Sunday, 22 August 2010


Child musicians of the NCPA Suzuki initiative performing

Ruskin Bond inauguarating the event
Sunanda K Datta-Ray delivering the acceptance speech
as Rajni Bakshi (in pink saree) looks on
Siddhartha Sarma at the Award

It took a while for Kalpana Swaminathan to realise that she had been declared the winner of The Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2009 for Fiction. She checked and cross-checked with other contenders for the award before she went ahead to receive the trophy, a cash award of Rs three lakh and a citation for her collection of short stories Venus Crossing. Later, when I spoke to her amid the post-awards buzz at the Tata Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai where the event was held last Friday, Swaminathan didn’t hide her happiness. “I am absolutely delighted,” she said. “I can’t be modest about this,” she added.

Instituted in 1998, the award has recognised an array of top-notch writers over the years. Like any other prestigious literary award, the Vodafone Crossword Book Award follows the regimen of juries drawing up a longlist and then a shortlist before declaring the final winners, said R Sriram, the former CEO of the Crossword Bookstore Limited. Chandrashekhar Navalkar, the current CEO of Crossword added to it, “The shortlist for the 2009 Award included 21 nominated titles spread over the four categories of fiction, non-fiction, translation and children’s literature. Also, there’s the Popular Award that is voted by the readers”.

The tension among the audience in the packed auditorium was palpable as I overheard numerous conversations about which writer could win, which book was worth reading and the rest of the relevant comments. Perhaps to soothe the worried minds, author Ruskin Bond — who was the chief guest at the event — recounted a funny tale of what he did when he saw his own book lying at the bottom of the book shelves at a book store. “The owner of the store had told me that the book doesn’t sale. I wanted to teach him a lesson, so I bought the book,” Bond said as we all laughed and cheered for the septuagenarian author.

More cheers followed when a group of 26 children — part of the NCPA’s Suzuki initiative — took the centrestage and performed bit of western symphony under their mentor Zane Dalal, the resident conductor at the NCPA.
And then came the decisions. First the nominations for the awards and then the winners. Okay, let me shorten the long stories of backgrounders narrated by the juries, acceptance speeches, reading of citations, excitement and bit of happy tears. The winners for The Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2009 are:
* Rajni Bakshi for her Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom. She won both in the Popular and the Non-Fiction categories.
* Sunanda K Datta-Ray for his Looking East to Look West. He won the award in Non-Fiction category jointly with Bakshi.
* Valson Thampu for his English translation of Sarah Joseph’s original Malaylam novel Othappu.
* Siddhartha Sarma for his The Grasshopper’s Run. This Delhi-based journalist was nominated for two of his books in the Children category — a new addition to the Award.
*Kalpana Swaminathan, as you know by now, for her Venus Crossing in the Fiction category.

Among those who didn’t win, but were happy to be part of the contention were Nonica Datta, Gurcharan Das, Mimlu Sen, Anita Sharma, SMM Ausaja, Amit Chaudhari, Abha Dawesar, Mridula Koshy, Biman Nath, Arunava Sinha Maitreyee SC and Lakshmi Holmstrom.

Once the awards got over around 10, the inimitable Ruskin Bond prepared to leave for the day. But before that I approached him. “As a writer, it’s nice to be visible in this era of visual media and I was very happy to be here” he said, “especially when people get to know about the otherwise unknown writers,” he told me almost echoing Swaminathan. “It wasn’t the case earlier when only newspapers supported the writers, and no one would notice if a writer walked by,” Bond added with a wry smile.

I caught up with an evidently elated Rajni Bakshi as she was receiving congratulatory words. “I am not a writer of books. I have been working for a long time on an alternative mode for socio-economic development. I had a question and began to look for answers. It’s then that I had the opportunity to study the nature of the markets across the world,” she told me. “The journey was exciting. But I know, we cannot change the system,” Bakshi added.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray, however, remained hopeful about India’s Look East policy. “We are slow in developing our ties with the ASEAN nations, but I hope we will hasten it,” he said when I asked him about the road ahead for India in fostering mutually beneficial relations with the East Asian nations, “Singapore being the gateway to that” — an issue that is the subject of Datta-Ray’s book. “We can no longer be like a tortoise,” he added before making a call to his son in England “to inform him about the awards’ result”.

Swaminathan, a surgeon by profession, is also known for her Lalli series in which the woman detective investigates mysteries as if it’s a cake walk. I quizzed the author a bit about her choice of writing detective stories. “I love detective stories, just as you do. But one day I didn’t have any such story to read while at home. So, I began to write one,” she told me with a mischievous smile. Her professional experiences do help her “in building up the plot and the characters”.

For an amiable Valson Thampu, it was his wish “to highlight the richness of the literature in Malayalam” that got him into translating Sarah Joseph’s Othappu — a story of a woman who leaves the regimented life devoted to orthodox faith. “I think, translations are like cultural liberation, and readers must take translations seriously,” Thampu told me. “This is my first attempt in translating. And I realised that it is almost like creating an original work. It was a challenging task to maintain the original flavours in a different language,” Thampu added.

It was almost 11 in the night and the crowd had got slightly thinner when I could locate Siddhartha Sarma in one corner of the dining space. “Today’s children are much more intelligent. So, I thought of writing a story meant for the young adults,” Sarma explained about his book that has enough history and action connected to the Second World War. “I had contacted the Imperial War Museum in England to get the data about the history and war tactics,” he added before we parted and I moved out of the venue to head back home.

Valson Thampu with his trophy after winning in the Translation category;
the author of the original novel Sarah Joseph standing next to Thampu

Photographs by Biswadip Mitra