It turns out that 200,000 Sri Lankan rupees (around Rs 8,000) is just enough to publish a modest number of books. Enabling that first run is what the Gratiaen Trust does for its winners. The trust was instituted by Michael Ondaatje with his winnings from the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient in 1992. Today, it continues to support writers in Ondaatje’s native Sri Lanka through the Gratiaen Prize. The prize is named in honour of Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen; entries may include both manuscripts and published work and need not be limited to any genre—poems, short stories, novels, plays, literary memoirs and even the odd musical compete every year for the honour.
Previously, the prize has gone to writers such as Nihal De Silva (The Road from Elephant Pass went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) and Carl Muller, best known for his trilogy about Sri Lanka’s Burgher community. In 2008, the prize helped launch the career of Shehan Karunatilaka, whoseChinaman manuscript won the honour that year. Ondaatje may have been conspicuous in his absence from the event in the last 17 years, but his words at the first Gratiaen Prize ceremony are often quoted: “(The Gratiaen Prize) is to celebrate and test and trust ourselves. To select and argue about the literature around us. To take it seriously, not just to see it as a jewel or a decoration.”
It took author Sakuntala Sachithanandan a few decades to summon the courage to publish her poetry. With the cricket World Cup related mayhem to consider, the 2010 Gratiaen award ceremony was postponed from early April to 21 May. But the wait has been worth it for Sachithanandan; her collection of poems, On the Street and Other Revelations,won the prize and was praised by the judges for its engagement with social issues. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Poet at heart: Sachithanandan.
What inspired the poetry in ‘On the Streets and Other Revelations’?
The poems in this book were written off and on over a period of four decades as and when events inspired me.
The collection has drawn critical praise for the diversity of voices represented in it—how did you unearth these stories?
The plight of the marginalized has always affected me deeply and such things have inspired me to write.All is Burning, for instance, is about a labourer who attempted suicide, while The True Tale of the Stolen Potatoes is about a poor man and his family. They are all based on what I have seen myself.
I have also always been sensitive to animal issues.
Is it difficult being a poet in Sri Lanka today?
It is difficult indeed. Especially for a poet who writes in English; the readership is limited. A poet has to expect to write only for his or her own gratification and that of perhaps other poets.
You are better known as an author of children’s stories—are there more of those in the offing?
Some years ago, I started writing children’s stories and illustrating them for my own pleasure and for that of my two children. When my son grew up, he persuaded me to send them to a local newspaper, where they were accepted. I went on to do their children’s page for a few years. I gave this up eventually, but I do have a whole suitcase full of those stories.
My book Tales from the Tree House are all from this hoard. The Adventures of Sokadi the Line Room Mouse will be next. It is about a young female mouse who lives in the “line room” of Amara, a plucker on a tea estate. I wanted to present to Sri Lankan children a story against a backdrop different from what they have always read about.
On the Streets and Other Revelations has been published in Sri Lanka by Godage International Publishers.
Published in LiiveMint on May 27 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanage.