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The time and art of returning awards

Kishwar Desai
Kishwar DesaiOct 17, 2015 | 13:15

The time and art of returning awards

If I had been bestowed a literary award by the Sahitya Akademi, would I give it up? Though the chances of me ever winning such an award are close to zero, there is no harm in discussing hypothetical situations! It is also true that the Akademi (in which we know writers who are friends), is often regarded as a cosy club, in which most of the members are in sync with each other. It might not thus be the best representative body of a heterogenous, multi-ideology country. It appears to have its own rules about who could be the members, awardees as well as advisors. Like many other hoary bodies, it was set up in a different era, and thus for many, it represents literary standards about which there is little discussion. We can only assume that everyone it selects is worthy of the honour, because so many of the great and glorious are its members!

But to politicise the awards of a club is rather meaningless, and that too awards given earlier.

The return of an award is a dramatic, media attention-grabbing gesture. It all depends on the issue, and herein lies the puzzle. Terrible things have happened in the last few decades, and I have rarely seen anyone giving up even a chair, let alone an award. Returning awards, therefore, could then mean that there is an attempt to stitch up a narrative. Even when reassuring statements are made by the prime minister to the contrary, an attempt is constantly being made to link his government to random events, which might even be linked to other political parties or fringe groups. Should we be sceptical or should we be fair?

Yes, this award-returning gesture can be meaningful, if the context calls for it. Many years ago, we had had Rabindranath Tagore giving up his knighthood over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and later Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan because of Operation Bluestar. Tagore did not mess about with the Nobel prize he received, however, and possibly found no issue big enough over which to return it, even though India continued to be under colonial rule after he had received it.

Both the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Sikh massacres in 1984 were ghastly occurrences and the rulers of those times needed to be shamed. While the governments of the time might not have expressed regret, certainly an awareness was created through this gesture. We need to look at these matters more minutely. It certainly sharpened the debate, at the time.

But on the other hand, in today's far more cynical world, we might find ourselves wondering whether the author was only hunting for recognition or increasing his or her book sales.

Of course, since I have no hope of the Sahitya Akademi giving me an award, it is easy enough to speculate what I would do if I had one from them. However, my feeling is that I might not return even a hypothetical award. For the simple fact that the knighthood returned by Tagore, and the Padma Bhushan returned by Khushwant Singh were awarded by the government. The Sahitya Akademi award is something bestowed by the Akademi, and possibly, this becomes more of a criticism of the institution. And further, isn't there some truth in the statement that were this a conscientious act, authors would have quit every committee and returned every award in the course of at least the past 30 years?

As it happens, I actually happen to know a few of the authors who returned their awards, recently, and whilst they are friends, one wonders why they did not speak up earlier. And why not against other parties and regimes?

This, then, is the worrying question.

Last updated: October 29, 2015 | 18:00
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