23 February, 2024


Oh Those Gratiaens!

By Frederica Jansz –

Frederica Jansz

Everybody looked as if they were something out of Jurassic Park. It was probably the eerie blue lighting. As I perched myself on a chair I whispered softly to my companion on my right that she looked good. She actually did. Despite the awful lighting – perhaps because she had wisely chosen white for her attire and plenty of makeup as she herself hissed back. Unlike me – who looked like the French flag – waving under terrible blue lighting.
The Gratiaen Prize, which was instituted by Michael Ondaatje in 1992 with the money he received as joint-winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, is awarded annually to the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan. The Prize, intended to encourage English writing by Sri Lankans, is named after Michael Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen.

The judges selected each year by the Trust make their choice from an increasing number of entries.
Much as I admire Michael Ondaatje, the man must never be allowed before a TV camera. The show began with everybody forced to watch Michael expostulating on why and how he had won an award – I forget for what – (clearly for writing a book of course) a video which was repeated over and over as guests trooped in – which is why I even forget what award he had won or where – an overdose of television gimmickry always does that to me – my mind simply goes blank unless it is a showing of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ Putting Ondaatje in a loop..NOT a good idea!!
The only person at the head table who had a clear understanding that nobody must speak for longer than three minutes was Anirvan Gosh Dastidar the CEO in Sri Lanka of the Standard Chartered Bank. Everybody else who was allowed to grab the mike labored their point to the extent where I vacillated between yawns and inane giggling….the elderly man who announced the prize for translation even forgot the name of the prize winner!! This after stuttering through a rambling speech which was conspicuous for its lack of clarity. A male companion giggled right through the entire proceedings. Until Jill Westaway, head of the British Council in Colombo and Chairman of the panel of judges, got up and told us all how trying it had been to select the winner and that the decision was not unanimous. Oh please! Why she thought that would interest anybody is beyond me. She also forgot to limit her lament to three minutes. Awards should be presented with style highlighting the people who win rather than the process of choice, judging etc… so much was said that we did NOT NEED TO KNOW?????
As for all those at the Head Table apart from being full of themselves, looked dead bored throughout the proceedings. The winner – Madhubhashini was charming – I cannot however comment on her work given that it is unpublished and over 500 pages long. For sure, this is one book I will not ever be reading. Then there were the readings. All good – except for Dereck …. Somebody needs to tell that boy that you don’t yell into a microphone!
Oh and then there was somebody whose claim to fame is that he attended on the mafia thug Duminda Silva as his anesthetist – the guy turned up one hour later that he should have – missed his assigned schedule for a reading and as a result Neidra Williams had to step in and read poetry which she had hardly had more than a minute to scan before being called upon to do so. And then there were the cocktails. The wine flowed ….one woman even ended up on the floor!! – and finger food sparse with only the cutlets as a saving grace. The chicken wings were ghastly and I spotted someone actually wincing in disgust before tossing a half chewed wing on the floor behind the bar.
It might have been polite on the part of the organizers to leave the chairs as they were until the guests had left instead of clearing the floor and noisily piling up chairs ladder-style simultaneously as the wine was being gulped. The icing on the cake was the waiters soliciting a white man in my group – of course he absolutely loved the attention and lapped it all up.
As for me – I really needed a good tall strawberry marguerita after all this – which I swallowed with relief at a water hole nearby on cushioned comfort – and under normal white but subtle lighting – where I checked my face in the mirror to make sure I no longer resembled a lysine-deficient female from Michael Crichton’s 1990 science fiction novel – Jurassic Park.

Sunday Leader

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Madhubhashini who?

  • 0

    Is there no END to this self-congratulatory B.S. which those organizing it cannot even do with some little bit of style?

    This is the “NEW LANKA,’ Miracle of Asia, where even those congratulating themselves can’t do it competently!

  • 0

    Get your facts straight, woman. Gill Westaway not Jill. No longer the head of British council. She is FORMER country director. And the Jurassic Park joke doesnt carry through we are not told why. The “old” guy who announced translation prize has a name: Prof Ariawansha Ranaweera, a gentle and unassuming man. Fine journalism I must say. Wow.

  • 0

    I first read the article in the Sunday Leader (3rd June). I wasn’t expecting it to reappear here. The subject interested me as the Gratiaen prize has recognized many Sri Lankan writers in the past, whose work (a few of which I have been fortunate to read) has been exceptional, and if you go through the list of Judges starting from 1993 they seem to be a respected and accomplished lot too. So it is fair to say that this Award is of significant importance to the Sri Lankan literati, or even lay people like me who enjoy a good read.

    I agree that many award shows and events in our country can be better organized and that they lack the finesse of perhaps the Man Booker Prize or the Cannes Film Festival, but for now let’s at least appreciate and encourage those who are trying.

    I also agree that people in high places (academically, socially, politically and economically etc.) can be full of themselves. Unfortunately, in this instance, the author of the article in subject too seems to demonstrate this quality beyond doubt – of being too full of herself through the contents/opinions expressed in her article.

    Also, how can you respect the opinion of someone with the disposition of judging a piece of work/book based on the number of pages it contains. Is that the height of pompousness, or the depths of shallowness? I will avoid elaborating on some of the other insignificant details the author has “rambled on” about.

    Simply, as a lay reader I was expecting a little bit more substance from a journalist/chief editor of the supposed claibre, as it it covered a topic of interest to me. But there was nothing noteworthy, except her displeasure of the cutlets and winglets. I guess this is what happens when you become intellectually bankrupt.

    Hope the author’s recent discovery of Strawberry Margarita helps get the brain functioning again, if not she may need attention for lysine deficiency herself. Perhaps she should take another look in the mirror (when sober), and decide between fossilisation and progression.

    – Layman

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