(Published in the Business Standard, 29 June 2009)

In the eleven years since the first Crossword award was instituted, several groups of people have benefited. The awards have been handed out for nine years—it took a three-year break from 2000 to 2004—and the categories have expanded from just English fiction by Indian writers to include non-fiction, Indian language fiction in translation, and a new award for popular writing. Authors, translators and publishers value an Indian prize; reviewers like me welcome the overview of the year’s writing that the Crossword gives you. But does it work for readers?

The Vodafone Crossword shortlists were announced last week and after a decade, it’s easy to see the challenges in the award’s path. The biggest practical problem the Vodafone Crossword faces today is a lack of support from other booksellers; Crossword is a bookstore chain, and many booksellers won’t give prominence to the awards, arguing that it’s free publicity for a rival. The second biggest problem is that while the awards are anticipated, discussed and debated by a small group of readers and industry insiders, it hasn’t been able to draw in the average reader. Looking at the shortlists by category gives you a better sense of the issues involved in running an “Indian” book award.

English fiction shortlist:
Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ (Random House)
Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ (Penguin India)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ (Random House)
Neel Mukherjee’s ‘Past Continuous’ (Picador India)
Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Escape’ (Picador India)
Anuradha Roy’s ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longings’ (Picador India)
Preeta Samarasan’s ‘Evening is the Whole Day’ (HarperCollins India)

At seven books, this is a larger-than-normal shortlist, making it glaringly obvious that Crossword’s judges this year were underwhelmed by Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger. Picador’s hat-trick is of special interest because its three authors are “home-grown”—ie, first published in India. Opening the list up to authors of Indian origin has allowed the inclusion of Jhumpa Lahiri—her first two books were eligible for US prizes, but not for the Crossword because it was open only to resident Indians/ Indian passport holders at the time.

The debate over who qualifies as an Indian writer will continue—currently, the prize is open to anyone who qualifies under the Person of Indian Origin guidelines. Being more inclusive allows more wide-ranging and high quality fiction—which is better for readers—but also creates concerns over whether this might not become too broad in scope. It’s also interesting to see how many writers on this list live for part or most of the year outside India, reflecting the wider shift in the lives of the urban Indian elite.

English non-fiction shortlist:
Pallavi Aiyer’s Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China (HarperCollins India)
Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Nights (Random House)
Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin)
Edna Fernandes’ The Last Jews of Kerala (Penguin)
Chaturvedi Badrinath’s The Women of the Mahabharata (Orient Blackswan)

From the average reader’s perspective, the non-fiction shortlist usually delivers the most interesting list of books. It’s also the most demanding to judge—it’s harder to set standards for different kinds of non-fiction writing (travelogues versus biographies, memoirs versus criticism). Sudeep Chakravarti and Basharat Peer would be the favourites this year, but keep an eye on Edna Fernandes’ fascinating history of a vanishing community. The list excludes several popular bestsellers, including business biographies, in favour of more stylish and presumably more lasting writing.

Indian language fiction in translation shortlist:

Jayakantan’s Dissonance and Other Stories
translated by K.S. Subramanian (Katha)

Manto’s Selected Stories
translated by Aatish Taseer (Random House)

Manohar Shyam Joshi’s T’TA Professor”
translated by Ira Pande (Penguin)

M S Sethu’s The Wind from the Hills
translated by Prema Jayakumar (Tranquebar)

The longlist for this year’s award promised some interesting work, but translations remain invisible—it’s hard to find many of the books in the stores. Perhaps one of the most significant achievements of the VC award has been that it’s brought the translator into far more prominence. The best translation of 2008 was probably the Blaft anthology of Tamil pulp fiction, but anthologies are seldom eligible for mainstream literary prizes anywhere in the world. I can’t see an easy way for the VC award, or any award, to get around this.

The big debate for the last decade was whether to include works by dead authors. Sriram, who helped to run the award for several years, got into a bit of a tangle during the shortlist discussion in Delhi, first defending the decision to limit the list to living authors before he realised that the rules had changed this year. The current rules now require the translator to be among the living, and opening it up to past (and often previously untranslated) classics might help attract more readers.

That still leaves the question we started with. The shortlists offer a wide range of interesting and very diverse books— but until readers queue up in the hundreds to buy them, there’s a missing piece in this Crossword puzzle.