him fold forth a bit more - since he is a fine speaker- and not merely officiate as Chairman of the Jury.

Karan Thapar was disarming as he held forth on his connect with Jhumpa Lahiri on his bedside table. He was acute in his choice of a passage which painted the nearness and the chasm between father and daughter in Unaccustomed Earth. The appetite for the book got whetted as he lauded his victory.

His adddress was apt and clipped not because he was in a rush to leave to host his TV show, but because he wanted the audience to want more of Karan Thapar. A bright thing to do.

Mani Shankar Aiyar came next to announce the first-time, first book winner: Mohamed Hanif and his The Case of the Exploding Mangoes.

A young writer, an unknown Pakistani and one treading a territory Mani knew at close hand. That became the reward for the audience.

The man that is Mani Shankar Aiyar knows the language, cares for literature, seeks to understand people and predicaments and politics. And all of this he presents to you after reflecting on it.

One felt almost elated in that hour that the rare species called a statesman was at hand - in the avatar of a book lover.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

CWP 2009: Announcement of Regional Winners for Europe and South Asia: A Brief Report.

The Commonwealth writers Prize for Europe and South Asia was announced at 4:00pm Thursday 12th March 2009 at The Oxford Bookstore, Statesman House, 148, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi. Oxford Bookstore in association with the Commonwealth Foundation organized this event, which was designed mostly as an interactive press conference, with a small number of select intellectuals and book lovers in attendance. Samvad India Foundation offered logistical support and facilitation, a non-profit trust devoted to inter-cultural dialogue.

The Chair of the Europe and South Asia jury of the CWP, Professor Makarand Paranjape, coordinated the event, explained the judging process and The Commonwealth Foundation.

Mr. Karan Thapar, a well-known media personality and TV show host, declared the winner of the Best Book award and Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Member of Parliament and Union Cabinet Minister announced the winner for the Best first book. The above mentioned guests of honour read out favourite excerpts from the respective books that won the prize. The Best Book was awarded to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unacusstomed Earth and the First Best Book to Mohommed Hanif’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Professor Makarand Paranjape and Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, answered questions during the Q&A after the announcements.

The following books, apart from the award- winning book, were short listed for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book from Europe and South Asia:
Sulaiman Addonia- The Consequences of Love Chatto & Windus, UK
Daniel Clay- Broken HarperCollins, UK
Joe Dunthorne- Submarine Random House, UK
Murzaban F. Shroff- Breathless in Bombay St. Martin’s Griffin, India
Rowan Somerville - End of Sleep, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, UK

The following books apart from the award-winning book, were short listed for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Europe and South Asia:
Chris Cleave- The Other Hand, Sceptre, UK
Shashi Deshpande - The Country of Deceit , Penguin, India
Philip Hensher- The Northern Clemency Fourth Estate, UK
David Lodge- Deaf Sentence, Harvill Secker, UK
Salman Rushdie- The Enchantress of Florence, Random House, UK

Comments on the Regional Winners by Dr. Alex Tickell, member of the Jury for Europe and South Asia of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, 2009.

Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a brilliant fictional dissection of power, history and political mythology in General Zia’s Pakistan. Hanif’s work explodes and re-assembles Zia’s dictatorship and in the process brilliantly evokes the public drama of postcolonial politics and the narrative possibilities of rumour and conspiracy. In a work that combines the satirical wit of Heller’s Catch-22 with the political focus of Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, Hanif gives us a unique, culturally-situated insight into the eternal themes of hubris, corruption and absolute power.

Jhumpa Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth.
Lahiri’s wonderful collection Unaccustomed Earth affirms her as one of the most accomplished contemporary exponents of the short-story form. From a relatively limited palette (the minor dramas of middle-class Asian-American family life), Lahiri produces luminous, technically perfect miniatures that persist, like stubborn retinal images, in the mind’s eye. Lahiri’s sense of detail, the brevity of her prose, and her grasp of the complexities of cultural translation all fit together in a controlled, concentrated evocation of the South-Asian diaspora experience.

Dr Alex Tickell

Senior Lecturer in English

University of Portsmouth,

SSHLS, Milldam Building,

Burnaby Rd,

Portsmouth PO1 3AS


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Commonwealth Writer's prize 2009 at Oxford Book Store, Delhi