Now that the announcement of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019 is over, I believe I can break the vow of silence I was sworn to as a member of its jury and share a few things I learnt as I read and re-read the books, especially those bits that I think are of some relevance to the Bangladeshi writing and translation scene. Before I get down to the most rewarding parts of meeting fellow jurors, the shortlisted authors and many other writers and journalists in Pokhara, Nepal, I’d like to reflect briefly on the reading process and experience.
Part I: The onerous task of reading
Despite my excitement at this opportunity, I found myself overwhelmed with the sight of the enormous stacks of books in my reading room. The first assignment was handed down to us through email: preparing a list of 15 books (in order of preference) out of 90 in less than four months. Which meant each of the jurors had roughly one day per book. As I picked up Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air in Arunava Sinha’s translation, which took me three nights to finish, my anxiety grew at an alarming speed. It was not even one of the fattiest books that I was to deal with. Which meant 90 books required at least nine months! With a full-time job and prior commitments to many writing projects, I already had a lot on my plate. It was then the idea of speed-reading was broached by Harish Trivedi, jury chair, who strongly suggested that each book be given no more than just a day at this stage. Then I reached out to Prof Firdous Azim, who sat on the DSC jury in 2018. She, too, said that speed-reading was the strategy to be adopted.
It took me about 10 days to get into my stride and realize that reading from cover to cover was not the way to go, at least not in the first 50 days. Gradually, the reading stopped weighing down on me as a Herculean task; what made my job easy, just as Prof Azim had implied, was the fact that quite a big chunk of the books—in terms of writing, storytelling, narrative construction—were so narrow in scope that you wouldn’t feel the need for exploring them past 20 to 30 pages, leave alone till the halfway point. Not necessarily all of them were trash; in fact, many of them were well written but too genre-dependent to be on a par with the rest. To my surprise, I found out that there was an abundance of historical fiction—some of which were well written and dialogically oriented while some others were too agenda- or propaganda-driven. Then again, some were too badly written to stand a chance.
After this initial screening, I, like fellow jurors, had an opportunity to delve deeper into the rest of the books. What impressed me most at this second stage was the sheer number of quality translations and fascinating narratives written by women. From India, Pakistan, the UK, the USA—women writers made their marks, as both the longlist and shortlist attested. From historical novels to retellings of myth and classic tales to acerbic responses to casteism and sexual violence to feminist tales of single women up in arms over unwarranted moves to disrupt their lives, fiction written by women was the real highlight for me. I took a strong liking to the novels by Madhuri Vijay, Shubhangi Swarup and Fatima Bhutto, among many others.
As for translation, I was reminded that the book which won the DSC Prize in 2018 was a work of translation from Kannada. This growth of English translation from South Asian vernacular languages made me immensely happy and unhappy at the same time. Happy because translation was being taken seriously in India. Unhappy because there was only one work of translation (Selina Hossain’s Charcoal Portrait) from Bangladesh, which none of the jurors ever mentioned during any of our exchanges, meaning neither the content nor the translation was commendable. Translations from Bangla, Tamil and Malayalam attracted our attention because of the richness of the original content and the stellar quality of their translation. After reading and re-reading all the quality translations, I do not have even a shred of doubt that if the best of contemporary Bangla novels from Bangladesh, upon apt translation, are submitted to the DSC Prize, they’ll do as well as those by Manoranjan, Perumal Murugan and Jayant Kaikini. Here’s hoping that the future editions of the DSC will see more submissions in translation from Bangladesh.
I was indeed happy with both the longlist and shortlist as they, reflecting preferences of all the jurors, presented not only both fresh and seasoned voices but also a diverse cast of writers from around the world. I was nonetheless shocked to see that the following titles, which I found to be extraordinary, could not make it to the longlist: Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds, Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights and Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us.
Part II: The Nepal Literature Festival
Winner of the DSC Prize 2019 was announced at the IME Nepal Literature Festival which took place from December 14 to 16. I landed in Kathmundu on the evening of December 14. As soon as I arrived at the Park Village Resort in Kathmundu, I was caught unawares by a chill I had never experienced in Dhaka or Khulna. I was shivering even after covering myself with layers of warm clothes. It was only after arriving in Pokhara next morning that I found the chill somewhat tolerable.
Hundreds of tourists were heading out for the higher peaks to get a glimpse of the ice-clad Annapurna. A festive mood, which was already in the air, was heightened by volunteers, speakers and guests attending the IME Nepal Lit Fest. The Landmark Pokhara hotel, where we stayed, was a one-minute walk from the placid lake Pokhara is famous for. The lit fest, I heard, was going on in the wide field by the lake.
