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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 16, April 15, 2023

Iris Murdoch Prize-the reborn Booker Prize | Devaki Jain

Saturday 15 April 2023, by Devaki Jain


A brilliant move of the Booker Prize-wallas to rename the Booker Prize with Iris Murdoch’s name. Many of us who had the privilege and the joy to be her students at Oxford believe that this renaming would bring a huge new audience and fans for this great thinker, as well as very different criteria for choosing the winner.

For those of us who were her tutorial students at St. Anne’s College in Oxford, in the late 50s and early 60s, being taught by Iris was exceptional. She was the moral philosophy tutor at St. Anne’s College and I had the privilege of being her tutorial student for three terms in 1960. Whoever had that privilege have expressed how the experience expanded their mind and also triggered a bond of love with her. So did I.

She encouraged our imagination. For example in discussing Rousseau’s concept of the general will I mentioned to her that Vinoba Bhave, in India, was proposing the idea of ‘gramdan’ an idea like Rousseau’s idea of the ‘General will’- where landowners in a village donate their individual pieces of land to the village collective. She was fascinated by this potential to link the philosophies, and wanted us to explore such ideas.

Iris was an exceptionally affectionate person and very soon we reached a level of friendship where she was involved in my personal challenges e.g. raising funds for my tutorial, to pay my fees. With her well-known generosity, she paid my fees for one whole year which is three terms. We know her apartment in London was continuously occupied by her friends, including me - when they were in London.

When I was leaving Oxford she asked me what I would like to take from there - I said her books and so I was privileged to receive all her books signed with special messages for each.

Later she visited India, as Indira Gandhi invited her for one of those brilliant round tables that Mrs Gandhi would organize, with the help of Sharda Prasad. By the time I had married, had a son, Gopal. She got quite involved in Gopal’s growing up brought clothes for him on her return to the UK! and mailed packages. This is just to show that while she was a brilliant writer, thinker, novelist, philosopher a celebrity she could actually also be a caring friend.

I interviewed her for Door Darshan TV, and not surprisingly, when I asked for the record to be projected after her tragic death, DD confessed they had lost the disc (as they also, many years later, lost the recording of an Alice Walker interview).

So three cheers for those who administer or lead what is used to be called the Booker for renaming it, embellishing it, as the Iris Murdoch Prize. Hurray!.

(Author: Devaki Jain, economist, Hon Fellow St Annes College, Oxford)

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