The Literary Indian

When writer-journalist Manu Joseph won The Hindu Fiction Award last year for his novel Serious Men he remarked half-jokingly, “In India, the novel is being received very well. As long as it doesn’t win the Booker… Most Indian books that have won the Booker have not been received well in India, because the question is raised, is the novel interpreting India for foreigners, and is it a fair interpretation or an exotic one?”

While it is debatable whether an Indian novel which wins the Booker is received well back home or not (The God of Small Things and The Inheritance of Loss went on to become bestsellers), the Booker Prize – an award that is “neither properly international nor entirely local” – may soon become irrelevant in the present Indian context. During the past three years, not one book from the subcontinent has featured on the Booker longlist, and the kind of ambition and novelty that is visible in Indian writing in English today requires that Indian books and authors be judged by indigenous panels for an Indian audience.

Until a decade ago, there was only one major literary prize in India for Indian writing in English—the Sahitya Akademi Award. Being a government-funded prize brought the Akademi its fair share of imbroglios; leading Hindi writer Krishna Sobti went as far as to say that a literary mafia was at work within the establishment. Like all good bureaucratic institutions in this country, the Akademi reeks of sycophancy, lobbying and politicking, where a writer’s “official position weighs in favour of his getting an award.” The award may once have been a symbol of literary reform in the Nehruvian era of hope, but the heavily state-sponsored prize today is more a reminder of the License Raj.

In the last decade or so, four new literary prizes have come up from the private sector in India—each unique in its own method of judging books, and the submissions it allows. The first to make its mark on the Indian literary scene in 1998 was the Vodafone Crossword Award, which, instead of being an Indian facsimile of the Booker, has turned out to be just as dynamic and multi-layered as Indian literature today. It is the first of its kind to have a category for children’s literature. Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water – judged the best children’s book this year – is a ghost story for young adults on female infanticide. While writers hardly like to talk about issues as sensitive as gender cruelty in the country – andfewer still would base a young adults’ book on it – Lal has carried out the feat with ease and humour, and the result is far from depressing.

The Vodafone Crossword Prize’s appeal clearly lies in its multifariousness, yet an Indian book that wins the Booker or even gets shortlisted for it – carry as it may the burden of being judged by a British panel and being manufactured for foreign audiences – grabs more headlines in India than one that wins the Vodafone Crossword Award.

The Vodafone Crossword Book Award has also raised a very important, if esoteric, question: What makes an Indian book Indian? There were some glaring omissions in this year’s longlist: Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, and Samath Subramanian’s Following Fish, even though these books were hailed as some of the best examples of narrative journalism to have come out of India in recent years. Prakash and Subramanian are American and British citizens respectively, but Sonia Faleiro has retained her Indian passport despite having shifted base to the United States. So, does a well-written book on India cease to be Indian if the author does not reside in the country any more? In order to excuse itself from this tribulation, the Vodafone Crossword Award may start accepting entries from the entire subcontinent from next year, but it is not certain whether the books will be defined as ‘subcontinental’ by the nationality of their authors or their content.

Instead of bothering itself with the bureaucratic process of examining the passports and PIO cards of writers, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is open to books about South Asia in terms of content and theme. This means that a writer can enter for the prize irrespective of her ethnicity if the book is set in South Asia (e.g. Ruth Prawer Jabhwala’s The Householder) whereas an author of South Asian origin whose book is set abroad cannot (say, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music). The titles on the shortlist have common South Asia-centric themes, though some well-written books set in other places may be left out. Another drawback of the DSC Prize is that there is a gap of more than a year between the date of publication of the books and the announcement of the winner, creating a gulf too large for the attention spans of readers and publishers; it is possible a book is forgotten by the time it appears on the DSC Prize longlist.

The way an Indian Literary prize deals with translation of Indian language fiction sets it apart from others, and might govern its authenticity and credibility in the long run. The Vodafone Crossword Prize has a separate category for translated fiction whereas translations and English language fiction compete against each other for the DSC and The Hindu Literary Prizes. Pitting translations against original English fiction has its disadvantages: it difficult to judge the nuances and verbal eccentricities of a translated work against the authority and fluency of one written originally in English; and more often than not the translation gets left behind in the selection process. Such a lacuna is unhelpful for any award that aims at recognising Indian fiction.

It would be interesting to see if any of these prizes is able to generate the same enthusiasm among readers in India as the Booker does in Britain, and finally end our obsession with featuring on the Booker shortlist. This may sound paradoxical, but the demographic of readers buying Booker prize-winning books in India is too important to ignore (Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending was sold out in India two days after it won the Booker.) A stronger and more skilled PR and publicity team for Indian lit prizes would help them to rise in ambition. The DSC Prize – a very likely candidate – boasts of a cash-heavy prize of $ 50,000, and is announced during the glamorous Jaipur Literature Festival. The Vodafone Crossword award could find a more effective way of dealing with the nationality and ethnicity of the writers; too much meaningless red-tape may result in glossing over some of the best books published in a particular year.

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, on the other hand, prefers to keep it low key. The prize is awarded in the memory of Shakti Bhatt, former editor with Random House India who died tragically at the age of 27.  Featuring on the shortlist for India’s only literary award for debut writers can act as a great encouragement to first-time published authors. “High-profile prizes bring recognition and increase book sales, helping your work reach a wider readership. And if there’s a monetary prize attached [the Shakti Bhatt Award has a cash prize of Rs. 100,000], that’s always a nice bonus—because the writing life is not usually conducive to making a really good livelihood,” says writer and blogger Jai Arjun Singh, who was on this year’s jury.

Faiza Sultan Khan

In spite of their growing popularity, Indian literary prizes may stand the danger of becoming formulaic over the years. Editor of the Life’s Too Short literary review Faiza Sultan Khan, who is also on the jury for the 2012 DSC Prize, feels that Indian literary prizes often give the theme and content priority over the quality of writing. “Indian lit prizes still judge books by scale and subject matter, and so they’re judging Indian writing in the same way as international prizes do. Non-fiction books about the underprivileged and destitute do very well, but if you write a great book on Indian film writing, chances are you could be completely overlooked,” she says. While the biography of legendary Indian music director ‘Panchamda’ R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music did make it to the Shakti Bhatt Book Award shortlist, it lost out to Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon.

Times are exciting and dynamic for the world of Indian writing and publishing. Literary prizes should deliver with the same kind of promise and freshness that Indian writing in particular and South Asian writing in general displays. The prizes have to be more consistent in the submissions they allow—neither too wide nor too narrow. If literary awards in India want to make readers notice, and buy prize-winning books like other distinguished international prizes do, they have to avoid the kind of books the Indian reader finds “exotic” and misleading, and instead judge books by the quality of their writing and power of narrative, rather than the repetitive, hackneyed, so-called Indian themes.

Ultimately, the quality of writing on the shortlist determines the following of any literary prize. The biggest accomplishment for a good literary award is its ability to expose shortlisted writers to a larger readership—elusive otherwise in the competitive Indian market of today where writers of popular fiction rule the roost, and 10,000-odd copies sold make a book a bestseller.

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(I know, I know — I haven’t been posting as regularly as I should. I am very occupied with my studies, but I promise to post every week beginning from April 2012.)

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