When the literary prizes for books from South Asia published in 2019 are announced, the one novel that will not win any is, ironically, the work being feted as arguably the most original and extraordinary novel to have come from this part of the world in recent years.
The book in question is Numair Atif Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh. It will not win because almost all the prizes stipulate that the writer must be alive – at least at the time the book is submitted for the prize. But Choudhury, who is from Bangladesh, died in an accident in Japan in 2018, before his book could be published. He is simply not eligible.
Going by the critical reception to the novel, it seems safe to assume that it would have been on the radar screens of all the juries as they go about choosing the longlist, shortlist, and, finally, winner of each of the prizes. Of course, there are other reasons too that Choudhury’s book will not win.
Even if the tragic accident had not taken place, the book would not be considered for some of the prizes in India which are limited to Indian citizens. Indeed, this criterion alone will make several of the novels that have been well-received by critics ineligible for some of the prizes.
The season for identifying the literary champions of the past twelve months has begun in India. In each of them, while the quest is for the best book – or, those that are still eligible because their writers meet all the conditions – the prize itself will, as in the past, shift the focus to the writer.
There will be a citation, sure, and a few murmured words about the book. The market reality of literary prizes, however, is that there have to be events, photo shoots, videos, interviews, signings, bookshop visits, litfest appearances, and all of those things that a book cannot do on its own. All of those things, that is, for which the author must step up.
(You have to wonder how India’s literary prize industry would deal with an Elena Ferrante, but anonymity is almost impossible to encounter in a space where fame is the grease that moves the parts.)
Fame for the author, but what about the book?
For the author – and, where relevant nowadays, the translator – this is obviously a huge opportunity for fame. Not to mention the prize money, which can range in India from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 25 lakh, depending on the prize. No one grudges the writer – who is usually poorly paid for writing – the money, but an uncomfortable point must be made: How does the prize money going to the writer help the book to be read by more people?
For instance, could the purse be directed instead at marketing the book? Or even buying a large number of copies of the book and making them available to libraries, schools, colleges and other institutions? If the objective is to celebrate the book, why is the limelight so strongly on the author?
The question, then, is this: In the rush to make the writer the hero, do we end up ignoring the book that won? Should literary prizes focus their attention on the winning book, and craft their programmes so that readers can get the chance to sample, read, understand, and, eventually, buy the book?