Prize and prejudice 

DSC PRIZE FOR SOUTH ASIAN LITERATURE FOUNDER SURINA NARULA GREW UP ON HARDY-AUSTEN BUT WISHES THERE WAS VIKRAM SETH’S A SUITABLE BOY TOO

  • Published 29.10.17
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Surina Narula at her home in New Delhi. Picture: Samhita Chakraborty

When I enter Surina Narula’s plush office awash with beautiful October sunshine in her home in South Extension, New Delhi, she has a stack of books before her. This is no ordinary five-pack, they make up the shortlist of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2017, a literary award that Surina founded in 2011. She is hoping to read all five by the time the winner is announced on November 18.

Married to Harpinder Singh Narula, a businessman and the chairman of the DSC Group, 60-year-old Surina has worked with street children for 25 years and holds an MBA and a master’s in social anthropology.

The mother of three who splits her time between London and India forayed into the literary world about 10 years ago. “The prize’s story is linked to Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). We funded JLF from its inception (2006). And the reason was nothing more than that Sanjoy (Roy) and Namita (Gokhale, organisers) were very good friends of mine.

“I said, yes we’ll fund it, as long as my street children can attend free of charge. Back then, literature festivals were very esoteric, places where authors would talk to other authors... no one really called the public. But making the festival free for all was something I insisted on.

“The festival showed us that there wasn’t a prize for South Asian literature. Manhad, my middle son, thought of setting up a prize. I had no idea how to do it,” she smiled.

The family researched how to set up a prize and realised that it was way more than just giving a writer a bunch of money. “For the whole year the amount of money you spend is equal, may be more, than the prize money. Get a jury, fly them in, put them up... and you are doing this three times, for the longlist, for the shortlist and the final prize.”

This year, the prize money has been reduced to $25,000 (Rs 16,22,000 approx.) from the $50,000 it started with.

“When I was growing up, I read Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie... I loved to read them, but they were all western. I wish we had grown up with a book like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. That would have helped us understand our surroundings better. So, I feel South Asian literature has a great place in our lives.”

The DSC Prize was given at JLF for the first five years. “But then the festival became so big that everything was getting lost there. So, we decided to announce the prize in different countries of South Asia. Also, I love to travel and this was my way of getting to see the countries in South Asia, and also seeing the impact of the prize,” she explains.

In 2016, the DSC Prize was announced at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, and won by former Presidency College girl Anuradha Roy for Sleeping on Jupiter. “It was given by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. That was quite a highlight,” Surina smiles. 

Jhumpa Lahiri received the DSC Prize for The Lowland in 2015

BORED WITH TEA PARTIES

One of the books on the 2017 shortlist is The Story of A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, set in the backdrop of the war in Sri Lanka. The book has deeply moved Surina, especially since she has worked with child soldiers in war-torn areas, including in Sierra Leone.

“My foray into this work happened when I was in Libya as an expat. I was very bored with the tea parties and said why don’t we do some fund-raising for a cause, may be for a women’s organisation in India? We started raising money by doing some interesting events, like fashion shows. And then I asked the ambassador there, how do we give the money? 
“On his advice, I came to India and visited organisations. I came across an NGO run by (publisher) Urvashi Butalia’s mother and another lady. They were giving free legal services to women who were in domestic violence.” 

THEN IT BECAME A WAR

“I was married at 18 and these people were very wealthy. So you got a sense that you are above all of this. These ‘causes’ happen to other women. You are in your ivory tower. But then something happened in my life. My sister got murdered. That changed my entire thinking. I came back to India and at age 20-22 I had to run around looking at what had happened, who the murderer was… I went to Ranchi, travelled a lot within India. That’s when I discovered that India is hell for people who don’t know anybody, who don’t have money. I went to police stations, they said you can’t lodge an FIR. I was like, ‘Why can’t I lodge an FIR? It’s my right!’ They said, ‘Who do you know? Who are you?’

“I discovered the real India. When you grow up in a secure family, go to boarding school, you don’t come across things like this. Then it became a war for me. It became personal. I got really involved in the work that I was doing.”

Then Surina moved to England with her husband. “Somebody asked us for money for their work with street children and I went along to one of their meetings. I realised that it’s only when you live abroad that street children become visible. If you are here, you grow up with them. I used to play marbles with them when I was little. I never thought there was any problem with that. It’s only when you are living abroad that you realise that this is not normal. They are the poorest of the poor, even worse off than women. That’s why I picked up that cause.” 

FINALLY... IN THE UN

Together with a few friends, she set up the Consortium for Street Children. “And 25 years later, finally… finally, we have managed to insert a General Comment in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Countries that ratify it have to report to the UN about what they are doing with their street children. A General Comment is not legally binding but if countries have ratified the convention, they have to adhere to the comment.

“This means that governments that did not recognise street children — and there are lots of governments that said we don’t have any street children — will have to recognise them now. When I started working with the consortium, I had gone to Guatemala... they used to shoot the street children and put them in dustbins. So we had to work with the police to sensitise them. In New York also they used to be shot, 20 years back.” 

PROUD MOM

The Narula family is at the moment gearing up not just for Surina’s seventh DSC Prize ceremony but also celebrating youngest son Herman, 29, making big news this summer by securing impressive investments for his software company Improbable Worlds, taking its net worth to $1billion.

“My children have grown up watching the work I do. I remember Herman was five years old when I took him with me to see a project in Bangalore. Herman could not understand why I couldn’t just take all the kids home! He and his brothers have grown up with a lot of sympathy and sensitivity.

“Herman has great hope from technology. He says, ‘Whatever you are doing will not bring about big change, may be it will touch a few lives, but technology will change everything.’” 

LET’S TALK POLICY

We next talk about her latest project, Difficult Dialogues. “All these 25 years with different organisations have brought me to a point where I feel that unless you change policy nothing really happens. So, I conceived of something called Difficult Dialogues. Why are they difficult? Because when policy is conceived and written, it’s academics sitting with high-up government officials. May be they take in some inputs from NGOs, but not really. So I thought let’s have NGOs, let’s have those who implement policy in the last mile, let’s call academics, civil servants and government and let’s talk policy. Because not everyone in India is corrupt, there are some people who genuinely want to work, it’s just that they really don’t know the ground realities. I am funding this for five years.”

The third edition of Difficult Dialogues will be held in Goa in February 2018, and the subject is gender. The first edition discussed civil society, finance and infrastructure and the second edition, health.

“Now we must bring men into the dialogue (on gender). We want to ask them, how do you feel when a woman is sitting next to you in a board meeting? Or in the political field... why are you threatened? Why are you insecure? However difficult it is, let’s have a dialogue.”

— Samhita Chakraborty

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