Freedom, we choose

The Hindu Prize 2019 for Fiction and Non-Fiction reinstates the newspaper’s commitment and support to new and powerful creative voices in the country

March 28, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

When he won The Hindu Prize 2012 for his novel Em and the Big Hoom , Jerry Pinto said, “Most precious of all is the freedom to think. We must band together to protect everyone’s right to think the way they want to. It is us — all of us — who must protect freedom of speech and expression.” And this freedom has remained the cornerstone of The Hindu Prize over the 10 years of its existence. In 2018, a Non Fiction category was introduced to demonstrate the paper’s commitment and support to new and powerful creative voices in the country.

Compelling books

This year, The Hindu Prize 2019 has been awarded to Santanu Das’s India, Empire, and First World War Culture (Non-Fiction) and Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything (Fiction).

In the citation for India, Empire, and First World War Culture , the jury says, “The sweep of its historical imagination, its

compelling prose style and its ethical seriousness make this work a tour de force . Its depth of research and its engagement with a rich variety of archival sources — textual, visual and auditory — are truly remarkable. Letters, diaries, songs, sound recordings of prisoners-of-war, photographs, drawings and paintings, in addition to a spectrum of official archives, from Punjab to Bengal and beyond, help to recreate the varied facets of the war experience in India, Britain and Mesopotamia. Longing, homesickness, fear, pride, loyalty, loss and, above all, the tensions and intimacies of inter-racial relationships resonate powerfully in Das’s narrative” and that the book “will endure not only for its outstanding scholarship but as an exemplar of an alternative mode of writing that reveals the multisensory dimensions and the human costs of the First World War.”

Speaking of his win, Santanu Das said he was “thrilled — and deeply honoured. My first thoughts go to the over one million sepoys and non-combatants who have for so long wandered in the no man’s land between Eurocentric memories of World War I and nationalist histories of South Asia. The Hindu Prize means a lot; for my training is in English literature and I took a gamble. I wanted to go beyond a conventional grand narrative sealed up in medals, memorials and events, and instead open up from below the historical past — intimate, palpable and incorrigibly plural — by looking at objects, images, rumour, letters, diaries and sound-recordings from around the world as well as literary and political writings. This involved a redefinition of the ‘archive’ as well as how to evoke the messy underworld of feelings and experiences through the act of research and writing.”

Heartbreakingly resonant

Further, he was “struck by how heartbreakingly resonant the material was for our times, whether it was Tagore on the dangers of nationalism, or this letter written on July 17, 1916 by a sepoy: ‘We wandered about Paris for eight hours. On that day, we all ate at the same table. Our company was composed of five sepoys, of whom three were Sikhs and two Muslims, two sweepers and three cooks; but we all ate together at the same table. Moreover, we have often eaten food and drunk tea prepared by Muslims.’”

Describing Tell Her Everything as “a compelling novel” and “extraordinary work of fiction,” the jury describes it as evolving “from a sentimental drama to a gripping account of the darkness within the soul. The writing is delicately nuanced to capture the subtlest fears and the most concealed denials of its first-person narrator. Waheed conveys his protagonist’s suppressed guilt, his longing to be understood, his urge to justify what he has done, a terrible deed in a terrible time...’

‘In laying bare the soul’s compromise with evil, Mirza Waheed forces us to confront not only individual human frailty but also the decadence of our times.” Speaking of being “honoured”at having won the prize, Waheed said, “Being on the shortlist alongside such illustrious writers was wonderful enough; this is simply delightful. I’m grateful to the judges for such a generous reading of Tell Her Everything .”

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