Milestones: A Bibliophile’s “World Cup”
Writer and book enthusiast Dr. RAJESH C. OZA gives his firsthand account of attending the Golden Man Booker Prize ceremony in London, U.K. This special one-off award to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker featured a star-studded line-up of Who’s Who of the world’s fiction writers, all coming together for the crowning of the best work of fiction from each of the last five decades of the Man Booker Prize, and the final 50-year winner.
Travel was once a work obligation across the consulting globe. Now, in my fifth decade, travel has balanced vocation, vacation, and visits to loved ones far-flung across our familial diaspora. While I’ve usually traveled alone on business trips and in the company of my wife and children on trips to India, the one constant travel companion has been my pen. Travel has served as a muse, without fail, encouraging me to pick up my pen and write.
This summer I had the good fortune to go to England to celebrate the graduation of my son from the London Business School. Rather serendipitously and to my utter delight, I found out that just a week prior to my son’s congregation ceremony, in the same venue—The Royal Festival Hall—there was to take place the highly coveted event of the Golden Man Booker Prize. And so, while much of England was celebrating Wimbledon, and almost the entire world was enthralled by the World Cup, six days before our reason for being in London, my wife Mangla and I found ourselves in enviable seats for this historic event.
Some love tennis,
Some love soccer.
I love both, but even more,
I love books and travel.
Some would say that I’m a rather inept poet—but somehow, despite my less than adept Internet skills, I managed to get online tickets in the same front row where the winner of the prize was seated.
As a bibliophile, I had come to this milestone moment with the insight that all of us are prone to the blinkered life, including those of us who pride ourselves on our travels to faraway places through the words of authors who write about Trinidad and Tobacco Road; Port of Spain and Pakistan; Bombay and Boston; Mumbai and Malgudi; India and Italy; Wiltshire and, so we think, the world. We discover a favorite author or two or three, and find ourselves reading everything that she or he has written. For me, this habit began with V. S. Naipaul, grew backward in time to include R. K. Narayan, and then forward in time to add Salman Rushdie. It was a rather comfortable club of renowned writers, all male, all writing in English, all speaking to my Indian identity.
Before them I had read much of Saul Bellow, because he and I had roots in Canada and Chicago, and had both studied anthropology at the same college. Although Bellow’s neurosis was not easily accessible to me, his Jewish ancestry felt familiar to my Brahminical Hindu upbringing. Finally, with Jhumpa Lahiri, the gender barrier was breached, as today I faithfully read all that she writes. Still, this kept the door to my library bolted from far too many writers whom I did not take seriously or whose knock at my door I just couldn’t hear (including Michael Ondaatje, about whom I will write shortly).
And now, here I was, seated front row in this storied Hall on the banks of the River Thames, ready to broaden my horizons in the literary landscape of our times. Three of the authors of nominated books were in the hall (V. S. Naipaul for In A Free State, Penelope Lively for Moon Tiger, and Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient); and two were unable to attend (Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo). No spoiler alert needed for those of you who have deduced that neither Mantel nor Saunders were going to give the acceptance speech at the end of the evening for the novel voted by the British public as the Golden Man Booker, the best of the Man Booker winners.
The structure of the evening was a delight:
Jude Kelly opened the 50th anniversary event and compered the evening by working forward from the 1970s for a series of very unstuffy chats with each judge for the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, on into the two decades of the current century.
• After the moderator and the judge had discussed the novel nominated for the decade within which it had been published, there was a dramatic reading from the shortlisted novel by a well-known performer.
• Then, the author (or his/her spokesperson) said a few words about the novel and perhaps the life of reading and writing.
• Finally, Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of the Man Booker Prize Foundation, announced the winner, who then closed the event with an acceptance speech.
And here’s the color commentary:
• Jude Kelly’s opening jauntily congratulated the audience for having the smarts to enjoy the hall’s air conditioning on one of London’s hottest days on record.
• The judge for the 1970s category, Robert McCrum, shared with Kelly that he believed that “Naipaul is the greatest living writer of prose fiction.” Many judges of literary writing, including the Nobel Committee, would agree. Perhaps McCrum spoke for many mature readers who would nod in agreement that rereading is a way to look at the past through new lens, reflecting on previous thoughts about life in a fresh way, “to reconnect with a different kind of self.”
The author, Rajesh C. Oza, with the legendary V. S. Naipaul (Photo: Mangla R. Oza)
• After Meera Syal did a marvelous reading from In a Free State, (a reading which closed with a severe, post-colonial, Naipaulian rage: “the Zulu spat in Bobby’s face”), Kelly announced that Sir V. S. Naipaul would be accompanied onstage by his wife, Lady Nadira Naipaul. And into the spotlight came the great, old writer, wheeled in to a hushed audience that burst into appreciative applause—hushed by his diminished physical state; appreciative of a lifetime of his writing. While Nadira gave an inspiring speech that was protective of her husband’s legacy, Vidia (as she calls him) stared out at the audience, seemingly not seeing us through his unblinking eyes.
