A spirited defence of the Nehruvian legacy, some magic on the sarod and liberal humour combined to make The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 ceremony on Monday a versatile experience.

Writer and historian Nayantara Sahgal gave readings from her soon-to-be-launched book Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing a Savage World (Penguin India), during which she argued for an evaluation of the man in his times.

In conversation with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, Ms. Sahgal said Nehru was an extremely pragmatic man and not a woolly-headed idealist. Bemoaning what she called the “amnesia about India's past,” she said the book was a response to the need for putting India's first Prime Minister in perspective for our times.

Nehru's legacy rests firmly on the democratic institutions he gave shape to — Parliament, a free press and an independent judiciary. “It is true that some of these institutions are not as pristine as we wish them to be but that is not the fault of Nehru,” she said.

Though Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi differed on the path to development, there seemed to be a mysterious bond between the two that was difficult to put in words. Perhaps, Gandhiji recognised the purity of character in Nehru, she said.

Referring to Nehru's foreign policy during the Cold War — the central focus of the book — Ms. Sahgal said Nehru had tried to change the “might is right” world order by advocating a non-alignment strategy in which emerging nations did not have to side with either superpower. Nehru argued for the principle of collective peace and not collective security. Taking a question from the audience, Ms. Sahgal said the title of the book referred to the point in history when the world just emerged out of one war (World War II) and was already into the next (Cold War and the nuclear race).

Earlier, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal, said a prize conferred without bias was a coveted one and provided recognition for writers from a source other than their reader base.

Mr. Ram said the award event had a special significance for the newspaper and the values in journalism it stood for. Readers approached literature from two ends: for the love of reading good books and to celebrate freedom of expression — something the newspaper had always stood for, he said.

Award to cover more genres

It is proposed to enlarge the scope of the Literary Review award to more genres of writing and, over the next five years, turn it into one of the most sought-after literary prize, Mr. Ram said.

Nirmala Lakshman, Joint Editor of The Hindu, said the Literary Review, while promoting good writing, also engaged with larger issues of literature such as freedom of expression, censorship and boundaries of creativity. A festival of words and literature to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Literary Review is proposed next year, she said.

A concert by sarod virtuosos Ayaan Ali Khan and Amaan Ali Khan was held.

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