These are strange times, but it has never been so calm and beautiful. With death tapping on our shoulders, and the virus playing hide and seek, we have all in hibernation, invited the birds and the animals to use our spaces till we can reclaim them.
It’s a beautiful world which has been brought into sharp focus by a microscopic virus. What is ironic is that something designed to kill us is teaching us the importance of life and what really matters.
With the lockdown firmly in place and families staying at home, people are starting to read a lot more. New reading lists are being assiduously shared and old favourites are being re-read.
Reading habits will change because we have to depend more on the digital and electronic media rather than the usual hard copy. Quite a few of my friends who hated the Kindle are now reading books on it because the publishing industry is not able to print fresh copies and book stores are shut.
Holding a newspaper in our hands and reading the daily news over breakfast is giving way to receiving e-papers in our mailboxes. I do not know whether this sudden movement to the electronic and digital media was always inevitable, but it is not easy for everyone to make this transition.
Literature festivals will have to change. Literary prizes, too, may have to consider the possibility of sending electronic books to the jury to read and evaluate. Will the jury be comfortable with this? Will it affect their reading?
The virus among other things has also thrown up issues of commercialisation, fake values and serious philosophical questions. Governments are putting in place new legislation which may not change after the pandemic, which will allow literature to play a greater role in uncovering truths, while censorship may become stronger and there could be an impact on the seamless global distribution of books.
The virus will open our mind to reading a lot more than we have ever done and therefore strangely this may be the positive connection we are looking at between the virus and literature.
While the virus is opening up the world for animals, birds, flowers and the environment, and trying to teach us humans to give up on greed, it also threatens to change the world order in a way that could hurt democracies, the poor and the needy.
Artists, writers and poets are coming together to provide solace and hope, and document the reality of what this may mean to future generations. In a time of crisis one has often seen the most poignant literature and music being composed. We may have new authors and new writing emerge during and after the pandemic.
An economic crisis and a financial crunch will definitely follow the pandemic. How will literary prizes be funded? It may be hard to convince private companies to continue during a financial crisis. On the other hand if prizes have the backing of a trust that has been set up specifically for it the funding will continue even during a crisis, like the Nobel Prize does.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, it was instituted in 2010, with the specific vision of encouraging fiction writing pertaining to the South Asian region. The prizes announced winnersin Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal in recent years. As the prize was a privately funded effort, it took a lot to continue in an era of economic downturn, especially in the infrastructure sector where the parent company operated in.
The virus has arrived to break the proverbial camel’s back and the publishing industry has been severely affected. This in turn directly affects literary prizes, which depend on publishers to submit entries. The DSC Prize is an international literary prize and is open to publishers and authors from any part of the world as long as the novels entered are about South Asian life, culture and its people.
Over the last five years, about 30% of our entries have been submitted by publishers from beyond India and South Asia like the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. This means that even if the publishing industry in a couple of countries remains in the doldrums because of the pandemic, there will be publishers from other countries who will step up with their entries. This is the tenth year of the DSC Prize, and we are determined to find a way forward even though there will be a slight delay in the calendar as compared to previous years.
I do not think the virus can shake businesses that are on a good footing to start with, but businesses that were on the brink before the virus hit may be hard to sustain. Literature and prizes were not really a fashionable business before the Jaipur Literature Festival, which made literature and writers more newsy and accessible to the public at large.
Prior to this there were literature festivals and prizes of a more serious and closed-door nature in India, where literature was considered the sole prerogative of the intellectuals, and mere readers weren’t allowed to interact or debate with the authors. This whole business of making literature accessible to everybody was only achieved a few years ago, and this has made the literary environment much more sustainable.
The virus may affect literature festivals and sponsorship from the usual businesses may dry up, but now that the reach of literature is wider, I feel that there will always be people who will come forward and provide a means to promote books and authors.
Literary prizes, too, will continue to exist because patrons will find ways of contributing to society and the arts, while also furthering their own marketing and philanthropic needs.
Surina Narula is the co-founder of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.