Later in the evening, as Mangla and I happened upon the Naipauls as they were boarding a bubblegum-pink Black Cab taxi, Nadira graciously enabled a photograph with her husband and whispered sotto voce, “Vidia has Vascular Parkinson’s, a horrible, devastating disease.” I thanked Vidia for his writing and held the hand which had written so much of what had shaped my thinking. He looked at me (or was it past me?) as I tried to jog his memory of a decade past when he and I spoke on the radio in San Francisco and later that night at a reading. Sadly, the wordsmith seemed not to recognize a word I was smithing; he was well on his way into the dark, good night.
• Back to the ceremony: The next writer nominated, Penelope Lively, was introduced by a lively poet, Lemn Sissay, who had judged Lively’s Moon Tiger the best of her decade. Sissay, wearing a durable Obama “HOPE” T-shirt under a bright I-belong-here red jacket, was respectful and sassy at the same time, a good combination on a night about which I had been slightly apprehensive; I was mildly concerned that it could have been a sober, perhaps even musty proceeding paying homage to the Commonwealth’s literary history. You know—“we are all children of William Shakespeare”—and all that. Instead, Sissay gave the audience much to ponder, including explaining why he had not previously read Lively: “Our choices become quite blinkered, innit.” Okay, he didn’t say “innit,” but I do like how the British compress “isn’t it” this way, and in the process turn a question into a statement.
After the ceremony was over, I bumped into Sissay in front of Nelson Mandela’s bust. Sissay shared a bit about his Ethiopian and British history, his otherness, and his poetry. We talked about Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone which is based, in part, in Ethiopia. We discussed why Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had not been nominated even though it had won the Booker of Bookers for the 25th year and 40th year celebrations. While he and I diverged somewhat on his logic (other books had risen), we converged on my suggestion that Ondaatje had it right, that perhaps the Man Booker Prize committee ought to consider honoring books that have been overlooked, that Rushdie’s classic had had enough laurels. And then, as so many Brits do, Sissay pulled out a cigarette, which was a cue for me to move on.
• It was that kind of smoky night: forward looking and backward looking in a clear-eyed haze; giving much hope for the written word and for an authentic world; kindling belief that the conflicts of the past and present might presage a hopefulness; taking me back to college when reading Naipaul taught me that a mature worldview accepts that the world works on self-interest; and taking me forward to embrace that this can be an enlightened self-interest. As Lively said, “writers mutate over a lifetime.” And so do readers. Kamila Shamsie, the judge for the 1990s, echoed, “[In rereading novels of that decade] my responses were changing … because the world was changing…. The things that were wonderful are still wonderful; they’re just differently wonderful.” Shamsie nominated Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the best novel of the 1990s. After summarizing the decade’s other prizewinners, she said, “The English Patient, from the moment I read it, was one of the outstanding books of my life. It had an immediate and profound effect and seemed to open up what the novel could do…. The humanity and generosity of it…. [It] still, on each reading, feels fresh. It now feels like going back to people you love.”
(Left) Michael Ondaatje, the man of the evening—winner of the Golden Man Booker, the best of the best from five decades of the Man Booker Awards. (Photo: Rajesh C. Oza)
• Ondaatje was afforded two opportunities to be onstage. Interesting insights from his first appearance: “The English Patient took me about four or five years to write…. The book began… as most of my books do, with a small door of entrance, a curiosity. Who were these people? Where did they come from?…. Writing a book is often for me an archaeological unearthing, so the story will move into the layers of the past and then return to the present.” It was a tight speech, neither emotional nor self-promotional; Ondaatje resembled his character Kip, the Sikh sapper “who felt uncomfortable in celebrations, in victories.”
• The second speech was like a second child midwifed to a mother decades after she has realized that the magic of the easy first conception was actually a gift of the gods, after internalizing that other equally deserving parents are never given even one such gift. Ondaatje spoke a second time after hearing Baroness Kennedy announce that The English Patient had been awarded the Golden Man Booker Prize. His acceptance speech was succinct, confessional, generous, and humble. He opened by honoring his fellow nominees and then suggested that the Man Booker Committee might consider honoring those books which have been under-read, under-appreciated: “Not for a second do I believe that this is the best book on the list.... Especially when placed beside a work by V. S. Naipaul, one of the masters of our time.”
• The evening was seemingly over; but our tickets to the Royal Festival Hall were going to extend the evening via serendipitous conversations with Naipaul, Sissay, and Ondaatje. As my wife and and I headed out to catch a train on the Jubilee Line, we walked up to Ondaatje, who was seated four seats away. The winner of the Golden Man Booker was emotional on a night that neither he nor we would soon forget. We congratulated him for his victory and thanked him for his humility. Still holding my hand, he smiled when I said that his speech had moved me to rectify an omission of mine, to read The English Patient. I privately vowed to consider the other Booker-worthy novels I’ve overlooked over my own half-century of reading and to reread classics that have collected dust on my library shelf while I made friendships with newer books.
[Editor’s note: This event may have been the last major public appearance of V. S. Naipaul, who passed away on August 11, 2018, in London.]
Rajesh C. Oza, who for many years wrote Khabar’s “Satyalogue” column, is an avid reader and freelance writer. As Founder and President of OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group, Inc., Raj specializes in helping senior executives better align their organizations to achieve success.
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