The suspense is over. Yesterday at a glittering ceremony at the Nehru Centre in Worli, Mumbai, the winners in the four categories of the Vodafone Crossword Book Award were announced. Attendance on the part of shortlistees was good, with about half present. Even some of those resident abroad had made it. The crowd was good too but thinned out as the evening wore on (and it went on for more than three hours).
Amitav Ghosh was the chief guest and gave away the prizes, while the event was compered by Tom Alter who also took part in some of the enactments of scenes from the winning books.
After the speeches by the sponsors and the lighting of the lamp, the first award to be announced was the Popular Award, which went to Namita Devidayal for The Music Room (category non-fiction, Random House).
This was followed by the award for translation. The judges were Urvashi Butalia, Dilip Kumar and Paul Zacharia. Urvashi Butalia explained that they had had two parameters to keep in mind when deciding the award (which in a way made it easier to zero in on the best book) because they looked for an excellent text excellently translated. Of course all the awards had very long longlists this year: an encouraging sign for Indian publishing, but a bit of a pain for the judges. This year also the shortlists in the translation and fiction categories have six instead of five titles.
However, in spite of having this advantage the judges still hadn’t been able to settle on one winner, which shows how closely the race was run: the award was split between Anand C.P. Sachidanandan’s Govardhan’s Travels, translated by Gita Krishnankutty, and Shankar’s Chowringhee, translated by Arunava Sinha. It was good to see Gita Krishnankutty win again.
Arunava Sinha (ex-JUDE, if you’re interested) also made an eloquent plea for greater respect for translation as an art. They had formidable competition in Ashokamitran’s novel Star Crossed, translated by V. Ram Narayan, who was also the publisher, and who had also published another of the shortlisted books, Era Murugan’s The Ghosts of Arasur, translated by Janaki Venkataraman.
The next category was English fiction, for which the judges were Manjula Padmanabhan, Kai Friese and Mukul Kesavan. This was won by Usha K.R. for A Girl and a River.
The proceedings were enlivened at this point by Shubha Mudgal’s powerful voice; she sang a number of songs, after which the final award fo the evening was announced: in the English non-fiction category. The judges for this were Anita Roy, Harsh Sethi and Mukund Padmanabhan. Unfortunately at this point my camera or rather my batteries packed up, so I couldn’t record the end of the evening. (I had to throw away a perfectly good pair at the airport, and the ones I bought near Flora Fountain must have been old.) Anyway, the non fiction prize was won by William Dalrymple for The Last Mughal.
Once the formalities concluded, we repaired to the bar and got wasted. This, I need not tell you, was the high point of the evening. Several people said kind things about my book even before they hit the whiskey, which was most gratifying. As the evening wore on, I found it more and more difficult to give people a coherent idea of what it was about, so I just said ‘sex and violence’ and watched illumination spread across their faces like a sunrise. Hence the ancient aphorism:
It matters not whether you won or lost, but whether you had a party.
Towards the end of the night the staff were waiting on us in their pyjamas, and when we were finally thrown out a whole bottle of whiskey came with us, hidden under a citation. However it and Kai Friese rapidly disappeared in the same direction. Too sloshed to give chase, I went back to the hotel in my personal chauffeur-driven car.
We were staying at the extremely swank Ambassador Hotel on Marine Drive, which had allowed me to solve an enduring mystery: what is that strange UFO-like object on the Marine Drive skyline? It is in fact a revolving restaurant called the Pearl of the Orient, which serves Asiatic cuisine and fine wines while you rotate gently over Bombay. After a few brandies, it is a rather disconcerting experience. The best way to deal with it is to have a few brandies more.
That morning I’d gone for a walk and ended up splurging on Fashion Street, and as I was lugging the loot back to the hotel in a blue garbage bag, I met Anjum and Zac heading towards Fort. So we teamed up and went to the Strand Bookstore, where they clearly take their bookselling seriously. We amused ourselves for a bit trying to spot each other’s books, but after a while the ferocious air conditioning drove me out onto the street. Why do all enclosed public spaces in Bombay behave as if they want to cryogenically preserve you for posterity? Even the cars are freezing.
