By Chaman Lal
Writers undoubtedly feel happy for receiving awards from credible literary organisations like Gyanpeeth, Sahitya Akademi etc, not for money, which also may be of some consideration to some writers, but more for the honour and recognition of their literary worth. Sahitya Akademi awards did carry respectability of this kind. But when the present Sahitya Akademi chief tells eminent author Nayantara Sehgal and by proxy to all award returnees that the Akademi has given them fame and money in form of royalties, how would she return that? This shows his arrogance and pitiable condition.
Fame and money, if some writers in India can really earn from writing, are mutual. The recognition of some writers exceeds even the award-giving institutions – would Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorki, Lu Xun or Ngugie Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o be considered lesser writers in absence of Nobel prize not given to them? Giving an award to a certain writer gives the award giving institution a better name and respect.
Today, in the present context, it is the return of an award rather than receiving, that has become more honourable, mainly to protest the increasing intolerance, communal hatred and violent interference in personal lives of people, violent attacks on people holding rational ideas, with the state becoming indifferent and/or becoming complicit overtly or covertly. To keep mum in such alarming socially oppressive conditions, precursor to real mass fascist practices will be shying away from the duty of a socially aware/concerned individual, which a writer is.
To return an award with anguish is like playing a role in awakening the society from slumber or freeing it from certain illusions, in which it may be trapped. To give a wakeup call is the primary duty of a writer, which he/she would perform through his/her writings and giving up award is ringing the bells to tell everyone that not all is well. If this is crime, then let it be!
Some say that rather than returning awards in such large numbers, artists should have registered their protests through other means. But such opinions should be seen through the prism of protests like the one at FTII where in spite of scholars/artists raising their voice, nothing has worked. So the return of the Sahitya Akademi award has now become the symbol of wider protest against increasing communalism, intolerance, saffronisation of institutions, suppression of rational ideas and scientific temper. The case of Perumal Murugan, the Tamil writer also comes to mind, whose creative voice was killed by forces propagating hatred and yet the Sahitya Akademi did not utter a word in support of the author. Even if he was not an awardee of the Akademi, he was and is an eminent Tamil author, whose suppression of voice in form of his withdrawing from writing in protest should have been the concern of Sahitya Akademi, a body of writers and litterateurs.
It is an irony that at the Sahitya Akademi, returning an award has become more respectable and an honoured act than receiving an award. It is not the writers, it is the Akademi which is now reduced to indignity and it has to do a lot to repair the damage it has done to itself by not siding with the authors.
This is a moment of crisis and choices have to be made clearly. I stand with my fellow writers of Punjabi as well as other languages, who have taken the side of a suffering humanity and spoken against the patronisation of communal hatred, attack on institutions of knowledge, attack on freedom of ideas and their expression fearlessly. I will be guilty if I don’t honour the spirit of Pash’s poetry, which I have translated and it is Pash, whose poetry was honoured in translation, and I have to remain true to his spirit of poetry even in matter of a translation prize. So to remain true to the spirit of Pash’s liberating humanist poetry, I join with my fellow writers in returning this prize money and honour given to me by Sahitya Akademi in the form of National Translation Prize for the year of 2001.
Chaman Lal received the National Translation Prize from the Sahitya Akademi for the year 2001 for translating a collection of poems from the book ‘Samay O, Bhai Samay’ by Punjabi poet Pash