Jaya Bhattacharji Rose talks to the winners of Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2012.

Rohit Manchanda and Srikumar Sen are the joint winners of the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2012 for their unpublished manuscripts, respectively, A Place in Mind and The Skinning Tree. The winners will split the one lakh rupees cash prize and both receive literary representation by Tibor Jones & Associates, a leading London literary agency. The prize was judged by a panel of literary and publishing professionals, chaired by author Amit Chaudhuri, alongside Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the poet, translator and critic; Urvashi Butalia, the publisher and author; Jon Cook, Professor of Literature; and journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan.

Rohit Manchanda, a Bioscience Professor at IIT Bombay, has published two books in the past including In the Light of the Black Sun, for which he won the Betty Trask Award. Srikumar Sen, of Calcutta and long-time London-based journalist, has written for the Guardian and been the Boxing Correspondent for The Times.

Sree, how does a sport journalist and a boxer get into writing fiction?

Travelling a bit as a journalist, engaging with ideas, meeting interesting men, really “hard men”. An idea had developed some time ago, but I never had the time to put it down. It was a bit frustrating. 

The first fiction is inevitably semi-autobiographical. Is this true of your novel, Sree?

It is based on my life in Calcutta till 1965 (after which I left for London), but details have been changed/ amended to suit the story. I admire Rohit who is writing and working. The discipline of writing came with working at a newspaper for 30 years. No matter what the quality, you had to be disciplined about writing. The boxing scene was a bit of inspiration. You felt involved in a literary way, because of some good books on it, you almost felt as if you were close to writing. The connection is there. You want to write as well. 

As far as I know, Tibor Jones is one of those rare awards for an unpublished manuscript and where the author submits directly. Do you feel that it puts undue pressure on you in some way? What prompted you to submit your manuscript to Tibor Jones? It requires a great deal of confidence and courage for an author, especially for a first-time author, to submit an unpublished manuscript.

Rohit: Foolhardiness, bravado. When I am confident about the shape of the manuscript and how it was working for me, I would not have submitted. You go through a certain phase of ambivalence and then a moment of clarity comes. Then you have to be brave enough to face the consequence. The attraction with this award was the tie-in with a representative of a literary agency. In today's publishing environment this is a necessity and an indispensable first step, you have no other option but to go through a literary agent, especially with publishing houses becoming walled off.

Sree: It helps in the submission to a publisher.

Does winning an award for an unpublished manuscript, put some kind of a pressure on you?

Sree: I think it does to some extent. The second book will be more difficult to write. It is also an inspiration as if a vote of confidence in one's writing.

Rohit: It also creates an expectation… from other people who take it for granted that it will be published.

Introducing this award is a good strategy since it will ensure that an unpublished author and a manuscript get some focused attention especially in the auction since it has been vetted by literary experts. But now it is going to be a long wait before these books are published. Do you think by then the expectations will wane?

Sree: It has been read by people who know the business and literature. I would be optimistic. This gives cause for cheer. Once they have made the decision, you feel reassured. Personally I was diffident about it.

Rohit: This is more or less taking me along with it as if I am a passenger on a bus. I would rather not brood too much on it and let this side of things take care of themselves. There are so many imponderables. It helps to boost your manuscript. Had it not been linked to a prize, I may not have been as confident. Perhaps I can afford to be so now.

Do you think the creation of such an award will create a good benchmark for literary fiction?

Rohit: A selection of the judges also helps create a space for serious lit fiction, especially since it has been shrinking alarmingly over the last few years. If not a crusade, you help to sustain and help it to grow.

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