It’s a terrible confession to make, but the judging–at least in the English fiction section of the Crosswords–went off smoothly. Geeta Doctor, bless her heart, wanted more squirmishes, but much to our dismay, Mukund, Geeta and I ended up agreeing on most things. I do think there’d have been much more debate if more books had been included; this year, Crossword closed the publication deadline at September 2005, which gave us about 40 books to read. I know, I know, you have to shut the gate some time: but some of the most interesting novels of the year came out in October and November (which is why Altaf Tyrewala, Siddharth Chowdhury, Kalpana Swaminathan and Nilita Vachani, among others, weren’t eligible–they’ll be up for the 2006 list, already looking strong with new novels by Kiran Desai, Kiran Nagarkar, Irwin Allan Sealy and Vikram Chandra.)
That made our shortlist easy to assemble, but pretty predictable: Rushdie, Naipaul, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Siddhartha Deb, Rana Dasgupta, Cyrus Mistry.
And there were few disagreements because in every case, there was a two-out-of-three consensus at the very least. One of us hated Naipaul’s Magic Seeds; the other two argued for the Ould Master. (Who is back in the news, grumping that England doesn’t appreciate him, and pissing from a great height to use his own phrase on Messieurs Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Austen and Hemingway this time. Last time it was Flaubert and company.)
One of us thought Baldwin’s Tiger Claw was basically nautanki clapped between the covers of a novel; the other two pleaded its case. One couldn’t get into Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled; the other two were big fans. One couldn’t see any merit in Cyrus Mistry; the other two thought it was a pretty good Bombay book.
So there you are. No dramatic walk-outs, no offers to commit ritual hara-kiri.
Nothing at all like this.
The funny thing was that everyone outside the judging room assumed the contest would be between Naipaul and Rushdie, but it was nowhere near that clear-cut. The three novels that came up most often in our discussions were Surface, Shalimar the Clown and Tokyo Cancelled; and Shalimar was the book that sparked off the most passionate arguments, the most fun debates.
So there really was none of this:
Then the whole question of how the judging panel picks the winner. The year that the Oxford professor John Bayley was chair, voting reached a third round on the final day. One of the panel, exasperated beyond endurance, pointed out to Bayley that their task was to reach a decision by narrowing the field, but in each of the three rounds the Prof had voted for a different book. “Oh yes I know but you see they’re all so good. “
Contrast that with Labour shadow minister Gerald Kaufmann, who brought his party committee-room skills to the task of chairing the panel and carefully planned the whole final meeting in advance. When Kaufmann left the room for a minute, the rest of the panel rounded on Goff (he attends every meeting, though in silence) in a chorus of complaint. When Kaufmann returned, however, there wasn’t a word: which only goes to show, Goff pointed out with his narrow, pussycat smile, that writers may talk the talk but a battle-hardened politician can run rings around them any time.
All the same, the Crossword could do with Martyn Goff’s machiavellian skills; six months of reading books and no blood on the auditorium floor? Tut.