When, early in the year, we were attacked by the virus, we lived, terrified, in the shadow of this microscopic creature we didn’t understand. We had no idea what to expect. We acted like someone who can neither speak nor understand the unfamiliar language of another, and is thus unable to relate to this “other”.

The second stage of the pandemic had us reading research, opinions and views from the scientific community. We tried to empower ourselves with knowledge. This is exactly like learning the language of the “other” and discovering that it is not such a monumental threat after all, that there may be similarities as well as differences between us.

But this is where the analogy ends. For we don’t want to welcome the virus, we need to get a vaccine to avoid it. On the other hand, we can simply befriend and interact with the “other” once we understand their social and cultural habits. This is where literature comes in – it helps us understand one another by translating cultural behaviours.

Since English serves as a common language spoken across many nationalities and cultures, literature translated into English becomes a powerful medium to bind countries and societies in peace and harmony, and it is fiction in this language – in the original version or in translation – that has been chosen to be rewarded by the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

The raison d’etre

Writer Annie Zaidi argues that “the rich and powerful must be aware that they do not sponsor mere differences of opinion. They sponsor the preservation of dialogue, of what we recognise as civilisation because, should this cease, what will remain?” A noble thought, of course.

However, as an activist and social anthropologist, I have a different reason that some of us, though not so “rich and powerful”, have undertaken the sponsorship of literary festivals and prizes. The DSC Prize seeks to make a difference at the level of social identity and inclusion. It hopes to eliminate subtly nuanced social exclusion arising from gender, caste and religion, which is rooted in ignorance about the “other”.

For a long time, people from other countries have been unaware of the stories, of the social-, cultural- or gender-led behaviour emanating from our South Asian backgrounds. We ourselves have travelled far and wide for work, study or for pleasure, and on occasion felt defensive about our behaviour and lack of understanding of our local culture. The spread of literature across borders is important in order to fill such lacunae in awareness and understanding.

Award ceremonies, book fairs, workshops, lectures and events like reading sessions in schools, libraries, cultural institutions and bookshops have been cancelled during the lockdown, which has definitely changed the landscape of literature during the short term. The pandemic has affected the extent and nature of work done by writers and translators.

Smaller and mid-sized publishing houses that primarily made money from book sales have gone through tough times because a lot of bookshops have remained closed or suffered from decreased footfalls. Perhaps everybody involved in the literary business has been impacted in some way – some directly, others more subtly by not being able to relate to new technologies and the new ways of doing things.

Prizewinning potential

No wonder then that juries of literary prizes are looking for stories that talk about human struggle and endeavour in times of adversity. The pandemic has shaken the global economy and had a devastating effect on human lives. The stories being written today can provide solace, motivation and support to a lot of people trying to reclaim their lives.This year’s Booker Prize was awarded to Douglas Stuart for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, which is about a boy trying to support his mother as she struggles with addiction and poverty.

Moustache, authored by Malayalam writer S Hareesh and translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil, recently won the JCB Prize for Literature. The story focuses on the very poor community of Kuttanad, its caste wars, social exclusion and gender issues. The struggles of the characters are brought to life through words.

The power of storytelling is significantly enhanced when it reflects local idioms and languages, and translations are extremely important in this regard. When we launched the DSC Prize in 2010, we recognised the importance of translation, and always encouraged translated entries. When a translated entry wins, the prize money is shared equally between author and translator. I strongly believe that regional literature plays an important role in changing mindsets.

Unlike other Indian literary prizes that are rewarded exclusively to citizens of India, our prize is open to authors of all nationalities, and entries are welcome from all across the world. The scope of the DSC Prize has been kept wide to accommodate the whole spectrum of the South Asian narrative and its global relevance.

The changes in the landscape of South Asian writing over the last decade, especially the emergence of women writers and some excellent debut writing and translations, have drawn attention because of the prize. Jayant Kaikini, a well-known Kannada author, won the prize for his book No Presents Please, which was brilliantly translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. After winning the prize, the book was published in the USA and the UK.

An interesting development that the prize has witnessed has been the proliferation and importance of diasporic South Asian literature. The transposition of cultures, the loss of identity from relocating to a new country, and the global interpretation of our cultures and languages have been written about evocatively by authors originally from South Asia, who may have adopted new nationalities. This transnational cultural and literary exchange has helped the South Asian diaspora celebrate its culture and festivals more widely.

This is evident in the roster of past winners. In his DSC Prize-winning novel The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam brought attention to the civil war in Sri Lanka, making readers aware of the extreme conflict and suffering plaguing the people and their land. Jhumpa Lahiri, who is of Indian origin but was born in England and is now of American nationality, was awarded the DSC Prize for her book The Lowland. Lahiri writes in English, which is her first language, and while the novel is set in India and USA, she seamlessly moves between these countries because of her ease in translating this landscape into English.

The milestone tenth edition

Being an international prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has to take into account the interests and comfort levels of all the stakeholders involved – publishers, authors, jury members and readers. It also needs to assess the logistics involved in the submission process, the jury reading modalities and the possible formats of the longlist, shortlist and winner announcement events.

Close to 30% of our submissions come from publishers based outside the South Asian region, from countries like the UK, the USA, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. So we have had to factor in the pandemic situation across different countries and geographies from where we receive submissions. Therefore, a significant part of the last few months was spent in discussions with our various stakeholders, and it is only now that we feel that the impact of the pandemic has receded enough for all the stakeholders to be more comfortable about participating wholeheartedly.

After completing the ninth edition of the DSC Prize in December 2019, we would normally have commenced work on the next one a few months later, but then the pandemic broke upon us. Since we had completed the previous cycle of the prize, and had the benefit of not being caught mid-cycle, we thought it would be prudent to delay the next edition rather than starting in the middle of this crisis and then have a stop-start journey, or deliver a suboptimal experience.

Today, I feel this has been a judicious decision, and we are now all set to start on the tenth edition of the prize after taking the viewpoints of all our stakeholders on board, and waiting out the peak of the pandemic. We plan to kick things off towards the end of January, and, following our usual calendar, we should be announcing our tenth winner in September or October.

The rules remain unchanged, except that the period in which eligible books should have been published will be more than a 12-month one this time, to ensure that no books are missed out between the 9th and the 10th editions.

We may also have to present the longlist and shortlist through online events. However, with Covid-19 vaccines on their way, I am hopeful of organising the award ceremony as an on-ground event. We have announced our past winners in various south Asian countries; and in keeping with the global interest in South Asian literature and befitting our tenth year it may be appropriate to conduct the award ceremony in the UK.

As part of our tenth year celebrations, we look forward to hosting a series of online events that are in line with the South Asian essence of the prize, and will showcase and trace the progress of literature and writing in South Asian countries over the past ten years.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.