Why the cash prize for the top 2021 Shakti Bhatt book prize goes to Covid-19 relief


As the second wave of Covid-19 ravages India, the Shakti Bhatt Foundation has mobilized to contribute to ongoing efforts to stem the crisis. This year, the Shakti Bhatt Prize – created in 2007 to recognize and encourage early authors by choosing a first book as a winner – was canceled.

“It’s entirely humanitarian, there is no ‘prize’ this year,” said Sheba Thayil, administrator of the Shakti Bhatt Foundation. In one statement made on Facebook, published on May 17, 2020, the Foundation recognized the need to donate for pandemic relief.

“Citizens currently have little access to oxygen, hospital beds, food or vaccines,” the press release said. “We will give a lakh each to the 24/7 commitment of the Hemkunt Foundation, based in Haryana, to help Indian citizens running out of steam, find it; to 9-year-old climate activist from Manipur, Licypriya Kangujam, who uses her own funds and raises more to buy and distribute oxygen concentrators, and to the national president, IYC, Srinivas BV through SOSIYC for the new avataar of Srinivas explicit as the “Oxygen Man of India”. “

Rotate for a cause

Himanjali Sankar, Editorial Director, Simon & Schuster India, is delighted with this decision. “It’s wonderful to see the Shakti Bhatt Foundation changing course to take into account the demands of the moment,” she said. “It’s a step away from literature, but at its core it reflects exactly what literature and writing stand for: sensitivity, compassion, empathy and adaptability.

What led to these carefully organized choices? Sheba Thayil said it was the horrors she saw on social media that prompted the plan change for the price. “Being No. 1 in the world in everyday Covid cases is horrific enough, but seeing people advocating for help getting hospital beds, oxygen and medicine for their family members , then hours later find a follow-up message saying “It’s okay, my dad is dead” – this goes beyond horror. We are suffering from a disease of the soul, not just the body. “

Does this mean the end of the literary prize, however? “A reward ignited in a year of plague seemed insensitive,” Thayil said. “The little funds we needed to be used where it was needed most, and that is what has been done by individuals and organizations all over India, not just us. You can’t see a girl blowing air into her dying mother’s lungs or corpses buried in the sand and think it’s business as usual. Every rupee that one can spare, or every kg of rice or every link to someone who can provide an oxygen concentrator or a hospital bed must be used to combat this horror spectacle.

Not that this is the first year that the Foundation has taken a different point of view. Undeniably, India stands at a difficult crossroads in its political history, and the Foundation’s recognition in this regard has been clear. In 2021, the award went to Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, both human rights activists currently imprisoned in connection with the ongoing Elgar Parishad case. The award was also different last year, in that it recognized a body of work, as opposed to the early works for which it was instituted.

“We wanted to start recognizing the unrecognized in different ways.” Said Thayil. “Doesn’t all writing have a political impact? Writers change the way you think and always have, for better or for worse. The irony is that, in the same way that few people knew Teltumbde and Navlakha, who had a long career as a writer, few people outside Karnataka knew Gauri Lankesh – until these writers were among them. examples.

Assistance to editors

Do publishers support this prospect? Editors Scroll.in spoke to almost unanimously said that as editors it is their duty to amplify the voices that push for change. Sankar said: “Literature is a product of its time, especially when the world is as polarized and divided as it is now. So whether one writes absurd verses or a political treatise, it will reflect, to a lesser or greater extent, the author’s policy and the political climate of the time.

“Books give people the information they need to meet the challenges of what’s going on, politically, economically and socially,” said Renuka Chatterjee, vice president (publishing) of Speaking Tiger. This is why, she argues, publishers must have the courage to publish writers who speak out against what is wrong and what needs to change – even if it means going against the powers that be.

So, argues Chatterjee, a literary award should be supported when he tries to do something similar. “This is a position that the Foundation has taken and it has the right to do so,” she said. “Prices change over time, and the direction in which an award is given is up to those who fund it.”

According to Chatterjee, writing about critical political and social issues is imperative. “The decision of the Shakti Bhatt Foundation to award the prize to political writing is a sign of our time… It is a way of giving a voice to the people.” Thayil is aware of this, but she demonstrates diplomacy while answering the question of whether the Foundation will continue to recognize changing political times and assist in humanitarian aid. Good writing is, after all, at the heart of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award.

It comes from Thayil’s intrinsic belief that books are vital to the way we think and function. They provide both learning and escape. In a pandemic, as well as in a fluid political situation, books – their writing and publishing – become much more crucial. “Next year we could go back to our literary origins – if we’re still here to do it, of course,” she said. “The price will be flexible as we have different ideas on how to keep it relevant, but other than that there will still be a way to honor good writing.”

Of course, the decision has its critics. Writer and editor Ritu Menon believes that while it is the prerogative of sponsors at all costs to decide to change its terms, the reasons for doing so should be explained to everyone. “Personally, I am of the opinion that changing the Shakti Bhatt award from an award for literature to one that encompasses human rights and / or social and cultural work – and maybe something else in the future. – is confusing, ”she said.

Menon’s argument: “Could we, for example, suddenly change an architectural award into one that recognizes animal rights? Or activism for peace? Will the Nobel Prize in chemistry, for example, suddenly become that of environmental science? A literature award recognizes literary worth or worth, which is quite different from recognizing work in the field of human rights or social services. If you want to recognize the latter, and we all should, why not create another award just for them? “

However, Thayil does not believe that the changes in focus in the way the award was awarded will dilute his prestige or reputation. “On the contrary,” she said, “these decisions will reinforce what the prize stands for.”

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.


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