Lit for Life

A prized possession

The 2010 debut: (From right) The winner Manu Joseph with Nayantara Sahgal, Shashi Deshpande, Brinda Bose, Mukul Kesavan, and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Photo: V. Ganesan   | Photo Credit: V_Ganesan

Nothing, really, is built in a day; not even Rome. So an award that both recognises and awards excellence in literature must make its mark a little deeper every year and, in a space already filled with other literary awards, slowly carve out a space for itself that is both credible and unique. It must embrace change, accept movement and stay dynamic. It must also contain within it, despite all the changes, that single and central kernel of idea that it began with.

The Hindu Prize has seen these changes and, while embracing those, has tried to retain its core purpose. With every year, and every new winner, The Hindu Prize adds to its history new names, new meanings and new interpretations. Its ambit expands and its reach widens. “I felt that we should look at new books and new writing in India especially since, with the Booker and other prizes, increasingly the scope of judging works was expanding from the traditional narrow way. I felt that since the Literary Review had been reviewing and writing on books and had access to a lot of good writing, The Hindu was in an eminent position to do this. It was also a way of helping young writers who often struggle to get the word out and encouraging good writing in India,” says Nirmala Lakshman, Director, Kasturi and Sons Limited, and Curator, Lit for Life.

Over the years, the award has gathered around itself a growing family of patrons, supporters and well-wishers. This year, it turns five and, with a new shortlist and panel of judges, it gains new members in its ever-widening family.

These names are, most definitely, the Prize’s family. Over the years, they have become an indispensable part of the Hindu Prize. The judges, the shortlisted authors, the winners; each name, whether it has made a single appearance or come back for more, has left with snatches of fond, and lasting memory. “I have been part of three jury panels for the prize and, every year, I’ve seen it grow,” says poet K. Satchidanandan, who feels that one of the reasons why the prize is now a very important part of the country’s literary map is its lasting, and increasing, credibility. “The transparent and fair process through which the winner is chosen has established the prize as a very credible one. So it is now one of the most prestigious awards in the country.”

Today, both the award and the festival during which it is awarded have grown into a three-day production, with multiple panels, workshops and sessions. While a lot has changed since 2010 and that single evening that the award began with, perhaps one of the most striking changes has been the name of the Prize itself. Called The Hindu Best Fiction Award in 2010, the name then changed to The Hindu Literary Prize in 2011.  Now the award is called, quite simply, The Hindu Prize.

Each year finds new, outstanding books published in the country, and English fiction finds its envelope pushed to take in newer forms and styles. Fiction is woven out of history, reality, fantasy. It’s already difficult to find a single winner, but The Hindu Prize attempts to pick the books with new voices; voices that, as Geeta Doctor, one of the jury members from 2013, said, “prod the conscience of a new generation with unsettling images and ideas that come under the mask of fiction”. The Hindu has also taken care, year after year, to stay away from the judging process. “We wanted to ensure that it’s a neutral, objective space.  So each year we constitute a jury completely independent of us. We choose the jurors but beyond that we don’t know anything till the announcement,” says Lakshman.

While the first shortlist was a long one, with 11 books, the following years saw an increasing number of entries but fewer names on the shortlist, narrowing the field but making the exercise of picking a winner even more difficult. It meant, of course, that the shortlist already contained carefully picked books, each cherished equally by the judges. It also meant that the winning book was especially outstanding, its excellence spelled out by its company on the shortlist, and its ability to emerge victorious among them. Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh, which won The Hindu Prize 2013, was one such outstanding book. With his win, Salim too became an indispensable part of the award’s history. Looking back on the year that followed, he says, “As the fifth edition of Lit for Life is all set to get under way, the third edition of Vanity Bagh, is hitting bookstores. I am sure the impact of winning The Hindu Prize goes well beyond the title that bagged this prestigious award. Readers and critics have started taking a serious look at my other books as well. And I am smitten. I dream of winning this award again.”

This year, the shortlist is yet another daunting one, with equally deserving, but incredibly varied, books on the list. This year, in fact, one name makes another appearance on the other side of the fence. In 2010, Shashi Deshpande was one of the judges. But this year, her book Shadow Play is on the shortlist. “Sometime ago, readers and writers watched in dismay as the book pages in newspapers and magazines steadily shrank and finally disappeared. The Hindu Literary Review remained almost the sole survivor, a happy reminder that literature still existed, that it mattered. And, therefore, when the Literary Review told me they were instituting a literary prize and would I be a judge, I agreed immediately. Who better than them to institute a prize? The first festival established the importance of the prize and created a welcome literary buzz. It is now a prestigious festival, a prized award. Five years later, I am on the other side of the fence, on the shortlist, not a judge. It’s a bit nerve-racking, but still feels good. And expectations are the same: that the festival will ensure that books will be talked about, read, bought. That’s what prizes are for, that’s what festivals are about.”

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 11:09:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/the-hindu-prize-a-prized-posssession/article10610368.ece

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