The Sahitya Akademi awards are considered among the most prestigious literary accolades in the country, with good reason. But the awards, and many of the Akademi’s other activites, have continued in unchanged form for a long time. Perhaps some change – or, at the very least, re-examination – is in order.
There are two reasons the Akademi should remove the age category and start an award for best debut and perhaps best second book in prose and poetry in each language. For one thing, the patronising and sexist connotations that accompany the prefixes “young” or “emerging” attached to a writer are unnecessary. A man gets to be called young or “in his prime” well into his forties in India, while a woman surrenders her badge of youth the moment she hits the big three O.
The expectations society has of women, and the demands it makes on their bodies, also dictate when it’s appropriate for her to marry, when to produce a child, when to perform the conventional duties of a good “wife” – we use the word “spouse” now. In Indian society, women tend to marry earlier than men, saddling themselves with responsibilities with which several of our (Anglophone) male writers don’t have to bother.
The question of free or disposable time to think and write – and thinking is writing – is a profoundly political, one tied to a woman’s selfhood. It’s bound to her consciousness within her body; a body that is at war with itself and the world all at once. She takes, on an average, longer to produce books, given her prescribed responsibilities as well as the systemic humiliation she has to endure. Age as a criterion becomes all the more discriminatory in this context.
The second reason concerns the specific case for poetry in India. They take their time to flourish and form. After all, Arun Kolatkar did not publish his first book, the seminal Jejuri, till he turned forty. Some of our most wonderful contemporary poets have crossed the eligible age and produced first, and second, books that deserve real recognition – and distribution.
I can think of Monk on a Hill by Guru Ladakhi, from Gangtok, who published his first book at fifty. Arun Sagar – who has written two noteworthy books of poetry, Anamnesia, and A Long Walk in Sunlight that deserve to be read and encouraged for what he has accomplished in them – would not have made the cut either on age.
Even if some poets are of eligible age at a particular point, they’ve had books that have been a long time in the making, and they should be free to take as much more time as they wish. Aishwarya Iyer, who won the Rayaprol award, Aditi Angiras who co-edited the first-ever queer South Asian anthology with Akhil Katyal, The World That Belongs to Us, Uttaran Das Gupta, who wrote Visceral Metropolis, and, in my opinion, meditates on location more than any poet in Delhi, and Maaz Bin Bilal, who wrote Ghazalnama, and confesses the book took eleven years, all deserve to be appreciated and considered for awards. Writers don’t write to meet award deadlines, yet at the same time, an award has no right to impose a cut-off age on a writer. Frankly, a writer is as old as the number of their books – that’s the caveat for maturity, not linear, earthly time.
As for the judging, one way to remove the possibility of regional political bias is to invite international authors, editors and patrons as panellists. We can draw upon the strengths and talents of writers across the South Asian region. There is no dearth of people who have written enduring literature, and who still live among us. Doesn’t Bei Dao come to mind? I think of Sholeh Wolpe. Sometimes, I imagine with a strange wistfulness, a vague sense of love, what it would have meant for Indian poetry if Forough Farhokhzad came over to judge this competition when she was alive. What would have been caught by her brilliant eye that we, Indians, accustomed to our manners and idioms, took for granted?
The council should consider a periodic change of editors and chairpersons. While it has been helmed by many individuals who have done an extraordinary job, the institutional handling of a journal cannot be just a matter of the abilities of individuals. Most of all, the same individuals being in charge year after year can lead to the imposition of a particular set of sensibilities and even biases.
These positions are not administrative, requiring fixed qualifications such as clearing the UPSC examinations. Instead, they are filled through various kinds of nominations. This mode of selection can contribute to nepotism, even if unwittingly.
In this instance, I speak as an editor, and not as a poet, writer or translator. I have to be alert to my own biases, which is why I always need help and suggestions from those who don’t occupy the same class or caste spaces. Despite this, there are only so many people I know. Not all of them are writers. Those who are writers may know other writers, making this a completely middle-class affair, something none of us can escape on our own, and something very unhealthy for the cause of pluralism at this level.
The Sahitya Akademi is a government body, not a private enterprise. It befits the organisation to have guest editors, with a rolling position as editor, enabling a division of responsibility. It’s no small job. We’re talking of twenty-six – sometimes more – languages at each go: a responsibility of the magnitude that enterprises like The Poetry Foundation or The New Yorker, with their tradition of continuity, cannot fathom.
A public-private partnership is crucial at this point. The Sahitya Akademi needs to have dedicated shelves across each bookstore it can find in India. Without this, the health of literary writing in the subcontinent may be threatened. The Akademi is the largest and most independent of presses. Unlike multinational publishers, it has no obligation to follow market trends and become slaves to sales. This it can use to its advantage to ensure the proliferation of good books that are read over many years, and foster a healthy culture of reading.
Unlike booksellers and corporations that focus on the instant saleability of a title, the Akademi can focus on creating a market instead. Consistently putting worthwhile books in a person’s line of sight without underestimating their curiosity can go a long way towards stoking demand for such works. Once a book is placed on a shelf, it will sell. Not immediately and not a lot, perhaps, but, to echo Malcolm Lowry’s conviction about Under the Volcano, “it will sell for a long time.”
Bringing in critics
For both the award and the publication, it’s crucial to have a serious critic – who is not a writer – in each language in the panel of judges. Critics who are not writers must have a place as there’s a need to formalise literary criticism. The Akademi must take real steps towards making this a reality. Without critics, our books are dead. Without responsible, attentive, alert, and sensitive readers, writers don’t matter.
The ranks of critics shouldn’t be limited to literature professors in our academic institutions – they must include philosophers, historians and political scientists, among others. Why, the possibility of scientists and environmentalists, for instance, being involved in literature could lead to more of literary writing in these fields, which is badly needed.
The curators for the Sahitya Akademi literary festivals should not be picked from the administration alone. The Akademi ought to have an external panel working in collaboration with them to facilitate international interactions between Indian and foreign writers, especially from Asia. Now that the Covid-19 pandemic is ending and the opportunity for real-life events is emerging again, the Akademi can use its venues, access and resources for these.
Be it the prize or the books, the journal or the events – it should mean something vital to engage with the Sahitya Akademi. It should mean something to be called a Sahitya Akademi award winner.