The Babu was in Bombay during the Hutch Crossword Book Awards, and had a most entertaining time, even though he had to put on fancy dress for the occasion. Here’s what he noted:
1) Aruna Sairam, Carnatic music diva, and Ella Fitzgerald, jazz icon, would’ve had a lot in common. Remember Ella’s scat singing on Mack the Knife? At the ceremony, Sairam topped that with a tribute to language and the spoken word done in rap time that the audience should’ve got up and danced to.
2) Delhi audiences and Bombay audiences are different. In Bombay, people actually SWITCH OFF their cellphones when they know book readings and baul singers and judges’ citations will be taking up mike time. In Delhi, we listen to Rushdie and Peter Carey and the like in between soundbytes: “So I said, but ji, if we do the drawing room in maroon then the new Broota painting you bought will clash ji and he said okay what about royal blue that’ll go na?”
3) Delhi audiences and Bombay audiences are VERY different. Faced with a three-hour awards ceremony that includes readings from all the shortlisted books (ten, at roughly five minutes each); a great performance from Sairam (see above); and an emotional baul singer (10 minutes to sing, 5 to wipe away tears brought forth by mere memory of Lalon Foqir); not to mention the speeches; well, the Dilliwala drops in for the first half hour and then disappears to attend a farmhouse (pronounciation: foam-haarse) party. The good souls in Bombay sneak out to a nearby bar-and-restaurant but return–duly fortified–every so often to lend support and check if the damn ceremony’s finished yet.
4) In the Indian context, writers who might win awards but don’t know for sure stay away for fear of… Ebola contamination by the failure virus? I have no idea. The buggers just don’t show up, while their publishers drop broad hints to the organisers: “You see, sir is a big-big author, it will look soooo bad if s/he comes but doesn’t win, kya karey, now if you can give any indication we can organise a flight from Outer Mongolia, it is just that, what s/he will say to cameras if Prize Goes Elsewhere?”
5) One exception to that was Professor Chandrasekhar Rath, who showed up for the ceremony despite having, as he confessed, an idea that against stalwarts like Mahasweta Debi, he would have only a “20 per cent, no make that five” chance of winning. He and J P Nayak, the translator of Astride the Wheel, winnah in the Indian Fiction in Translation category, were jubilant. You have no idea, both said, how much this means. Recognition. A new audience for the book. A sense that the years both spent on the book, in writing and in transferring that writing to another language, had paid off. Please note, says the Babu sourly, that in all the debate over the Hegemony of English over Other Indian Languages, no one thinks to ask why English is the only language that has a mainstream prize for works in translation. Bangla doesn’t have a prize for works translated into Bangla. Malayalam has nothing for writers whose works have been translated into that language. Likewise Marathi, Gujarati and the entire lot of Indian languages other than English. Someone remind me of this the next time I hear a rant about how English hogs all the attention, okay?
6) Amitav Ghosh, who won the English Fiction award, was duly emotional, even though he hadn’t been able to come for the final night–he was in conversation with Gunter Grass in Calcutta, which is as good an excuse as anyone needs. Ghosh had been shortlisted for the Crossword once before, for The Glass Palace, but had lost out to Jamyang Norbu. One hears, however, that the only serious competition The Hungry Tide had this year was from I Allan Sealy’s The Brainfever Bird. Sealy showed up for the award ceremony most sportingly. The reading from Brainfever, a virtuoso performance by Rehan Engineer (damn, misspelled the man’s name first time around, and forgot to mention that the other actors who did readings–Kittu, Avantika, Ashwin–were pretty brilliant), had the audience completely transfixed. Sealy’s won the Crossword earlier, for The Everest Hotel, and has a taste for Borges’ poetry.
7) “The weather might be cold,” we were warned. So we sallied forth with shawls, sweaters, even the traditional monkey cap. Only to discover, after Delhi’s distinctly Muscovian temperatures, that Bombay is what we capitalwallahs would classify as gently pleasant. People dived for cover when there was a brief spatter of rain; people brought out the warm coats when there was the merest hint of a sharp nip. We, steeled by Delhi’s fog, mist, sleet and general miserable weather in January, laughed sharply, donated the monkey cap and strode with confidence into the midst of shivering dinner guests after the awards ceremony.
8) And who did we meet? Ah, that would be telling. Let it be known that the Babu had a wonderful time. He was taken off to lunch by a kindly friend who showed him Goan and Gujarati Mumbai; he was gently praised by Shyam Benegal and Mrs Benegal, for obscure reasons; he met a film director who once worked as a chef; he hung out with Peter Griffin, who introduced him to tons of fascinating people and kept a paternal eye on him; and he ate Far Too Many Prawns. Burp.