The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Indian wins with story of a sad swim

London, Oct. 28: She’s not yet in the Arundhati Roy class but Madhulika Liddle, from Delhi, has made a bit of literary news in London today by winning the 2003 Commonwealth short story competition.

Considering she has been judged the overall winner out of 3,741 entries from 37 countries, ranging from Canada to Papua New Guinea and the UK, hers is a creditable performance.

Liddle will receive £2,000 for her 600-word story, A Morning Swim, which the judges say was “inspired by an obscure newspaper cutting about a young boy who dives into the Yamuna to make a living from coins flung into it by worshippers”.

In a thank-you message to the judges, Liddle, who used to work in hotels and in advertising before taking up writing full-time, said: “Poverty is something that anyone living in India is familiar with but I found this report of a poor boy’s life particularly disturbing and I wrote the story with a lot of feeling.”

The judges included Anne Theroux, former editor of the BBC World Service Short Story programme, and two prize-winning novelists, Rani Manicka, from Malaysia, and Helon Habila, a Nigerian.

They picked out a passage written by Liddle: “The river was a swirling mass of sewage, carrying with it plastic bags, wilted marigolds and garbage. A sacred river, they called it — sacred enough for the ashes of the dead, from the cremation ground upriver, to be immersed in it.”

Liddle’s story will be read out on BBC World Service this week, the organisers said.

Liddle is currently an assistant editor in Delhi with a travel portal. This is not her first success — last year, her story, Love and the Papaya Man, won a prize in the Highly Commended category in the 2002 Commonwealth short story competition. She is finishing off a detective story set in 17th century Mughal Delhi.

The competition, which began in 1996, is run by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, on behalf of the Commonwealth Fund.

What the competition has highlighted is that Indians, encouraged by the success of the big name writers such as Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie and a host of others, have taken to writing like never before. In comparison, many critics have sadly noted that intellectual life in Pakistan seems scarcely discernible under military/mullah rule.

This year’s Highly Commended category is again dominated by Indians: Usha Rajagopalan for The Freedom Fighter, Amara Bhavani Dev for For a Horseshoe Nail, Sriparna Saha for Identity and Suchitra Ramadurai for The Runaway Peppercorn. Three of the four are working on novels.

Even one of the UK winners in this category is an Indian: Dr Shereen Pandit.

Asked about the Indian performance, the chairman of the judging panel, Liz Mardall, said she had read all the entries. “Six hundred words mean each story has to be like a precise painting. Each brush stroke has to count. In India, there is a great love of language. That comes through very strongly. I think there’s also a lot to write about in India. The winning entry is beautifully written, but it’s also sad.”

Another story, by Dev, is about “someone who has to sell a kidney”.

Saha had written a story about a communal riot in which the hero is a Muslim man who rescues a little girl when she tells him her name is “Ameena”. “At least, that’s what he thinks she said. Only the next morning when she is not eating, he asks her name again — and she tells him it is ‘Meena’. Indians understand the difference between the two similarly sounding names.”

Mardall commented: “In India, the issues are much closer to life and death.”

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