No Indian writers, or even writers of Indian Origin, have been short-listed for the first ever Man Booker International Award. The list includes Nobel laureates G.G. Marquez, Gunther Grass, Naguib Mahfouz, Margaret Atwood, writers Philip Roth, Doris Lessing, Milan Kundera, Kenzaburo Oe, among others. Absent are Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, the much celebrated Vikram Seth, and of course, Amitav Ghosh.
One is reminded of 2001, when Amitav Ghosh refused the Commonwealth’s Best Book Award for his novel, The Glass Palace. This mirrored a trend prevalent in India, where several artists and sportspersons have refused national awards, making more news than they would have had they accepted the award quietly. Ghosh’s reason, however, wasn’t of the ‘I should have been awarded sooner’ type. Politely, but pointedly, Ghosh refused the award, questioning the relevance of “Commonwealth Literature”. For the uninitiated, the Commonwealth of Nations is an association comprising of the United Kingdom and many former British colonies that are now sovereign states with a common allegiance to the British Crown. The name itself reeks of colonialism and the ‘Raj’.
One wonders whether Ghosh would have, in the same spirit, refused the Booker prize which, unlike the Man Booker International Award, is also awarded only to a novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. In the past the Booker has been won by Rushdie, Naipaul, and more recently, by Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things. Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth, both have won the Commonwealth’s Best Book Award in the past.
One also wonders why the Republic of India is a part of the Commonwealth, many lives having been lost in the fight for independence. Especially since the British monarch is Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, and the membership of the Commonwealth is purely voluntary. It’s been 55 years since independence, and should India still wear a tag as colonial as ‘Commonwealth’? We think not.
The Man Booker International Award recognises the authors’ entire body of work, a lifetime achievement award of sorts. So what does that say about Indian Authors? Just that we’ll have to wait till next year, when the jury probably changes. And maybe, just maybe, if an Indian wins, he might resist the temptation of saying ‘I should have been awarded sooner’.
– Nikhil Pahwa
‘So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book’s merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of “the Commonwealth”. I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition.’
– excerpted from Amitav Ghosh’s Letter to the Administrators of the Commonwealth Prize, March 18th, 2001.