|The recent episode of such luminaries returning Sahitya Akademi Awards on matters the like of which abound historically and contemporarily, reminds one of what Miley Cyrus wrote, “People like controversy because that’s what sells.”
By KK Srivastava
Literature does not thrive on ideology alone and a writer’s literary maturity thrives as much on his hindsight as on his foresight. Returning awards does more damage to art and literature than any good and reflects badly on those who make castles in the air while themselves staying in glass houses
Literary legends: the dreamers of all sorts of dreams of imperfections and perfections create literature but only a few of them, not necessarily legends in true sense of the term, get literary awards — a sort of recognition for the creation they bestow on society.
Many literary works may owe their existence to a series of stimulants to enable them stay when the mirror turns convex and their creators can be spotted in the league of the ilk in late evening socio-literary gatherings where flow, inter alia, lop-sided debates about the astounding merits of newly released book by the host authors.
A bureaucrat acquaintance and fiction writer, once quipped, “You are hardly visible. How often do you circulate? Remember, it pays.” Yeah. Unfortunately being in circulation and visibility constitute the sine qua non even for a writer who wishes his “creativity” to be “awarded”.
Sometimes reclusiveness steals the thunder but that is really rare. In our fast aging times, invaded by blogs, social sites, twitters and internet, literature, despite its vulnerability survives but much to our chagrin, there is no dearth of literary luminaries who add to its vulnerability by using awards as a double-edged weapon in their hands: to keep basking in the limelight off and on and then look forward to have an auspicious occasion to get fresh recognition by relinquishing the awards.
Sometimes art and literature can be a knavish business. It hardly takes anything to stir the pot again and a la William Faulkner, “If a writer is to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Some of the past masters fight repulsive battles in the name of literary awards to get these and some of them that rare breed skilled in the art of sticking their neck out the second time when it is least needed pave the way for more battles when these are again least needed.
The recent episode of such luminaries returning Sahitya Akademi Awards on matters the like of which abound historically and contemporarily, reminds one of what Miley Cyrus wrote, “People like controversy because that’s what sells.”
If nothing else, returning the award: an attempt by long waned faces to revive themselves, sells at least temporarily. Public amnesia is curable. Ignition of unwanted and superfluous controversies is a sure cure for it.
“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.” In Robert Kaplan’s enticing book The Nothing That Is, one can find good lessons for literary luminaries. This book serves not only as a great rescuer but also a great retriever. It rescues men and women who possess extraordinary perception and intuition: The self-styled epitomes of honesty, intelligence and sophistry from the vagaries of their self-evolved imbalances. Much of their problems arise from their propensity to look at zero and zero alone and retrieve imaginary fears from the ecstasy of such imbalances.
They have come to pass when they should start looking at events through the zero. Only then they would be freed of the idea that emanates not only from their basking in the limelight, but also from the delusions of grandeur about their creativity and its recognition. These delusional imbalances disturb the delicate web of human interconnectivity as luminaries as such keep wrangling with their efforts to take magic revenge on those declining to conform to their fantasies and delusional statures.
One ought not lull oneself with the theory that “Awards are supreme.” These are not if wedded to certain ideologies or power systems. And never forget there are believers that many of literary awards have their own stories of drama, intrigue and treachery.
One of our greatest novelists Munshi Premchand’s belief in communism and his Leftist leanings were incontrovertible but that ideology he kept close to his heart, though an alert mind of a reader may not miss occasional glimpses of his belief systems in his novels. His novels are best known for his portrayal of abject realties particularly in rural and semi-urban areas of India. Likewise in a recent biography titled Firaq Gorakhpuri -The Poet of Pain and Ecstasy, the biographer late Ajai Mansingh candidly conveys Firaq’s (Firaq himself was a Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith awardee) firm belief in grandness of the Hindu religion and greatness of Hindu way of life, but nowhere in his poems Firaq displays these beliefs.
A true literary legend is one who while wedded to any ideology does not allow it to come in the way of his creativity. Ideology plays second fiddle and of course writers unlike Nero don’t fiddle when Rome burns but here are the ones who fiddle when Rome is rosy and cozy. Genuine creativity does not get impregnated on borrowed sperms.
Unfortunately this cannot be said either of literary awards or returning of the awards. Such acts dim already decedent literary scenes further without there being either any élan or éclat for those returning the awards.
Awards do confer on awardees recognition and publicity and make them an inseparable part of literary academies. The power to accept the award does not confer on the awardees the power to relinquish it later, for the recognition and publicity that go with such awards are irreversible and there are none to take the awards back. One’s disinclination to accept any award must be exhibited once one is called upon to accept it. Becoming wiser later may be petrifying and people would be tempted to read between the lines: A possible red herring.
Way back in 1995, prestigious magazine Outlook carried an article titled The Literary Mafia which indicated, quoting in support renowned authors like Krishna Sobti, Khushwant Singh and Vishnu Prabhakar, the presence and role of literary mafia in Sahitya Akademi in granting patronage and facilitating awards.
Confirming that not everything is hunky-dory, the article quotes Krishna Sobti as saying, “Undoubtedly, there is a literary mafia at work,” and Khuswant Singh saying, “The kind of lobbying that goes on is shocking.”
It further says, “In particular, there is a rampant scandal in Punjabi awards.” While people may dispute the presence of any mafia, it is interesting to note what the article goes on to say further, “Short story writer Nirmal Verma and novelist Shrilal Shukla (of Raag Darbari fame) dispute the existence of a ‘mafia’ but point out that literary groups based on ideology and literary preferences have always existed in Hindi, Urdu and most other languages and their choices may be influenced accordingly.”
It is pertinent to look at this staggering article and view the ongoing controversy without divorcing it from the hotbed of issues the article flags. The relevance of this twenty-year-old article in the context of what is happening now is striking.
A careful look at the luminaries who chanced upon and quickly gripped an auspicious occasion to avail themselves of the luxury to relinquish the awards bamboozles the onlookers.
Many of these luminaries may seem to belong to “literary groups based on ideology and literary preferences” and may be at a loss to accept an ideology which for them and their followers might seem to be an anathema. Then there is group albeit tiny one whose allegiance to a power system is known far afield. Some of these generous relinquishers have been dominating Sahitya Akademi for years influencing its decisions and if the Outlook article is to be believed, milking it as and when required. Any newness in the writing on the wall may be unnerving for some. When books create controversy, it is welcome and the magnificent grandeur of art lies in justifying and accepting all such controversies.
The real problem arises when writers create controversies and generously gift themselves the honour to wallow in these. Foreign newspapers that consider it infra dig to talk of literary prizes lesser than Nobel and Booker and literary mortals lesser than Salman Rushdie have suddenly started talking eloquently about the award relinquishing Sahitya Akademi writers. While a writer may not dethrone his carefully crafted ideology in his writings, he may allow it to play the secondary role. Let the tree be the tree and its shadow a shadow. Literature does not thrive on ideology alone and a writer’s literary maturity thrives as much on his hindsight as on his foresight.
None might know what Samuel Beckett’s ostrich was seeing in the sand but we are now into different times; in recent episodes of returning awards people clearly pierce through the brooding visages of concerned literary luminaries and the possible raison d’etre. People are no longer naïve.
Returning awards does more damage to art and literature than any good and reflects badly on those who make castles in the air while themselves staying in glass houses.
(KK Srivastava is Principal Accountant General, Kerala. He has made his mark as a poet and reviewer. The views expressed here are personal)