Gitanjali Literary Prize, the first-of-its-kind Franco-Indian prize for writing, was given away for the first time at Pondicherry in early December. It was an opportunity to encourage French writings from Francophone countries as well as Indian writing. Janani Rajeswari S speaks to Fariba Hachtroudi, president of Mohsen Hachtroudi Foundation (MoHa), the main organizer of the event, and some of the jury members about the experience. The first Franco-Indin litrary award - Gitanjali Literary Prize was a week-long event that explored literature, cinema, music and photography in Pondicherry. Sample the list of guests: Thierry Mariani, Tarun Tejpal, Piyush Jha, Sanjay Suri, Laure Leroy, Sivapriya and the list goes on. The event was organized by Mohsen Hachtroudi Foundation (MoHa), CEG Earth Group and Alliance Francaise of Pondicherry.
Fariba Hachtroudi, president, MoHa Foundation conceived the idea of giving out a prize to honour writings in French and Indian languages. Her love for Bengali literature explains why the prize was named after Rabindranath Tagore’s famous work Gitanjali.
A writer in French herself, Fariba has been extremely fascinated by India. Her Iranian origin could probably explain the deep connection with the country. “I was barely 18 or 19 years old when I first visited India and have been fascinated by the Indian culture. In the last 15 years, I visited India at least twice every year,” she adds.
Pondicherry, the perfect destination
However, she points out that India is not very much present in France except probably within a wide circle of French intellects. Pondicherry is really a Francophone region, according to her. “So, I thought that organizing the event at Pondicherry could well establish the point,” Fariba adds.
It was also a chance to promote certain values that France and India have in common. “Aspects such as secularity, democracy are not common between France and other Francophone countries,” she says.
In reality, language is also about sharing ideas. “It is true that there are numerous Francophone countries and French could well become the second most widely spoken language in the world,” points out Fariba. In addition, a lot of writers wish to take up French as their writing medium, despite their varied origins.
Scope for translation in India
Another reason for promoting such an event is the scope for translation of French writings in India. “In France, we undertake translation work in various languages. But in English-speaking countries, less than one percent of French writings actually get translated. I feel that they are in need of more Francophone writers,” she adds.
She feels that Indian publishers could take interest for French work. “In India, there is a great possibility of translating them into English or into Indian regional languages. Thus, India could become ‘Centre for Translation’ owing to its vast potential.”
This year’s theme was ‘Resistance, Freedom and Independence’. The Gitanjali prize includes awarding a French writer from a Francophone country and an Indian writer chosen from among languages such as Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, English and Hindi. There was a separate jury for French writing and Indian writing which included three writers in French: Lyonel Trouillot, a Haitian author, for Une Belle Amoure Humaine, Cecile Ouhmani for L’atélier des Strésor and Khaled Ousman, an Egyptian author, for Le Caire à Corps perdus. The Indian jury included three authors: Poomani, a Tamil writer, for Agngnaadi, TK Rema, a Malayali writer, for V Positive and Manisha Kulshreshta for Shigaf in Hindi.
From the jury members’ point of view
Fariba was not involved in choosing the Indian jury. But the line-up was indeed an interesting one. Theatre director and translator Kumaran Valavan was on the jury for books in Tamil. He is well-versed in Tamil as well as in French. “We shortlisted six books published between 2010 and June 2012. Since I am not from the literary background, I sought the help of a writer who recommended the books,” he says. However, he points out that Tamil works are not read by Tamil writers, “Unless a work is published in magazines,” he adds.
“There are nearly 10,000 poets today in Tamil, hence ideally 10,000 books should get sold. But that is not the case. The main reason could be that writers themselves do not accept their works being criticized,” he adds. There is very little recognition of Tamil at national-level, according to him.
What was his idea behind judging the event? “It is mainly for the French writers. The book that would receive the prize would give them a ‘real’ picture of India unlike the existing notion of ‘Beautiful image of India’. The prize was aimed to bring out the best of Tamil writings,” says a confident Kumaran.
‘Every Tamilian must read Agngnaadi by Poomani’
The book Agngnaadi by Poomani won the ‘Gitanjali Prize’ this year. “It offers a new perspective by explaining the caste background through legend. It is a book that every Tamilian must read to know the history,” he explains. It talks about the seventh generation of a villager and the story well spans over nearly 200 years. He agrees that Agngnaadi definitely stood out for its literary content. “Today, a lot of work is extremely politicised. However, when it comes to narrating a history, it becomes a difficult task. The author definitely manages to present an honest position,” he adds. The book involved years of research and finally received approval from the Indian Foundation of Art.
