(Published in the Business Standard, January 16, 2007)

Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel as well as every other literary honour he was ever offered. He believed that by accepting a literary award, a writer became part of the establishment, and in his view, a writer could only work if he was outside the system. The poet Les Murray, on the other hand, justified accepting a literary award on the grounds that he was only going up on stage to collect his wages.

V S Naipaul once said that the Booker was “destroying literature” by looking for good, commercial books that died very quickly, while France’s Prix Goncourt rewarded “antiquated” books. Amitav Ghosh believes that the origins of literary awards are important, even crucial. Some years ago, he withdrew The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth Book Prize on the very valid grounds that he disagreed strongly with “that particular memorialisation of Empire that passes under the rubric of ‘the Commonwealth'”.

The shortlists for the Hutch Crossword Book Award, given out to the best works by authors of Indian origin in the categories of fiction in English, non-fiction and fiction in translation from other Indian languages into English, will be announced this evening. Launched in 1998, the prize weathered a gap between 2001 and 2003 when no awards were given out, returning in 2004. It has a small but significant impact on book sales, but to most authors, it’s the recognition (and the cheques!) that count. Indian authors who work outside the enclosed world of English letters often respond to the award emotionally. (I remember the distinguished writer who bounced up and down in excitement in the car on the way to a TV interview after he won.)

Last year, Krishna Sobti spoke of how this award meant recognition from a community of readers–English-speaking Indians–who often ignored writers from “other” languages. Some Indian writers in English, the ones who already have serious reputations and readerships elsewhere, respond nostalgically: the Crossword may not be the biggest or the most important award in their shining rows of medals, but it’s the one from “home”.

But what does the award mean to the Indian reader? This year’s fiction longlist is pretty representative of what the reader has to choose from in the course of a year. There is, sadly, a great deal of middling fiction–the longlist is compiled as a collection of all eligible titles, barring children’s books, that might qualify as literary fiction, rather than as a selective list. The 20-odd decent contenders on this year’s list of 49 rise fairly quickly to the top.

Of them, some have made an impact in the international markets–Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. Some authors are better known in Indian literary circles–Kiran Nagarkar, Manju Kapoor, I Allan Sealy, Kunal Basu. Some are relatively new writers–Altaf Tyrewala, Siddharth Choudhury–while some are relatively experimental writers–Kalpana Swaminathan with her murder mysteries, Samit Basu’s fantasy series, Srividya Natarajan’s offbeat humour. There are three writers from the North-East on the list–Temsula Ao, Mamang Dai and Dhruba Hazarika. While they shouldn’t be stereotyped by region, it is good to see new voices in fiction emerging from a part of the country that has been so muffled over the years.”

The non-fiction list looks impressive, with 61 titles, but many of these have leaked in from the self-help and spirituality section. Yoga for High Blood Pressure, the Kama Sutra and An Ethical Guide to Hacking Mobile Phones may be very useful books, but they would not qualify as great literary non-fiction. The rest of the list is cheerfully eclectic. There are biographies and memoirs, notably Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, Yashodhara Dalmia’s life of Amrita Sher-gil, Shrabani Basu’s Spy Princess and Timeri Murari’s heartwrenching memoir of loving and losing an adopted child, My Temporary Son. There are interesting books on film, from Madhu Jain’s history of The Kapoors to Jerry Pinto’s Helen. And there are huge omissions, which I hope Crossword has corrected on the actual list, such as the omission of the autobiography of Baby Haldar.

Despite these minor caveats, both the non-fiction and fiction lists work reasonably well as reader’s guides to what’s been published in the mainstream. The translation list was a brief one last year, because publishers hadn’t submitted titles for consideration, and is restricted to nine titles and six languages this year. I found this baffling until Crossword pointed out that they reserve awards for authors who are still alive. “The problem is not that we’re not doing translations,” a cynical publisher told me. “The problem is that we prefer to translate the dead guys.” So in this polyglot country of a hundred different dialects, the reader limited to English and perhaps one more tongue, are stuck with either a very short list of living writers—or a reasonably long list of very dead ones.