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 …


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