Books Build Bridges


ONE SHOULD be surprised that a literary prize celebrating the relationship between France and India in Puducherry would only be organised in 2012, 50 years after the French “comptoir” was returned to India. Inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s desire to see the French cultural heritage maintained in Puducherry, the Franco-Indian Gitanjali Prize will set up its first edition between 1 and 7 December, under the themes of “resistance, independence, liberty”. Its goal is to reward a French-speaking author as well as an Indian author who has written in any major Indian language.

Fariba Hachtroudi, creator of the prize, says, “Indian culture is not very well known in France, but the development of Francophony is also an integral part of our project.” Although the literary prize is at its first faltering steps, the ambition of the organisers is to provide a cultural platform for dialogue between Francophone and Indian cultures, and has garnered the support of renowned authors such as Jean-Christophe Rufin and Shashi Tharoor, who will act as sponsors of this first edition.

The name of the laureates or of the authors taken under consideration is top secret and will only be announced during the event, but the double jury – one French-speaking, one Indian – includes important literary figures, such as Ananda Devi in the French jury and Tamil poet Annoussamy David in the Indian jury. Amid the praise Hachtroudi offers to Bangla – hence the name of the prize – or South Indian literature, she regrets the tragic situation of Puducherry, which “has been ripped open in the past eight months, and is looking like a dustbin”. An issue she will not fail to evoke while celebrating Franco-Indian literary cultures in Puducherry.


Q&A Fariba Hachtroudi

“The laureates of our prize will have their book translated and published”

An Iranian journalist and author, Fariba Hachtroudi launches this year in Puducherry the Gitanjali Prize, a literary award celebrating both Francophone and Indian literature. She tells Ayan Meer what drove her to create this event.

Why did you decide to create this literary prize?
This is a project we’ve been working on for the past year, and it stems from my love for India and Indian literature, which – I felt – is not very considered in France. I was under the impression that Indian culture is not very well known in France, which is a pity.

So this prize is primarily conceived for a French public?
No, I really think the interest for French language is coming back in Puducherry. The development of Francophony is an integral part of our project, and that’s why we decided to reward French-speaking authors along with Indian authors.We have had positive reactions from representatives of Francophony, most notably from Ségolène Royal, president of the International Association of Francophone Regions (AIRF). There are many values that are shared by India and France, such as secularism, or freedom of expression in the press – I felt this prize could highlight and honour these common ideals.

How did you select the books under consideration – and the winners?
I cannot tell you who the authors are, insofar as we will announce it at our press conference, but we took under consideration more than 200 books in French, and a lesser number of works from India published in English, Tamil, Malayam or Hindi.

Who are the members of the jury?
It is a double jury: there are four francophone jury members and four Indian jury members. It wasn’t very easy to find and select our Indian jury, because we wanted them to also be French-speaking, in order to make the interaction with the French jury easier. I would have loved to involve a Bengali author in the jury, namely because of the influence of Sri Aurobindo in Puducherry, but it was unfortunately not possible.

Is the name of the prize – Gitanjali– a reference to your interest for Bengali literature?
Precisely, I do indeed admire Rabindranath Tagore’s work, life and personality, but I also found normal for a literary prize to remember the only Indian who received a Nobel Prize for literature.

What do you hope this literary prize will achieve for the authors participating?
We have great hopes and expectations for this project. The most important part of the prize for our laureates is the guarantee that their book will be translated – in French for the Indian laureate and in English for the francophone laureate – and published.

Does the presence of renowned authors like Jean-Christophe Rufin and Shashi Tharoor as sponsors of the event help its visibility?
They obviously bring more visibility to a literary prize that is taking its first steps, but perhaps in the future they will need the Gitanjali Prize to be more visible! I was very pleased that Shashi Tharoor decided to take part in this event exclusively as an author, and not as a minister.

Being an Iranian, why did you decide to set up this literary prize in India?
Originally, I had hoped this event could be held in Iran, through the foundation named after my father, the Mohsen Achtroudi Foundation [Mohsen Achtroudi was a famous scientist and poet from Iran]. However, the difficulties related to the political situation in the country made it impossible. This is not to say that it was easy to set up the Gitanjali Prize between France and here, having to deal with the French and Indian public administrations, which are the heaviest I have ever encountered. Because we are evoking this issue, let me tell you that the actual state of Puducherry is absolutely shameful. For the past 8 months, the city has been ripped open, and tragically the French Quarter is in the most pitiful of states. This beautiful city is looking like a dustbin. I can assure you I will talk about this during the event, in front of everyone: I have criticised Iranian mullahs, the Puducherry administration doesn’t scare me at all.