literary awards

It’s down from $50,000 to $25,000, but the DSC Prize is the richest literary prize in south Asia

The seventh edition of the prize went to Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam for his debut novel, ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’.

For a literature prize that’s been in existence for seven years, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature appears to have a less than powerful impact on India’s literary landscape. That’s particularly strange considering the prize money alone – which used to be $50,000 in the first six years before being halved to $25,000 in 2017 – is big enough to have been exciting interest among readers.

After all, even a prize as distant as the Man Booker Prize – which still doesn’t consider books published in India, even though it now includes US publications – often has readers rushing to buy the winning title. But the DSC Prize, which is given to a book published anywhere in the world, as long as it has a South Asian theme, does not attract nearly as much attention or even curiosity about the winner. The interest appears to be limited to the literary circuit.

Will the latest edition – the seventh time that the prize has been awarded – change all this? Especially with at lease one of the other major literary awards in India, the Crossword prizes, losing steam in terms of scale and grandeur, the ground is certainly ripe for a major prize to capture the imagination of people. In fact, at least one new literary prize is believed to be in the works.

The breadth of literature prizes in the UK and the USA, the world’s largest markets for English books, is mind-boggling. A large number of awards – most of them well-funded by corporate sponsors or private philanthropists – are given every year, across an array of genres and even for writers grouped by gender or geographical origin. There are prizes for, among other things, fiction, non-fiction, travel writing, essays, translated literature, poetry, and genre fiction, and for women, for writers of colour, for first novels, for second novels, and so on.

India, of course, has very little by way of variety. Besides the Sahitya Akademi prizes for every official language – original writing as well as translation – the Hindu Prize for fiction, the Tata Literature Live prizes for fiction, non-fiction, business, and first book, the Shakti Bhatt first book award, and the Crossword Prizes (whose lustre has dimmed), there is little else. Except, of course, the DSC Prize, which is not limited to India.

On November 18 this year, the three-day long Dhaka Literary Festival hosted the award ceremony of the DSC Prize for the first time ever. Ritu Menon, chair of the jury, announced the winner – The Story of a Brief Marriage, the debut novel by Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam from a shortlist of five books.

How it began

The DSC Prize was founded in 2010 by Surina Narula to showcase the work of authors who are passionate about South Asia and to present their works to a worldwide audience. The prize is sponsored by DSC Limited, an infrastructure company headed by HS Narula, Surina Narula’s husband.

For the first five years, the $50,000-prize, was awarded at the Jaipur Literature Festival, as the climax to the process of announcing the longlist in Delhi and the shortlist in London. The year 2016 saw a change in venue to the Galle Festival in Sri Lanka, before moving on to the Dhaka Literary Festival this year.

Surina Narula, in her speech at the award ceremony, described how the DSC Prize was founded. “The prize was actually instituted at the Jaipur Literature Festival because DSC Limited was the founder-sponsor of the festival. We started going there from the beginning but noticed that something was missing, that a South Asian prize wasn’t there. Then my son suggested, ‘let’s do this’.”

The prize money was halved to $25,000 this year, but it is still the largest monetary value for a literary prize for South Asia writing. Arudpragasam, whose winning novel is set during the Tamil-Sinhala conflict announced that he would donate one-third of the money to organisations working with Northern Sri Lankans, Rohingya Muslims and Kashmiris.

“I don’t like to speak up for other people, you know, but I was given this money. I am from a community that was destroyed by a nation state. Also, across South Asia there are similar people. So, it’s my duty. I don’t enjoy talking about it. I’m a writer, you know. But in this case, because it is the subject of my novel, it felt necessary,” he said.

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What it takes to win

With his win, Arudpragasam joins the ranks of a talented group of writers. In the inaugural year of the prize, Pakistani writer HM Naqvi won for his novel Home Boy with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka being awarded in 2012 for his debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. The year 2013 saw Jeet Thayil as the first Indian novelist to win for Narcopolis and in 2014, Indian novelist Cyrus Mistry was awarded for Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. Famed American author – of Indian origin – Jhumpa Lahiri took home the prize in 2015 for The Lowlan , and Indian novelist Anuradha Roy won last year for her novel Sleeping on Jupiter.

The DSC prize only considers full-length fictional works of at least 25,000 words published between February 1 of the previous year and February 15 of the current year. Short story anthologies are ineligible, although the jury can make exceptions for short story collections that are linked by theme. Unfortunately for self-published authors, only entries sent in by publishers are eligible and the book has to be written in, or have been translated to English. Each year’s jury, selected by the advisory committee, goes on to review all entries and eventually selects a longlist, shortlist and finally, the winner. This year’s jury was chaired by publisher and writer Ritu Menon.

In her speech at the award ceremony, Menon said, “The process we followed as a jury was one of consultation and discussion from the longlist to the shortlist to the finalist. And given the diversity of our backgrounds, it was a process marked with remarkable consensus.”

Senath Walter Perera, a professor of English who has been on numerous juries including this year, said “I normally find that juries are made of disparate individuals. The duty of a chair is to bring together these disparate individuals and try to move toward a decision that the majority agrees with. In the juries I have been in and chaired, there has been wonderful rapport, [and] for this jury as well, despite the physical distance.”

Writer Stephen Alter, whose book In the Jungles of the Night was also on the shortlist this year, said the prize “doesn’t define itself by nationality or by ethnicity or by language necessarily and is something that is simply defined itself by the territory that your imagination inhabits in that way.”

But do literary prizes even matter?

The DSC prize, as literary awards are meant to, plays an important role in the career of writers in terms of increasing recognition, book sales and opening up further opportunities for them. Recipients have gone on to be published globally, with their work reaching wider international audiences, which is the central vision of the prize.

Alter believes that the professional benefits of the prize aren’t just limited to the writer of the winning book. “Being on the shortlist not only celebrates that particular book, but also positions other books within the publishers’ minds, within the readers’ minds, [and] within the booksellers’ minds,” he said.

Awards are especially important for younger writers, according to Senath Walter Perera, giving the example of Shehan Karunatilaka, a young writer from Sri Lanka who won the prize in 2012, when Perera was a member of the advisory board. Karunatilaka had also won the Commonwealth Prize earlier that year, leading his book to be published in England as well as the United States.

However, Perera advises, receiving the recognition of a literary prize is only a start: “A writer can’t become complacent. He has to work. The writer has to use the prize as a point of departure to make it be beneficial to his writing career.”

For this year’s winner, recognition matters for writers. “Receiving any kind of recognition is important for any author. You put in all this energy into your work and many hours. It’s important for that work to be recognised,” Arudpragasam said. The Sri Lankan author has also been named the winner of this year’s Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the cumulative impact of these awards can only lead to greater readership of his book.

It’s a sentiment Stephen Alter agrees with: “It validates in a sense the hours that you spend by yourself wondering whether anyone’s going to be interested in reading the story that you’re writing. So, prizes, I think, on a very personal level, validate the efforts.”

Practically speaking however, Dhaka Lit Fest co-director Ahsan Akbar put it best: “No writer sets out to write to win prizes. They write because it comes from deep within, but one still has to make a living, so prizes work beautifully that way.”

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