The judges, K. Satchidanandan, Mridula Garg, Tabish Khair and Brinda Bose, tell us what went on behind the scenes and the criteria used to select the winner…
Let me, on behalf of all the members of the Selection Committee, congratulate The Hindu Literary Review for instituting an award for Indian fiction, as also for organising a festival around it, a graceful act that newspapers seldom dare undertake.
We had begun the process of selection for The Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction, 2011, with 125 books in all, both works written originally in English and translations into English of works from the languages of India. We arrived at the shortlist of seven books after a lot of deliberations within the group, recommending to one another certain books they might have missed reading, and preparing, in the process, personal shortlists accompanied by our individual comments on the books we had chosen. While comparing notes, we were struck by the astonishing consensus we had been headed to even before seeing one another's lists. The short list of seven books, three of them translations, a matter of real import in our literary context, was announced at The Hindu Lit for Life festival organised in Delhi on September 25.
The exchanges and deliberations went on even after the shortlist was announced; we were rereading the short-listed books now as all the books were unique in some way and it was not easy to make a final choice. We felt it would have been a bit easier if there were two awards, one for works in English and another for translations; but we had to choose only one book. So we began to look for books that in some way tried to innovate and even redefine the genre of the novel and extend the frontiers of the discourse, making at the same time, a point about the human condition. Let me make it clear, we were looking at the texts in front of us and not the authors. Finally we arrived at a list of two books: The Sly Company of People who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya and Litanies of Dutch Battery by N.S. Madhavan, translated from Malayalam. The latter with its regional flavour and evocative idiom was a very close contender, but after more detailed and minute analyses and discussions, the committee unanimously decided to select The Sly Company of People who Care for The Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction, 2011.
The novel with its nuanced and understated narration, consummate artistry, its refusal to exoticise India — or Guyana for that matter, such exoticisation being the bane of a lot of Indian writing in English — its non-judgmental attitude to the characters, its insightful delineation of the tyranny of forced migration spawning generations of rootless and disinherited people, its evocation of the landscape and understanding of its people, its humour that springs from a kind of detached sense of the absurd , the general grasp of the human condition that informs the whole work and its freshness of idiom, is a definite contribution to contemporary Indian novel in general.
The Selection Committee would also like to request The Hindu to have, from next year onwards at least, separate awards of equal value for fiction written in English and that translated from the languages of India so that both receive equal attention and the process of selection is made a little easier since it is not often easy for a translation to compete with original English writing in terms of the fluency of style as the translation is obliged to retain certain modes and echoes of the original language and the specificities of the culture concerned. The award for the translated work will however not be a translation award, but one for translated fiction. We also recommend that the calendar year be the basis for nominations and not an arbitrarily chosen duration as it becomes difficult to authenticate the month of publication.
We once again congratulate the winner and all the distinguished authors in the shortlist and thank The Hindu for instituting the award and doing an annual festival to celebrate Indian imagination and literary creativity. Thank you all.
(Speech given by K. Satchidanandan at the Award Ceremony held in Chennai on October 30.)