As the second wave of Covid-19 ravages India, the Shakti Bhatt Foundation has stepped up to contribute to the ongoing efforts to staunch the crisis. This year, the Shakti Bhatt Prize – established in 2007 to acknowledge and encourage debut authors by picking a first book as a winner – has been set aside.

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

“Citizens right now have little access to oxygen, hospital beds, food or vaccines,” stated the press release. “We will be donating one lakh each to the Haryana-based Hemkunt Foundation’s 24/7 commitment to helping Indian citizens literally gasping for breath, find it; to 9-year-old climate activist from Manipur, Licypriya Kangujam who is using her own funds and raising more to buy and distribute oxygen concentrators, and to National President, IYC, Srinivas BV through the SOSIYC for Srinivas’s self-explanatory new avataar as the ‘Oxygen Man of India’.”

Pivoting for a cause

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

What led to these carefully curated choices? Sheba Thayil said it was the horrors she saw on social media that prompted the change of plan for the prize. “To be No. 1 in the world in daily Covid cases is horrifying enough, but to see people pleading for help in getting hospital beds, oxygen and medicines for their family members, and then hours later, to come across a follow-up post saying ‘It’s ok, my father is dead’ – that goes beyond horror. We are suffering a sickness of the soul, not just the body.”

Does this mean the end of the literary prize, though? “A lit award in a year of a plague seemed insensitive,” said Thayil. “What little funds we have needed to be put to use where it was urgently needed, and that’s what has been done by individuals and organisations all over India, not just us. You can’t possibly see a daughter blowing air into her dying mother’s lungs or corpses buried in sand and think it’s business as usual. Every single rupee one can spare, or every kg of rice or every link to someone who can provide an oxygen concentrator or a hospital bed has to be used to battle this horror show.”

Not that this is the first year that the Foundation has taken a different view. Undeniably, India stands at a difficult crossroads in its political history, and the Foundation’s recognition of this has been clear. In 2021, the Prize was awarded to Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, both human rights activists currently incarcerated in connection with the ongoing Elgar Parishad case. The Prize was different last year too, in that it recognised a body of work, as opposed to the debut work that it was instituted for.

“We wanted to start acknowledging the unacknowledged in different ways.” Thayil said. “Doesn’t all writing have a political impact? Writers change the way you think, that’s always been the case, for better or worse. The irony is, in the same way that not many people knew about Teltumbde and Navlakha, who have had long writing careers, not many people outside Karnataka knew about Gauri Lankesh – until these writers were made examples of.”

Publisher support

Do publishers support this perspective? The publishers that spoke to are almost unanimous in declaring that as publishers, it is their duty to amplify voices pushing for change. Said Sankar, “Literature is a product of its times, especially when the world is as polarised and divided as it is now. So whether one is writing nonsense verse or a political treatise, it will reflect, to a lesser or greater degree, the author’s politics and the political climate of the times.”

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

So, contends Chatterjee, a literary prize should be supported when it tries to do something similar. “It’s a stand that the Foundation has taken, and they have a right to do so,” she said. “Prizes evolve over time, and the direction in which a prize goes is up to those who are funding it.”

According to Chatterjee, it is imperative to write about critical political and social issues. “The Shakti Bhatt Foundation’s decision to give the prize to political writing is a sign of our times … It’s one way of giving a voice to the people.” Thayil is aware of this, yet she is diplomatic while answering the question of whether the Foundation will continue to recognise changing political times as well as aiding humanitarian relief. Good writing is, after all, at the heart of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.

This 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 a fluid political situation, books – their writing and publishing – become much more crucial. “Next year, we may return to our literary origins – if we are still here to do so, of course,” she said. “The Prize will be flexible insofar as we have different ideas on how to keep it relevant, but other than that, it will remain a means to honour good writing.”

Of course, the decision has its critics. Writer and publisher Ritu Menon feels that while it is the prerogative of the sponsors of any award to decide to alter its terms, the reasons for doing so should be made clear to all. “Personally, I am of the opinion that changing the Shakti Bhatt award from one for literature to one encompassing human rights and / or social and cultural work – and possibly, something else in future – is puzzling,” she said.

Menon’s argument: “Would we, for instance, suddenly change an award for architecture to one that recognises animal rights? Or peace activism? Will the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for example, suddenly become one for environmental sciences? A literature award recognises literary value or worth, which is quite different from recognising work in human rights or social service. If you want to acknowledge the latter, and we all should certainly do so, why not set up another award just for them?”

However, Thayil doesn’t believe that the changes in orientation of how the Prize was awarded will dilute its prestige or standing. “On the contrary,” she said, “These decisions will empower what the Prize stands for.”

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