When the organisers of the Jaipur Literary Festival approached Surina Narula for funding, she had only one stipulation- that it be free so that even the street children she worked with could come if they wanted to. When the festival grew so big that DSC Ltd’s funding was no longer enough to fuel further growth, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Bringing DSC Prize for literature to Lanka


When the organisers of the Jaipur Literary Festival approached Surina Narula for funding, she had only one stipulation- that it be free so that even the street children she worked with could come if they wanted to. When the festival grew so big that DSC Ltd’s funding was no longer enough to fuel further growth, Narula gracefully freed the organisers from a ten year sponsorship contract. Both acts – that stipulation and then the stepping back –have likely shaped JLF in significant ways but as Narula admits readily: “I hate to stay on when something has become successful. I need to find more to do. I don’t sit on my laurels.”

Surina Narula: Fearless and compassionate. Pic by Amila Gamage

In Sri Lanka, Narula is the bearer of good news. Speaking at the press conference held to introduce the Fairways Galle Literary Festival of 2016, she was invited to the podium to announce that the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature would be revealed at the GLF in January. The prize is young but weighty thanks to a $50,000 endowment which has been awarded to the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jeet Thayil in past years. Sri Lanka’s Shehan Karunatilaka won it in 2012.

It is one of the few prizes that specifically celebrates writing set in or about South Asia but it is not a vanity project for the family that established it in 2011 – their motivations go deeper than that. But to begin, it’s worth noting that Narula is best known for the millions of pounds she’s raised for a number of causes over the years. Among London’s most influential Indian expatriates, she and her husband Harpinder Singh have hosted several extravagant fundraisers at Hyver Hall, their sprawling estate in Hertfordshire.

So when Narula talks about Fergie, she’s referring to Sarah, Duchess of York, and when she mentions Arun, it’s Arun as in Jaitely, the BJP stalwart who holds an impressive trinity of ministerial portfolios – Finance, Corporate Affairs & Information and Broadcasting – in Narendra Modi’s government.

Narula herself has worked with several noteworthy organisations including a stint as the President of the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) and a place on the Executive Committee for the University College London.  Narula’s little black book might be the envy of other society hosts but it is her compassion that has won her honours like the Beacon Award, an MBE from the British government and the title of Asian of the Year.

Now, Narula says she has taken steps to give the DSC Prize some autonomy, setting up a secretariat in Delhi that can independently ensure the Prize’s survival. She admits readily that the decision to throw a substantial amount of money (for comparison the prestigious Man Booker Prize awards £50,000) behind the prize was in part to ensure it was taken seriously right from the beginning. Her son Manhad was the one who decided on the figure – Narula says she herself would have been more likely to pour the money into her work with street children or gender rights activism.

Over the course of the interview, she shares snippets from several ongoing projects. Narula’s commitment appears inexhaustible and she seems willing to back her convictions even when they may not be politically expedient. When I ask her about it, she says, “I am fearless. My father taught me that.”

Born in Amritsar in India in 1958, Narula is the daughter of a District Superintendent in the Indian Railways. They travelled around a lot, and Narula who was the youngest of three quickly established herself as a determined feminist. In particular, she would frequently be impatient with the extended family’s focus on her elder brother – “I was deeply suspicious of anything that was given to him and not to me,” she says. She was determined to match him step for step. When he came home and tore off his t-shirt in a prelude to running out to play cricket, his little sister would strip off her frock and follow him in her slip, their mother exclaiming in dismay behind them.

Growing up, Narula knew that her father’s family had been massacred during the riots of partition, when a mob hacked her grandmother to death. It was a loss they never quite recovered from but there would be other sorrows that would shape Narula’s own adulthood. Having seen her sister marry unhappily, Narula only consented to Harpinder Narula’s suit when he told he was looking for a true partner and not a housekeeper – after 38 years of marriage, she says he kept his promise.

But strife would come not from within but without. Narula remembers being in Delhi when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. In the days that followed the city was convulsed with anti-Sikh violence as over 2000 lives were taken there alone. Living in the centre of it all, Narula feared for her family and had to disguise her sons as little girls, taking the long hair that marked them as Sikh and plaiting it instead so they could be smuggled to relatives. She remembers telling her eldest that he must not hesitate to grab his little brother and run if they were threatened. “I made him a grown up boy when he was just six years old,” she says now.

Her sister had married a violent man, and the family was devastated when he murdered her and their two children in Bihar. It would take ten years for the man to be convicted and hung for the triple homicide.“My sister’s death had a big impact on me,” Narula says quietly.“I had to change the way men think of women. I decided that was something I just had to do.”

Narula continues to live up to the promise she made herself so long ago. She plans to divert the money that was put into JLF to funding a series called Difficult Dialogues. In collaboration with the London School of Economics and different universities from around the world she hopes to create something as influential as Davos but with a very different agenda, audience and approach. She says she hopes to host the second round of talks, whose focus is to be gender, in Colombo.

Meanwhile the DSC Prize will likely move on from Galle in years to come. “In a way, the prize also becomes a personal journey, through it I’m going to see all of South Asia up close and personal,” says Narula adding that a Sri Lankan – Professor Neloufer de Mel – will serve on this year’s jury. For her part, Narula loves the travelling; home for her is everywhere, but she confesses, “deep down India is where I come from.” Despite all the violence she has seen there, she is never afraid to return, only determined that it should not happen again. To her the DSC Prize seems a part of the answer to that problem – a way to support literature that helps us as a society understand our past and our present and in doing so, make better choices for our future.

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