After that we had lunch at the Military Cafe that nestles under the august bulk of the Bombay Stock Exchange, highly recommended by Zac who seems to have an internal gastronomical map of the city. Zac writes in Swedish which, as he says, is yet to become an Indian language. The cafe was similar in many respects to the little places in and around Chandni Chowk in Calcutta, except that the Military Cafe serves beer. I then realised this was because the Calcutta ones are usually run by Muslims, who wouldn’t dream of serving alcohol; it was an odd feeling to sit there with our biryani holding bottles of London Pilsner.
As I checked out this morning I was somewhat sobered from the previous night’s revelry to find that the bill for two days was close to my entire month’s sarkari salary, but this was a merely theoretical shock as everything was laid on by the sponsors.
To be honest we all felt marvelously cossetted and looked after, and the young people who made sure we got our room keys and found our cars were tirelessly helpful. They did make us feel like stars, although that in itself was a little uncomfortable, as none of us were used to it. For instance we tried to save money by sharing our personally assigned limos and restricting the cavalcade to two when we went to the event, but I think we only loused up their logistics.
But nevertheless, there are a number of beefs. The first one is to do with the event itself. This isn’t the first Crossword award ceremony I’ve been to: I was there in 2001 when it was held in Delhi at the British Council. The design for the event was roughly the same: there were announcements interspersed with dramatisations. As then, the dramatisations were hastily put together, ragged at the edges, and full of errors of diction, fluffs and misreadings: this time the only difference was the addition of glitz.
I don’t think these dramatisations do the books any justice. They are difficult for the actors, in that the texts don’t always lend themselves to this kind of use. They clearly can’t be rehearsed much in advance, because the winners are decided on the eve of the ceremony. The props used are often silly and inappropriate, and the whole business merely takes up time with flummery, leading to an evening the length of which severely tests the average bladder. It would have been far better if we, the shortlistees, had been able to speak, interact with each other in the way of a panel and do more than traipse on stage and off it. This is after all about books, words and ideas. Why are the organisers afraid of showcasing ideas? Mere Oscar-type thank-you speeches from the winners aren’t enough. This whole event needs to be shorter and punchier, with less distraction and more focus.
The second beef is that the many branches of Crossword bookstore seem completely in the dark about the existence of the award and the identity of the shortlisted books. One would have thought that the whole point of sponsoring a literary award is to get people to buy the concerned books, thus leading to more business for your bookstores. However, the people on the ground seem to think they’ve done their duty if they put up the posters with the erroneous instructions on how to vote for the Popular Award. None of those I asked had any but the vaguest idea about the award, and most couldn’t name more than one shortlisted book, if that.
The Popular Award also appears to be an attempt to involve the sponsors, Vodafone (and Hutch before them) in the whole process, but the automatic system that was supposed to tell people how to choose an option to vote for didn’t work. Thus most people who messaged only ‘Fiction’ or ‘Nfiction’ without an option (as they were told to do) were not given instructions and ended up sending in null votes. So this made no sense either. And the website was full of out of date or inaccurate information.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not running down the award. I think it’s a great idea if only it could be done properly. It seems to me that the three things that must happen if it is to be taken seriously are:
- The whole Crossword network has to be utilised to publicise the award and the shortlists both before and after the event. This includes the use of special bookcases, banners, and a regional event schedule properly publicised, not set up and advertised inside a week as an afterthought.
- The award ceremony itself has to be tighter and more focused on the books and authors. The dramatisations should be shortened, or done better, or got rid of. I don’t know what they do at the Booker; if anyone knows, please comment.
- The website should show accurate and up-to-the-minute information, especially as the press use it for a lot of background information on the awards. At present it is chaotic, user-unfriendly and tardily updated. In short, it’s an embarrassment.
Finally, I’d like to say that being shortlisted is the best thing that could have happened to me. It allowed me to go to Bombay and meet some very lovely people, hear of and acquire books that I am going to enjoy reading, and have a wonderful time.