But before I could venture out to take a look around, I met DSC Steering Committee member Bashob Dey and his younger colleague Writu Bose, who introduced me to fellow jurors, all of whom were in the lobby. After sharing many thoughts and observations through emails, and after having many virtual fights over the longlisted and shortlisted authors, finally I met Harish Trivedi from India, Carmen Wickramagamage from Sri Lanka, Jeremy Tambling from the UK and Kunda Dixit from Nepal. Only Kunda and I were from a background of journalism while the rest were accomplished academics in their respective countries.
Before we headed to our respective rooms to get dressed for the festival, Bashob told us that we should be back at the lobby by 10:00am as the jury meeting to arrive at a winner would start at 10:30am. The jurors immediately quipped, asking if there would be a group of doctors ready in case there was blood on the floor due to a fight over the winner. This lively atmosphere, filled with witty jokes and quips, was kept up till the last minute by all four of them.
We came back to the lobby in time. Bashob and Writu led us to a nearby hotel where the jury members, in a three hours long closed-door meeting, reached a unanimous decision about the winner without shedding a single drop of blood. From there we took a three-minute walk to the festival ground. On the way, I met Shrestha Saha from The Telegraph and Anusua Mukherjee from The Hindu, both of whom became very good friends.
After setting foot on the festival ground, I was stunned to see the idyllic setting which was surrounded on all sides by high mountain ranges. I was listening to Kunda, editor of Nepali Times; I requested him to speak more about his print edition which was way different from his online edition and which also had no dearth of revenue-earning advertisements. Caught between the lake, which was to our left, and the ice-covered spires of the Annapurna, which we were facing, I failed to take in what Kunda was saying. Seeing me gasp with surprise, he said, “You’re looking at the Annapurna mountain!”
There were only two stages, both of which attracted considerably large crowds of people. Most of the panels were in Nepali. The DSC shortlisted writers and jury members participated in the English panels. Compared to many other literary festivals in South Asia, this was small. Yet what made it fabulous was the spellbinding setting combined with how organized everything was, and how sincere the festival directors and volunteers were. It was due to their sincerity that the festival ground turned out to be a truly South Asian space in Pokhara. At the dinner party in the evening, I met Ajit Baral, one of the two festival directors, and Shekhar, the festival’s creative director, both of whom shared their admiration for Bangladesh and its literature. My conversations about literature with Harish Nambiar from the Times of India, Pratik Kanjilal from The Indian Express and Shirin Quaderi from The Punch Magazine were also illuminating.
At lunch, which was served at a restaurant adjacent to the ground, I saw Arunava Sinha and had a quick chat with him. Later at the dinner party I met Amitabh Bagchi, Manoranjan Byapari and Jamil Jan Kochai. Kochai, the youngest of them all, was a brilliant speaker and so was Manoranjan, who was always encircled by one or the other crowd of young Nepali writers with whom he communicated in Hindi. Obviously, the humor with which he usually laces his speeches made him an instant hit with his fans in Pokhara. His content, which markedly shows a Dalit sensibility and a Marxist orientation, also contributed to his popularity there. It was not until the next day, December 16th, that I met Rajkamal Jha, whose debut novelThe Blue Bedspread I loved as much as his shortlisted one.
One of my biggest highlights on the 15th was to share the stage as a speaker with acclaimed translator Arunava and fellow juror Carmen. Moderated by Nepali writer Amish Raj Mulmi, our panel was about the condition of English writing and prospects of translation in South Asia. What Carmen said about English writing in Sri Lanka applies precisely to Bangladesh as well, if not to India. She said that those who write in English in Sri Lanka were not known to the public or the mainstream culture. Arunava briefly sketched how the English writing and translation scene gradually developed in India. When it was my turn, I emphasized strengthening the literary bridge through sharing translations of one South Asian country with readers and writers of another.
The most coveted event on the concluding day was the announcement of the DSC Prize winner. The crowd during the announcement was big and thoroughly responsive. After the speeches delivered by the DSC Prize co-founder Surina Narula and Chief Guest Hon Pradeep Gyawali, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Nepal, Harish Trivedi announced Amitabha Bagchi as the winner. In his novel, Half the Night is Gone, Bagchi, on the one hand playfully combines myth, history and a family saga and on the other, evokes simultaneously three literary traditions: Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit, observed the jury chair.
It was indeed a very short trip. Early next morning I had to fly to Kathmundu and from there to Dhaka. But the love and respect the jury members were shown by the Nepali literati will be indelibly etched in my mind. I think this article will remain incomplete if I do not mention Sadikshya from the Nepal Lit Fest team and Kapil Kapuria from the DSC team, who made me feel like I was attending an invitation hosted by my closest friends. Also, the conversations I had with Surina Narula, Arunava Sinha, Shrestha, Anusua, Harish Nambiar, Ajit Baral, Shirin and all of my fellow jurors have bolstered my conviction that the need for building cultural and literary bridges between the SAARC countries is greater than ever before.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.