Saturday, March 21, 2009

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.


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