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Updated: November 7, 2010 16:25 IST

Where do awards come in?

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Gopalkrishna Gandhi: Can awards be given differently? Photo: R. Ragu
Gopalkrishna Gandhi: Can awards be given differently? Photo: R. Ragu

Literary awards provide a much-needed self-validation, of the integrity of the creative endeavour in the author and critical appreciation in the reader. Reproduced below is Gopalkrishna Gandhi's speech at the Awards ceremony.

When Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Mahakavi Subramania Bharati is believed to have written congratulating the poet and wanting to be enlightened on the procedures for getting the Prize.

Perhaps the narrative is pure fiction.

If so it deserves a prize, for so honestly portraying human psychology.

One writes to express. One publishes to be read. One is read to be relished.

Where do awards and prizes come in ?

They come in, first of all, through the resourceful restlessness of the prize's institutor.

Were it not for the five Prizes standing in his name, Alfred Nobel would have been known primarily, and perhaps only, to the Swedes and to those interested in the history of dynamite.

Ever since 1901 when Prudhomme got the first Nobel for Literature, this resourceful restlessness has ensured each time a Nobel is awarded, the giver of the Prize is recalled as much as the recipient is applauded.

Unlike Alfred Nobel in the 18th century, The Hindu is in no need of self-perpetuation. So why is this sturdy institution entering this business of awards in writing?

Valid reasons

Because, one should imagine, awards and prizes also come in for two other reasons: One, writers, who are as human as artists or sportspersons, want affirmation of their creativity and public skill by someone other than the reading public. Two, readers who are also artists — artists in the art of fine reading — want to be certain that when they have said Shabash! they have not made an error in judgment.

And so the world gets made of great writers among who some are Nobels, Pulitzers, Bookers and those who are not.

Or, not yet.

Resourcefulness is exemplary, restlessness infectious.

If dynamite money and the urge to be Patron could turn Nobel, the name of a householder into a household name, Joseph Pulitzer saw no reason why money from news should not do something similar. And Columbia University was not a whit less distinguished than the Academies and Institutes of Sweden and Norway. And so came to be the Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism, Literature and Musical Composition, with only the field of conferment being confined to the boundaries of the USA.

The two-syllabled ‘Nobel' had been easy to pronounce, especially as it was almost homonomous with the well-known adjective bearing the same syllables, consonants and vowels.

Nor was the three-syllabled ‘Pulitzer' particularly difficult to roll over one's tongue. But either out of a sudden seizure of nervousness or a desire to ensure phonetic-compliance , the administrators of the Pulitzer Prize advised the world with self-conscious honesty and un-self conscious humour that the name ‘Pulitzer' when pronounced should sound like the verb pull, as in “Pull it, sir”.

Clarifications were not long in coming that said while the administrators preferred the ‘pull' start, they were aware of the ‘pew' start as well — Pew-lit-sir. This of course made the start-off pretty close, when aspirated, to the exclamation ‘Phew!' which, according to dictionaries, is an interjection used to denote relief, fatigue, surprise, disgust…and according to Douglas Harper, is a vocalic gesture expressing weariness, attested from 1604!

‘Phew' was heard in 1992 when Vikram Seth missed the Booker, expressing surprise but also weariness because his publishers with ill-advised confidence had been asserting that the author of A Suitable Boy would get the prize that year. Matters for Seth enthusiasts were not made easy when word came that the Prize had gone to the relatively less known Roddy Doyle for a novel with a title that seemed to trail the lost aspirations of those who did not make it that year. It was called Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

So literature awards and prizes come in where they mean what they mean for the writers themselves, and for their readers. They mean a much-needed and much-valued self-validation. Not of talent, or accomplishment, but of what may be called the integrity of creative endeavour in the writers, and of critical appreciation in the readers.

Prizes are also a chance to accept them on principle, the principle of a courteous acknowledging of the critical acknowledgment.

They also offer a chance to decline them, on some other equally valid principle.

Generating debate

The accepting or declining generates public debate, as few things do. A book once out belongs to the writer, but is owned by the reader. Its public fate is the writer's concern, but the readers' business.

There was a point to Amitav Ghosh' withdrawing from the Commonwealth Prize competition in 2001, which few assailed. Was there a point in the chorus asking him to decline the Dan Davis Prize this year?

At the level of literature, none.

Publication enfranchises writing.

A prize franks it with the monogrammed embossing of the prize-giver's resolve.

A prize does not limit a writer's freedom to fly, or to not fly, but the bird has been ringed.

A prized book is one thing.

A book that has won a prize is another.

It becomes a book plus.

Its movement is, post- the Prize, marked by that identifying band which will go with it to where it flies, setting it apart from the species, making it easy to find and re-find, to follow its flights of habit, and those of fancy, its long migrations, its tiny territories, its stayings and its strayings, its feeding, its nesting, its brooding, its longevity, and yes, even the ceasing at some point of its winged life.

The book that wins a prize as coveted as the Nobel, the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Commonwealth Writers', the Sahitya Akademi's, the Jnanpith's, or this one being unveiled today, will be its own exemplar, its own peer. Its successors from the same pen will be likened to it, found to be equal to it or not. That book will be its own pride, its own wonder. Its own glory and its own weight.

A prize can be conferred without bias.

This one is an example.

A great jury, about the best there could be, has ensured that.

But can there be a prize that does not patronise?

That can honour egolessly, decorate logolessly, acknowledge without condescension, select without cross-evaluation ?

Must one book rise to the crest of a prize by ‘beating' others to the glory? Must a book, which is not an industrial product but a gift of autonomy, have to go through the embarrassment of comparison, the tension of competition, the stereos of contest and combat? Must a writer, who seeks nothing apart from the joy of belonging to a reader, have to become a candidate for open acclamation?

You could ask, can one write without being compared, can one read without judging, can one see one book and not think, intuitively, of another?

Truth to tell, one cannot.

But it is one thing to do that in the closeness of private spaces, another to have that done for you in the Colosseum of public gaze, with curtain raisers and curtain calls.

Future hope

No mode is cast in stone. Perhaps systems of book appreciation will reach a stage when short lists and long lists will be left to the world of official appointments and if one book has to be picked from a shelf full of books, it will be picked without any other being dropped, or even moved sideways. And pending that writers will be spared the experience of having their composure tested by a pre-selection announcement of their names as ‘hopefuls', when to hope for a Prize has been the last thing on their minds.

When that happens, no one will ever dare suggest to the Prize givers ‘Pull it, Sir!' or beseech a ‘Push it, Sir!'

‘Which world are you living in?' I can hear it being asked.

‘Which world ? The world of Fiction, of course. The world of R.K. Narayan, if you will'.

At its ‘innocent' best.

Or that of Nayantara Sahgal who speaks as she thinks and writes as she speaks for she is not just ‘ From Fear Set Free' but from Fame or its seeking, as well.

And in the traditions of The Hindu which has taught us over the years to differentiate between news and views, report and analysis, and has trained us to treat fact as fact, fiction as fiction, and everything else as fantasy unfit for printer's ink.

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