Literature and the coronavirus have a bizarre connection. Recently a poem written by Kathleen O’Mara was doing the social media rounds, and it is an uncanny reflection of today’s situation. It was written in 1869 and reprinted in 1919 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. It talks of staying at home and the healing of humanity [...]


Celebrating literature in these times of COVID-19

Many who have found solace in books during the long weeks of lockdown uncertainty, wonder how drastically the pandemic will impact literature and publishing. In this guest column, Surina Narula, co-founder of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature shares some thoughts

Surina Narula

Literature and the coronavirus have a bizarre connection. Recently a poem written by Kathleen O’Mara was doing the social media rounds, and it is an uncanny reflection of today’s situation. It was written in 1869 and reprinted in 1919 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. It talks of staying at home and the healing of humanity as well as the healing the earth, and completely changing the way we behaved. A lot of these sentiments are mirrored in the current literature during this present day pandemic where we are being asked to recalibrate. Some say it is God’s way of reminding us about our mistakes, others suggest that animals and birds are reclaiming the earth which we forcefully took away from them.

We as humans have a short memory and will soon forget this pandemic just as those in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century did, maybe as soon as we find a vaccine. So where does literature and the prize come in all of this. Literature serves us as our memory, just as the poetry of Kathleen reflects on the past and reminds us that we have been here before and can learn from similar past situations. How can we nurture our souls if we can’t read what is current and what has passed?

My point is that literature is more important than life itself. When we come out of this crisis and head into an economic depression as we are being warned by every sensible economist, we will also be held to ransom by Big Brother. Governments are taking over many of our rights to protect us from the virus but the question is will they reinstate them after the crisis?  We will be left with a vast network of surveillance and may never be able to go back to being independent the way we were. We may even forget what the earlier world looked like where we could speak our minds freely.  And this is where I think literature will come in and remind us of our days when we weren’t trolled for our independence of thought and voicing our rights.

The fact that the virus began in China has also thrown open an interesting debate about the deep divisions in philosophy that were so obvious when we were growing up in the early seventies. The idea that you were a member of a state that ruled your every action was abominable to my age group. We loved our jeans and long hair and our music all of which was banned in China. We grew up reading Pearl S.Buck and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We could never love the ruling philosophy of China or Russia. The next generation just saw the economic progress but not the torture and subjugation of innocent people that went on in the name of progress. Now suddenly the virus has reminded the world of what China did to its people. I remember reading Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus’ and learning about the great injustice done to the Jews. We actually learnt a great deal of the socio economic and political situations in a country through literature written during extreme circumstances.

Normally when a crisis deepens brilliant writers like Manto and Faiz are born. Today’s Dinkar and Tagore may use social media to raise their voice against injustice but they will still hopefully, be using words and literature to describe the situation. Literature will also be used by liars and propaganda machines which we need to guard against. Whereas the craft of writing has become easier with the tools available today and the technology has made literature more accessible, it has also made it vulnerable to being used without the beauty and sensitivity of the language, and being manipulated to communicate hidden agendas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taught us the merits of technology. Some of us were resisting its use and loved our hard copies of books and newspapers but once we start using and become familiar with their online avatars there is no coming back. Today one can zoom into a meeting in one’s night dress and the next day you can be zooming into a dinner party in San Francisco while having breakfast in London.  One has stopped worrying about the travel time and many more people can join in virtual meetings from around the world. The virus has also thrown open possibilities of living anywhere in the world and studying remotely  as some Ivy League colleges have opened their lectures online and offered them to the world for free. These facilities were available earlier but we resisted change and therefore found it hard to adapt – but now it’s more in our face and we are willing to experiment.

Life will definitely change as we move through this pandemic. We at the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature are finding it difficult to visualise a prize with no physical human interaction. Over the last ten years of the prize’s existence, we have had many beautiful meetings and interactions with authors, jury members, publishers and the media at our prize ceremonies and events. These have been fulfilling and rewarding moments that cannot be created through virtual reality. We are determined to promote literature in our landmark tenth year as effectively as before, but will we be able to conjure up the same magic if we had to move to virtual events and award ceremonies? With the publishing industry in the doldrums would we need to look at sending e-books to jury members for evaluation and would they be comfortable with that? How would it all work? While things look a bit uncertain at the moment I am confident that we would have some answers in a month or two.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature was instituted in 2010 with a vision to promote fiction writing pertaining to the South Asian region. In line with our South Asian essence, the prize has become peripatetic in nature and has announced its winner in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Nepal in recent years. While we may miss out on these physical on-ground award ceremonies if travel and gatherings are not feasible, we will for the love of literature move forward with a new format of the prize giving ceremony, if required.  In terms of the funding of the prize we have instituted the South Asian Literature Prize & Events Trust in 2017 which administers the prize and we hope it will sustain the prize over a period of time.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the publishing industry and the literary world, but I personally feel that over time it would bounce back stronger than before. Firstly people are reading much more than before in these days of lockdown and social distancing. Secondly, history tells us that the most poignant literature and music have been composed in the times of adversity, so we can expect a fair amount of path-breaking writing to emerge during the pandemic and in its aftermath.  Despite all the challenges of the present time, we definitely look forward to celebrating our landmark tenth year which will be delayed but not cancelled. Literary prizes will continue to exist and this is possible because of the commitment of patrons and the longstanding support of the literary community. This is something which we hope to leverage as we move ahead with the tenth year of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.”

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