Sunday Salsa

Shall we ever have a literary award sans controversy?

Shall we ever have a literary award sans controversy

By Sandeep Sahu


When was the last time a literary award didn’t raise a controversy? [A more pertinent question on the issue would perhaps be: has a literary award ever been conferred on someone without creating a controversy?] From an award given away by the neighbourhood literary/cultural organization to the Nobel Prize, every literary award anywhere in the world has left in its wake a trail of bitter and no-holds-barred attack on the merits of the recipient.

Since assessment of the merits of a literary work is a highly subjective affair, there are bound to be differences on who deserves a particular award more than the others. You may consider Fakir Mohan the greatest storyteller Odia literature has ever had. Someone else may think Manoj Das deserves the crown. Yet others may believe there has never been a more masterful storyteller than Mahapatra Nilamani Sahoo. And no one can say any of them is ‘wrong’. Such differences of opinion about the literary merit – whether of an author or a book – are not restricted to readers alone, but extend to writers themselves. So a degree of disagreement is inevitable when it comes to judging literary works.

This precisely is the reason most awards these days are decided by a panel of selectors rather than an individual. The idea is to ensure that personal likes and dislikes don’t influence the choice and the scope for subjectivity is minimized. But our experience over the years – including the raging furore over the choice of the recipient of the Sarala Puraskar (poet Shatrughna Pandav), the most prestigious literary award in Odisha, this year –  proves that no matter how large a selection panel formed for the purpose is, the final choice fails to satisfy everyone. It is simply impossible to satisfy everyone no matter who is the winner. This is natural and there is nothing that can be done about it.

Unfortunately, however, such genuine differences of perception about literary merit are not always the only reason for controversy over the choice of an award recipient. More often than not, allegations fly thick and fast about lobbying by the authors, a literary ‘coterie’ playing favourites or the selectors zeroing in on the ultimate winner on political considerations. The criticism is seldom on the literary merits – or the lack thereof – and frequently about the people the particular author allegedly cultivated and the strings that ‘s/he allegedly pulled to get the award. The attack, usually orchestrated by those who lose out in the award sweepstakes through their camp followers, is frequently below the belt.

All professions have their share of naysayers, whiners and back-biters. But the amount of intolerance and back-biting that goes on in literary circles in Odisha these days, I dare say, is not seen in any other profession. It is hard to find a litterateur lavishing fulsome praise on a fellow writer. Praise, when it does come, is usually about the patron saint of the ‘camp’ or its or its followers or tinged with a subtle variety of sarcasm that leaves nothing to imagination. When it’s a woman who has won the award, there are even whispers that she has ‘slept her way through’ to the award!

But it was not always like this. Writers of the earlier generation had a health respect for fellow writers and acknowledged help and encouragement from seniors in becoming a writer ungrudgingly. Eminent writer Santanu Acharya, for example, thanks Mahapatra Nilamani Sahoo and others for discovering the writer in him. Such an acknowledgement is unthinkable among the present set of writers – unless s/he happens to be the writer’s ‘godfather’ or there is expectation of a favour. A possible reason for this degeneration is writers of yesteryears were giants, who were confident of themselves and convinced about their literary worth and thus had no reason to be overawed or jealous of someone else.

But present day writers in the state are divided into several mutually exclusive camps, each headed by a ‘mahant’. Anyone belonging to a rival camp – or not belonging to any camp at all – is persona non grata for members of a camp and must be brought down to his/her knees with a sustained, below-the-belt attack. It is time our literary giants pondered over why this is so.

This being the state of affairs in the literary world, one wonders if there would ever be an award in Odisha without a motivated controversy.

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