New Delhi: There is "not much of a literary scene in Pakistan and the infrastructure is underdeveloped with only a handful of English publishers", says author Bilal Tanweer, adding that a few in the Urdu press are doing excellent work but they need more help.
His book "The Scatter Here is Too Great" has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature 2015 whose winner will be announced during the Jaipur Literature Festival Jan 22.
"The quality of book production in Urdu is much better than in English. I don't think any of the publishers in English are up to international standards," Tanweer told reporters in an e-mail interview.
Asked if it was possible to make a living as an author in Pakistan, Tanweer said: "It depends on what kind of a writer you are. If you are writing for television, yes, you can earn enough ... but most literary writers have other jobs. The exception is in some wealthy cultures which extend enough support to their artists to devote themselves full-time to their work. But they are the exception not the norm."
Along with Tanweer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri ("The Lowland"), London-based Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie ("A God in Every Stone"), London-based Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera ("Noontide Toll") and India's Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ("The Mirror of Beauty") have been shortlisted for the $50,000 prize.
Among these, Faruqi's novel is the only translation.
The award, in its fifth year, is a coveted prize that honours the best literary gems from South Asian writing or a novel translated into English. The winners so far have been an eclectic mix of authors from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, reaffirming the jury's credibility of seeking voices that represent culture, chaos and conflict engulfing the region.
Previous winners include Karachi-based novelist H.M. Naqvi ("Home Boy"), Sri Lanka's Shehan Karunatilaka ("Chinaman") and India's Jeet Thayil ("Narcopolis") and Cyrus Mistry ("Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer").
Compared to Pakistan, Sri Lanka's literary scene is vibrant, but often literature is met with dissent. Yet, authors like Gunesekera are keeping the tradition alive by talking about past and present issues through books.
"The literary scene in Sri Lanka is diverse and energetic, but dissent - a vital element - has been frowned upon for some time and this naturally has a dampening effect. If that does not change soon, literary expression will have to become more cunning," Gunesekera told reporters in an e-mail interview from London.
"It seems the world of creative writing and serious reading has been improving steadily in Sri Lanka since my first book 'Monkfish Moon' was published in 1992. Over the last 10 years, many Sri Lankan writers have emerged both in the country and outside it," he said.
But Gunesekera is in no hurry to return to Sri Lanka.
"I have often been in Sri Lanka in the last 10 years while writing a book. Many of my books have had some part written there and I am glad of that. But we all know there is no such thing as going back, even when the journey seems like a full circle. People change and places change," he added.
It was this brimming potential in the literary scene that the founders of DSC Prize were lured to when they instituted it in 2010.
"Given the growing importance of South Asia in the global perspective, some of the best talent is now writing about the region. We have a healthy mix of established as well as first-time writers who are writing about South Asia, its culture, people, and their hopes and aspirations," Manhad Narula, co-founder of the DSC Prize, told reporters over the phone from Jaipur.
According to Keki Daruwalla, who chaired the jury, the shortlisted novels "encompass the socio-political culture and the politico-social issues of the period in which the narratives are set".
"These novels are set in different time periods and in a variety of countries, but they share a fascination with the past, recognising how it shapes both individual and collective identities and destinies," the Delhi-based Daruwalla, an eminent poet and short-story writer, told reporters. He is a former Indian Police Service officer who retired as additional director of external spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
What makes the shortlist fiercely competitive is that each book is based on different topics that would relate to contemporary readers.
"Either way, these are very fine novels that strike their own - in engaging with Indian Maoism to a Pathan soldier returning to Peshawar at the end of a war (1914-18); from the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which sits like a pall over one of the novels, to, of course, a bomb in Karachi," Daruwalla added.
"These novels are not all about war and violence. They also explore - albeit in different ways - love, friendship, family, mourning, disappointment and violence. They are often infused by a deep melancholy, but in each of the novels there are moments of happiness and even joy, as well as glimpses of hope, redemption and resurrection," Daruwalla explained.