The shortlist of the inaugural Fairway Literary Prize was announced recently. This is a prize that has joined the existing cluster of national-level literary awards, coinciding with the resurrected Galle Literary Festival. In addition to being a facilitator of a trilingual bookshelf, the Fairway Prize has also added to its claim to prestige the lucrative monies that it will bestow the winners and shortlisted candidates with. Each winner of the prize is presented a fairly upbeat LKR 500,000, with a LKR 100,000 cheque each for each shortlisted candidate. The total prize money, across the three media, would then calculate to LKR 2,700,000; which, by the monetary incentives promised by other existing literary awards, is not bad at all.
Of the English entries for the inaugural Fairway Literary Prize, the following have made the shortlist. The novels considered for the prize, we are told, were chosen from among publications from 2014/2015:
- Manuka Wijesinghe: Sinhala Only
- Rizvnia Morseth de Alwis: It’s Not in the Stars
- Afdhel Aziz: Strange Fruit
- Ayathurai Santhan: Rails Run Parallel
- Visakesa Chandrasekaram: The King and the Assassin
Of the five entries, my lack of familiarity with Strange Fruit (Aziz) and It’s Not in the Stars (de Alwis) prevents me from commenting on them. Among the other three texts – that of Wijesinghe, Santhan and Chandrasekaram – there is much variety and stylistic vibrance that they may contribute to an even contest, being considered for a top prize. Of these, I have, in the past, shared some rudimentary views on Santhan and Chandrasekaram. What would have held me back from writing on Wijesinghe’s Sinhala Only would have only been that after Monsoons and Potholes and Theravada Man there is very little one has left to write about Wijesinghe’s third novel; and no other technical or thematic fault in it.
Wijesinghe, in my estimate, is an elitist writer, even when she deliberately strives to underplay such possible elitist (and elite) vibes. This is most crucially seen in places like where she attempts to locate into the narrative radical Marxist groups such as the JVP, and persons who do not belong to the anglicized upper middle class which is her point of reference. This is a common aspect to all three of her novels, and may only reflect her background and subject position, which shouldn’t hinder our appreciation of her work.
Quite in contrast to Wijesinghe, Ayathurai Santhan is a chronicler of the “common experience”, from the perspective of the “commoner” and in her/his own “common” language. When I first went through the shortlist, this, in fact, is the first thought that came to my mind – as to how the same shortlist facilitates two texts that are quite contrasting in their access to the pulse and heartbeat of the ordinary, working, labouring “commoner” and the odds and ends of her/his universe. In fact, the facility of Wijesinghe and Santhan on the same platform shows the vibrancy and democracy of the Fairway platform, under the aegis of three magnanimous persons who have been judging the books: Hi magazine editor, Shyamalee Tudawe, novelist and lecturer Lal Madawattegedara, and Fulbright Director Tissa Jayatilaka.
Santhan’s writing often betrays the worldview and assessment of an Old School Marxist, and in Rails Run Parallel he looks at the years 1977 and 1979 – two historical moments on the lead up to the July Riots of 1983. Santhan is an “unambitious” writer, with a honed focus on the human experience and the nuance of the moment. He seems to steadily side-step from the watersheds, and (in a mainstream sense) “defining moments” of History placed on a conveyor belt, but looks at the grassroot and ground level, which is often deselected by the Lankan English authorship who takes it upon her/himself to “write” the post-independence nation.
Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s The King and the Assassin has a special place in Lankan Literature as well as the Fairway Prize, 2016. In the former, Chandrasekaram’s is a rare instance where a novel was simultaneously released in two languages: Sinhala and English. Secondly, the Sinhala version of the novel (රජ සහ ඝාතකයා) has also made the shortlist in the Sinhala medium making Chandrasekaram a “much wanted” person in the competition. Chandrasekaram’s novel is futuristic, and looks at a Lanka lost in the throes of political ambition and rivalry. Interestingly, when the novel was initially released, the Mahinda Rajapakshe regime was in full swing, and Chandrasekaram’s text presented a strong subversive and undermining reading – in a self-consciously cheeky way – of the kind of politics the cartel steering the regime were known to be masters of.
Personally, I found Chandrasekaram’s earlier novel, Tigers Don’t Confess (2012), more powerful and better crafted than The King and the Assassin, but this is merely a statement of taste and preference. The futuristic transportation into a utopian Lanka of the 2030s failed to capture my imagination, while the cameo Chandrasekaram fields with the “alternative”, “eco-friendly”, primitive tribal set up distracted and depressed interest.
Of Afdhel Aziz and Rizvina Morseth de Alwis, I have had no exposure whatever, except for the former’s China Bay Blues, which was another suitcase in another hall. Morseth de Alwis’ book has received four stars on goodreads (out of five), and is said to use as its bedrock the conflict-ridden Lankan social fabric of the late 70s and 1980s. Both books have been reviewed favourably, at least encouraging readers to follow them through.
The final winner will be announced at the Galle Literary Festival, set for January, 2016. Parallal to this award, a best work in Sinhala and Tamil, too, will be selected. Two separate panels operate with those categories, consisting of some interesting persons. As a recently accepted (novice) member of the College of Augury, and in carefully considering the evidence before me (and notwithstanding the fact that I am yet to familiarize myself with Morseth de Alwis and Aziz), the knockout round would most likely be among Afdhel Aziz, Visakesa Chandrasekaram and Manuka Wijesinghe. The ultimate verdict will rely much on the literary merit, as well as on the personalities of the three judges. As we know, objectivity is always subjective, and some umpires (used to) give LBW in spite of the long stride. A well-informed psychoanalysis of Lal Medawattegedara, Shyamalee Tudawe and Tissa Jayatilaka, in other words, can essentially enhance the prediction which we are in search of. The dear readers have a profitable fortnight ahead, in working out the math.