Vol. 5 Num 267 Sat. February 26, 2005  

Letter From Mumbai
On the Hutch Crossword Book Award and Bruce King

Two very special visitors, the Hutch Crossword Book Award, several literary evenings at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2005 has got off to an eventful and memorable start.

Kala Ghoda, which spans less than one sq. km in South Mumbai, is the city's cultural center, home to several art galleries, gourmet restaurants and heritage buildings. The area derives its name from a statue of King Edward VII astride a black horse; the statue has long since been removed, but the name 'Kala Ghoda' ('Black Horse') has stuck.

When the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival was introduced in 1999, it brought a whole new energy into the area. The annual event has grown bigger with time, and as Srila Chatterjee of the Kala Ghoda Association said in a letter to participants after it ended on January 23: "Our mission was to make this year's Festival a prototype for a model that would serve to eventually become the finest and biggest Arts Festival in India". She also pointed out that they were "very excited about having a whole Literature section for the first time".

The Literature section, co-ordinated by R Sriram, Managing Director & CEO, Crossword Bookstores Ltd, was packed with a variety of events - multilingual poetry readings as well as one by poets writing in English; a creative writing workshop, and even, for the first time, an SMS poetry competition.

As Jerry Pinto, poet and one of the judges of the SMS competition pointed out, with mobile phones having become very common and the Short Messaging Service so popular, writers needed to look at language in new ways and adapt to the times. The purists might have been horrified -- after all, when you are sending out an SMS, grammar and spelling are not priorities. The entries that came in, however, were quite remarkable -- sometimes, even haiku-like, as one of the other judges, the poet Marilyn Noronha commented. Peter Griffin, for instance, came up with this one, and ended up with first prize:

cellular creature
now part of my D.N.A.
gladden my heart: beep.

Manisha Lakhe and Annie Zaidi, first and second runners-up respectively, used SMS techniques to perfection -- though these were 'poems' you certainly would not be able to read aloud!

Check them out...

Cud v b like that *ship
Boldly c-king cvlizashuns
So v don't disturb
Old ways of life?
Let's just love and leave
- Manisha Lakhe

tis d wkend;wot plans?
nt sayn d nyt's alpyn
& wintr rustls twixt d sheets.
nt sayn d windO stares insomnac,@ d hiway.
nt sayin i w8,dd u 4get?
only askn-
tis d wkend;wot plans?

- Annie Zaidi

All three winners, as it turned out, were Net-savvy members of the literary site


While R Sriram was coordinating the literary calendar of the Kala Ghoda Festival, he was also in the thick of another huge event -- the Hutch Crossword Book Award 2004, touted as the 'Indian Booker'. The Award entitles the winner to a trophy, certificate and a cash prize of Rs. 3 lakh for each category, with the author and translator sharing the cash in the translation category. The first Crossword award in 1998 went to I Allan Sealy for his novel Everest Hotel and Sealy was on this year's shortlist too for The Brainfever Bird.

Crossword had kept the momentum going much before the awards were finally announced on January 27, with panel discussions on Indian writing. There were a lively one, for instance, featuring Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka, the novelist and playwright Kiran Nagarkar and poet Dilip Chitre, in which both Chitre and Tejpal pointed out that while the book culture might seem to be growing, people were simply unwilling to pay for books. (Sriram's own view was slightly more optimistic; according to him, six million customers had walked into Crossword bookstores in this last year.)

There was some discussion on a topic that just never seems to go away. Is writing in English a legitimate activity for Indian writers, or should you write in your mother tongue instead? Kiran Nagarkar had something to add on that one: his first Marathi book, he said, took a full 20 years to sell a grand total of 1,500 copies. When he decided to write in English -- a decision accompanied by a state of extreme depression -- he felt he was "stabbing" his mother tongue. Fortunately for us readers, he stuck to his decision to write in English; his Ravan and Eddie may not have been on the Crossword list but it is one of the funniest novels to have appeared in a long while.

With 38 books in the Best Original Fiction longlist whittled down to four, and 19 in the translations category (brought down to six for the shortlist), the competition was intense. Of the six books on the shortlist for translations, four were in Bengali (Bani Basu's The Birth of the Maitreya; Mahasweta Devi's In the Name of the Mother and Bait; and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain.)

In the category of Best Original Fiction, it was a contest between Shashi Deshpande (Moving On); Raj Kamal Jha (If you are Afraid of Heights); Allan Sealy (The Brainfever Bird) and Amitav Ghosh (The Hungry Tide).

The awards went to Amitav Ghosh for his book The Hungry Tide in the category of Indian Writing in English and author Chandrasekhar Rath and translator Jatindra Kumar Nayak for the book 'Yantrarudha' Astride The Wheel in the category of Indian Writing in Indian Languages. The judges were Nilanjana Roy, Dilip Kumar, Subashree Krishnaswamy, Kai Friese, Sukanta

Chaudhari and Urvashi Butalia.

Sriram did say at some point that they would extend the awards and make them even bigger and better. Hopefully, one of the ways they will do this is to introduce a new category -- poetry -- which somehow never seems to get the attention it should!


The city also had two eminent visitors - Bruce King, author of Modern Indian Poetry in English (Oxford University Press), which saw a revised edition in 2001, and Ottawa-based Christopher Levenson, who is, among other things, co-founder of the literary magazine Arc and author of 10 books of poetry (the most recent being The Bridge in 2000.)

Levenson first visited India in 1986, and this is his fourth trip here. Accompanying him this time is his wife Oonagh Berry, who has had short stories and poems published in Ireland and Canada; she is also co-author of a book of letters which will be published in the autumn of 2005.

This visit was primarily devoted to teaching English to students at the Kohinoor Business School in the nearby hill station of Khandala, but as he said in an article for the Kohinoor newsletter: "I'm hoping some of my literary enthusiasm will rub off on them since, for me at least, business should also involve the kind of imagination and vision that literature promotes." The picturesque setting inspired some poems as well, like the one on the newly constructed Mumbai-Pune Expressway:

The Bombay-Poona Expressway
uncoils like a python through
the denseness of gorge and forest.
All night as I lie awake
the trucks keep coming, the hills
exhale in silence,
prepare for tomorrow's heat.

Christopher also has plans for an updated anthology of mainly younger South Asian and diaspora poets, published either in Canada or the UK "This is an intention rather than a sure thing," he says, adding that a publisher in the UK (Carcanet) has "expressed interest but no commitment".

Meanwhile, Bruce King has also updated his Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, A K Ramanujan and Dom Moraes (OUP, 1991), and the book is expected to be out later this year. His updated version of Modern Indian Poetry in English had included five new chapters covering the 1990s -- new poets, and a survey of developments in publishing, for instance. On this visit to India, he renewed his association with old friends in literary circles here, and met several other poets as well.

With both Bruce and Christopher in town at the same time, there were some rare and special moments, such as a very pleasant get-together organized by the poet Anand Thakore, where poets like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel, Arundhati Subramaniam and Jane Bhandari shared their work.

Before I sign off, here is a poem by Jane Bhandari, who has made Mumbai her home for more than two decades....

Bombay, My Mumbai

I posted a parcel from England.
Said the clerk at the post office,
Where is Mumbai?
What is the nearest big city?
It's my home, I said, it's Bombay.
Mumbai is Bombay.
Sounds fatter to me, he said,
Laughing, and I thought,
Well, second marriage,
They usually are fatter,
Shapely young Bombay
Became matronly Mumbai,
Sprawling on the beach
With her feet in the sea.

Menka Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based poet. Her two books of poems are Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990) and Stet (2003).