However, the task of choosing the best book in Tamil was quite challenging for Kumaran. “Since I am from France, it was extremely difficult for me to find the true author in Tamil,” he adds. When it came to judging content, he was particular about which book would ideally reach out to the French. “I had the chance to read very interesting novels by Sri Lankan authors based on the backdrop of tragic history of the country. But they were outshone by Agngnaadi in terms of the literary content,” he says. He feels that reading Agngnaadi made him feel nostalgic.
About Gitanjali Prize, he feels it could draw different points of view about Indian literature. “The French look at our literature differently from how we analyse our works. This could well be possible through an event of this sort.”
Independence on the personal front
The French jury comprised writers from France and other Francophone countries. Fariba, who was also the president of the jury, elaborates on how the jury for French writings was selected. “I had consulted a number of writers. It is interesting to note that two of the jury members are from Tunisia and Mauritius. I really liked their works. I thought this could be very helpful in judging the books,” she adds. The jury also included French writers like Gil Jouanard, Amanda Devi from Mauritius and Hubert Haddad.
Writer Gil Jouanard has been a French writer for the last three decades. Being part of the jury for French books was definitely a refreshing experience. He agrees that there is a lot of difference in the writing. Could the theme ‘Freedom, Resistance and Independence’ have influenced the quality of writing? “Nearly 200 books were sent to us for being judged. There were around 30-40 interesting writers,” he adds. He goes on to explain how the theme gained popularity in the beginning of the 19th century.
“With a theme like this, a host of ideas are possible. Independence does not necessarily refer to something in a political context,” he explains. For instance, one of the books by an Arab writer brings out the theme of independence among women. Or even liberation on a personal front?
Ananda Devi, yet another French writer from Mauritius, was also on the jury. “Out of the 200 books, we shortlisted nearly 50 books, which were marked by very strong literary style and content. The idea behind awarding the best writing was majorly based on the literary content. We didn’t want to pick writers who merely chose to expand an idea or merely send out a message,” she explains. She adds that they were also looking at a subject that one does not come across in everyday life.
“Something that could touch us emotionally, deeply,” adds Ananda Devi. Three books were finally chosen. Cecile Ouhmani’s book talks about the life of a woman in the quest to become a painter and the book by an Egyptian writer talks about the experiences of a young Egyptian girl in the milieu of a closed form of religion.
Lyonel Trouillot’s book Une Belle Amoure Humaine bagged the prize this year. It is set in the backdrop of the island Haiti. “It encompasses political and social liberation while highlighting autonomy and independence too,” Gil explains. The book is extremely poetic, according to him. “Violent poetry, I can say, to bring out the spirit of Haiti and above all, that of Creole,” he adds.
Haiti, in itself, is a very interesting place. It was one of colonies of Napoleon. The island is divided into two parts: French and Spanish. So, the author elevates the story with a mix of languages such as classic French, Creole and even Spanish. “It is beautifully written with the colours of language. Interestingly, Haiti is not directly brought into the picture but is beautifully sucked into the crux of the story,” says Ananda Devi. The subject makes you think profoundly about it. “To sum it all, it talks about love, humanity and is indeed a quest to find out who we really are,” she adds.
The task of judging the books started early this year, when the jury members began receiving the books. “The experience has been unique. We were indeed very impressed by the fact that the books given to us were very different. Though made it very difficult to judge the books,’ points out Ananda Devi.
So, how does she think such literary prizes could help? “I think it’s a great way to popularize writings by Francophone writers in India,” signs off Ananda Devi.
About the future
The awarded Tamil book Agngnaadi by Poomani will be translated into French. The French books will be translated into English or Tamil in near future. Fariba points out that the jury will be changed every three years. She is delighted by the response that event has received despite debuting this year. “I was very happy that I could bring together very laureate and famous writers for the event,” she says. She is hopeful to make it a grander event next year.
“Probably, there will be more languages added to the list. And thus, there will be greater opportunities for translation from French to English or into other Indian languages. We aim to rope in writers from other parts of the world as well,” concludes a confident Fariba.
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