Wednesday, January 26, 2022

On the Loose: Paper Tigers

The pen is mightier than an award.

Written by Leher Kala |
October 19, 2015 12:05:56 am

At last count over 15 writers had returned their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against rising intolerance in India. Author Amitav Ghosh, a recipient of the award 25 years ago, said he respected their stand but wasn’t going to return his. “That would amount to a repudiation of the institution’s history,” said Ghosh, questioning what would happen if the Akademi starts supporting the protest. He asked, “Would the awards have to be re-accepted? Or do we assume the Akademi is permanently delegitimised?”

Since the 19th century, writers have played major roles in dissent movements everywhere in the world. There was one crucial difference, disagreement with the system was expressed through their work: writing. Oscar Wilde concealed several coded (and hilarious) subtexts in his plays. “Earnest” in Victorian England was slang for gay.

Wilde named his play The Importance of Being Earnest, a fearless swipe at the toxic homophobia prevalent then. Author Milan Kundera was exquisitely subversive, dripping with black humour in his highly political novel on erstwhile Czechoslovakia, The Joke. Those writers made themselves heard by using powerful material from their own clashes with the authorities. The mocking, hard-hitting tone of their fiction resonated with the public, influencing an entire generation and eventually their nations’ destiny.

Writing is hard work. Sheer torture, in fact. It involves endless toiling at a desk, creating characters, fretting about allusions and imagery and stringing thoughts together in a coherent manner. So one can almost sympathise with the Sahitya Akademi writers choosing symbolism instead, to make a point. Incidentally, in the other Academy Awards, less than 10 actors have returned their Oscar statues in it’s entire, 84-year, history. Such is the reverence for the Golden Lady that when an Oscar statuette landed up in the black market, Kevin Spacey purchased it and returned it to the Academy. According to Forbes, Steven Spielberg bought Bette Davis’ Oscar for $578,000 and also presented it back to the Academy.

The question has to be asked, what exactly is the worth of an award, if a recipient is fine relinquishing it so easily? There are very pragmatic reasons for coveting an Oscar. Besides the invaluable stamp of excellence, a mere nomination bestows instant prestige, insane amounts of money, a Vanity Fair profile and till your dying day you will be referred to as “Oscar nominee so-and-so”. Basically, you’d be crazy to give it back since you can live off it for the rest of your life.
Contrast that with Sahitya Akademi Award winner Nayantara Sahgal, whose book Prison and Chocolate Cake was republished by Harper Collins in the recent past. It has six reviews on Goodreads, not a single review on Amazon and isn’t available on Kindle. It’s listed at 1,990,226 on the all time bestseller list, which means almost 2 lakh books come before hers. Winning the Akademi Award was no game changer for Sahgal. It does not guarantee readers or acclaim. She’s a finer person than I, if that wouldn’t alter her perspective a little bit.

Author James Salter in his very readable Light Years pondered endlessly, “Can there be greatness without fame?” perhaps alluding to his own struggle for recognition from his peers and readers.

The far more deflating Hindi version of that is: Jungle mein mor naacha. Kisne dekha? The finest examples of what it means to win are from sport. When Roger Federer plays tennis, irrespective of if he wins or loses, he’s choked with emotion, fighting back tears on court. His heart and soul beats for another Grand Slam trophy, a mesmerising display of utter and complete devotion to the game. Awards are important, especially, maybe only, when they become a source of inspiration for the rest of
the world.

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