Monday, 5 September 2011



The entire auditorium erupted into applause as he received the trophy. Ranjit Lal had just won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2010 in Children’s Writing category. The writer acknowledged the appreciation with his somewhat shy smile and the audience cheered again. Just as they did every time a winner accepted the trophy, a cheque and a citation from the chief guest, noted writer-journalist Mrinal Pande, at the final ceremony of the Award held last Friday at the Tata Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

Lal’s book, Faces in the Water, is about female infanticide. “I was horrified by the news reports about female infanticide which happens even in well-off families. And that led me to write this book,” Lal told me. “It was quite a challenge to write on such an issue, considering that the readers will be younger people.” So, he told the story through a teenage boy, who comes from a family that prides in having no girl child. And the boy keeps thinking about the sisters he never had and the wonderful time all of them could have had growing up together.

With 31 nominees selected out of over 300 entries, spread across five categories in the shortlist, the Vodafone Crossword Book Award has expanded a bit since the last edition in 2010. Each of the four jury-selected categories carries a cash prize of Rs three lakh while the Popular Award carries a cash prize of Rs one lakh. Instituted in 1998, the Award has been recognising some of the fascinating books by Indian authors. “Literature enlightens and entertains. But it also gives an aura to the human experiences,” said R Sriram, founder of the Crossword Books. “This award recognises the best of Indian writings and we are delighted to expand over the years,” he added. “It shows that literature is increasing in its appeal, thanks to the book lovers.”

Chief guest Pande echoed a similar view. “Literature will never die. It is a feast of life. Literature cannot be a school, but it makes a reader a perceptive person. Those who read a lot, understand the ironies of life,” she said. Pande wondered why many among us learn foreign languages rather than learning the great languages of India. “We need to tap the richness of our own languages,” she said earnestly.

The selection of the winners for four ‘jury categories’ was done by separate panels of eminent writers, academicians and critics; the Popular Award was decided by an online voting by the readers. But it was never an easy task for the judges. “Difficult” was the word that came up time and again as the judges shared their experiences. “It was dreadfully tempting to decide, but when it came to the actual task, it was tough,” said Githa Hariharan, who was one of the jury members. “Some were shockingly well-researched while other books were so experimental that they were nowhere.” Indeed, with a shortlist adorned with names including Upamanyu Chatterjee, Anjali Joseph, Omair Ahmad, Sudhir Kakar, Ruskin Bond, Deepak Dalal, Giti Chandra, Anushka Ravishankar, Michel Danino, Shiv Khera, R Gopalakrishnan and Amish Tripathi, the decisions demanded a lot of deliberations.

The evening’s tempo was building up even before the event had begun; discussions and arguments about the nominees and winners had filled the auditorium. Though the likes of Ruskin Bond, Upamanyu Chatterjee and Anjali Joseph were missing and were represented by their publishers, the usual excitement of spotting the who’s who of India’s stars of letters was pretty much the order of the evening. But as soon as actress Lilette Dubey took to the stage to anchor the event, the audience’s attention got directed to her. One-by-one the shortlisted nominees were called upon the stage to accept the certificates; later child prodigy Keshava performed a skilful recital on the tabla. The rhythms of the instrument reverberated the auditorium as we waited in bated breath for the awards.

And then it touched the crescendo when the announcements of the winners of different categories began. India’s pluralism came alive through the translated works of literature in the Indian languages. Five such works were shortlisted; the winner though was one: Litanies of Dutch Battery by N S Madhavan, translated into English from Malayalam by Rajesh Rajmohan. Pluralism became evident again through the winners in the Fiction category: Anjali Joseph for her novel Saraswati Park; and Omair Ahmad for his novel Jimmy The Terrorist. While Joseph’s novel deals with life in Mumbai, Ahmad’s novel is essentially about small towns. Ahmad shared his thought: “Small towns in India are not much documented. And what is being documented is often a joke. I just tried to bring out that small town in my novel,” he said.

The award in the Non Fiction category went to US-based V S Ramachandran for his book, The Tell Tale Brains. “Indian academic writers are not known for a style which would make a serious subject easier for the lay readers. But, Ramachandran has done that in this book,” informed Harsh Sethi, one of the jury members while justifying the choice.

The Popular Award went to Ashwin Sanghi for his political thriller Chanakya’s Chant. Sanghi is a “businessman by the day and writer by the night.” How easy is it for him to balance between the both, I asked him. ”Actually, writing lets me escape from the tedious world of business. It is 180-degrees opposite to reading balance sheets,” an elated Sanghi said. He is therefore planning a new book that is set in the early 1900s, with his “trademark elements of suspense, history and adventure to counter the boredom.”

As I was preparing to leave, I caught up with Deepak Dalal who was also in the contention in the Children’s Writing category with his books, Sahyadri Adventure: Anirudh’s Dream and Sahyadri Adventure: Koleshwar’s Secret. He may have lost out, but as always, Dalal was in his elements and was all praise for the writers who’ve won the award. So were the others, like Annie Zaidi, Sumana Mukherjee and Rashmi Bansal.

So that says it all in the nutshell: ultimately, it’s literature, and our love for books and reading that won, yet again.