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    Volume 9 Issue 12| March 19, 2010|

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A Roman Column

Of Literary Laurels

Neeman Sobhan

I have three major passions in my life: Books, books and books. I read books, I breathe books, I dream books. In fact the hardest thing about being a fulltime writer, one who is presently struggling with her own book, is not having the luxury of being a fulltime reader.

Just as I finish reading one critically acclaimed work of literary fiction, another five loom up like a hydra-headed monster. How trite yet true: so many books, so little time, and SO many gifted writers bursting onto the stage all the time, like endless firecrackers, ablaze with accolades: 'winner of the Guardian First Book award', 'Short listed for the Booker prize', 'nominated for the Orange award…' Where does one start to read; how does one stop for breath?

There is a virtual traffic jam out there on the literary streets, the blurb of every book honking and blaring commendations: 'a writer of astonishing power' 'a master storyteller' 'a work of exceptional artistry' 'riveting imagination' 'riotous wit' 'a glittering debut' ……. Some of this is hyperbole, most are not. But even for those books that don't live up to their exclamatory blurbs, one ends up using precious reading time to come to the conclusion.

Most of the time, however, I trust prize winning or short-listed books for not wasting my time. But when you are yourself a writer and your time for taking reading breaks short, meandering among a superfluity of literary talents can be overwhelming, not to mention, both inspiring and depressing. And when a book is truly awe-inspiring in its scope or inventiveness, like Hilary Mantel's 'Wolfhall' or Rana Dasgupta's 'Solo', you are too awed to be inspired. The world is obviously overflowing with creativity, one despairs. Can ones voice be even heard in this enchanting din?

Of course, the reader-side of a writer always wins. The fascination of the world between book covers is a siren call. It cannot be denied. And the company of excellent writers is above everything, uplifting, energising, inspiring. Reading and re-reading books by writers I admire, an Ondaatje or an Annie Proulx, as well as reading new writers or those who are new to me, like Junot Diaz or Paul Auster, are great impetus for one’s writing. I do not understand writers like Naipaul who claim they never read other writers. Perhaps that's what it takes to be a Naipaul or a Nabokov. Since I can be neither, I take my oxygen from other contemporary writers and their works. Reading and writing are seamlessly stitched into my life.

But there is that ticking problem of time and the constantly churning ocean of newly published literary fiction with the seal of approval of literary prizes. And there are so many awards in the service of contemporary English literature. Of course, the most prestigious and coveted ones that catapult sometimes little known writers to international fame are a handful, like the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer prize, the Commonwealth Prize, the Orange Broadband Prize, and the mother of all prizes, the Nobel Prize for literature.

But there are also those other awards for English fiction, and some of my favourite writers or books have been listed there. In the US, the National Book Critic's circle award; the Pen/Faulkner award, the National Book award. In the UK, the John Llewellyn Rhys prize; the James Tait Black Memorial prize, the Guardian First Book Award (replacing the Guardian Fiction Prize), the Costa Book Award (formerly Whitbread); the Betty Trask prize etc. In Canada, the Governor General's Award.

According to my literary awards calendar, the Commonwealth Prize is coming up soon, in April. As everyone knows, writers from the following four regions are recognised: Africa, Caribbean and Canada, South Asia and Europe, and South East Asia and the Pacific. The 2010 shortlist of writers was announced in February, and the list I am most interested in is in the category of South Asia and Europe:

The shortlisted writers for South Asia and Europe Best Book:
Solo by Rana Dasgupta (Britain)
For Pepper and Christ: A Novel by Keki Daruwalla (India)
The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel (Britain)
Heartland by Anthony Catwright (Britain)
Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein (Pakistan)
The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri (India)

The shortlisted writers for South Asia and Europe Best First Book:
The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry (Britain)
Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury (India)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Pakistan)
Among Thieves by Mez Packer (Britain)
An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay (Britain)
Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Parkes (Britain)

In the above list, I am so pleased to find that exceptional book I read last year with stunned admiration: Rana Dasgupta's 'Solo'. I am also happy to see Daniyal Mueenuddin of Pakistan and his book of short stories 'In Other Rooms, Other Wonders' written with a Chekovian eye for detail. I have not read Amit Chaudhri's 'The Immortals' nor Aamer Hussein's 'Another Gulmohar Tree' but I have read other books by these stylish writers. I have heard good things too, about the other books, especially 'The Beijing of Possibilities'.But my vote goes to 'Solo' unless I read something more amazing from now and whenever the winners will be announced.

STOP PRESS: OMG! This has to be telepathy, for even as I am writing this column I just received news from my Pakistani editor-writer friend Muneeza Shamsie (regional chair for the prize) that the Commonwealth winners from the South Asia and Europe region have been announced and guess who won for Best Book. YES! Rana Dasgupta for 'Solo'! And in the category of Best First Book, Daniyal Mueenuddin for ' In Other Rooms, Other Wonders'! This last is the same category in which our own Tahmima Anam made us Bangladeshis so proud in 2008.

Of course, the regional winners now have to compete with the winners of the other regions for the over-all prize, to be given in Delhi on April 12, but I am so thrilled that my private literary judgement and instincts were publicly validated. I read 'Solo' last summer when the book had just come out, an unknown entity, a new Hardcover in a delightful Tuscan peach with an intriguing image of a tray of fruits and nuts and a 'pygmy' parrot. That's what the cover painting said: 'Still Life with Pygmy Parrot.' I opened the first pages and was lost in a world as strange and poetic as the cover; its prose as dreamlike yet true as only the best fiction can be.

So, congratulations to the writer, and congratulations to me for picking a book without any seals of approval or labels of being short listed for this or that prize, yet knowing instinctively that this was a prize-worthy work. Which brings me to my fourth passion: BEING PROVEN RIGHT (about books).


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