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The anatomy of Indian literary prizes: Who writes the award-winning books in India?

For a majority of us, our first encounter with race would have come from reading the Pulitzer winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird. We may have chosen to ignore it because it is about racism, or may have picked it up because it is a classic. We may have then gone on to read Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African American woman to do so. Books like these permeate our minds, shaping our understanding of the world around us.

Literary awards are a popular way of acknowledging meritorious works and authors. They often bring otherwise unknown authors into the spotlight and attract people to new books. For example, just being in the shortlist for the Man Booker 2017, got two debut novels by first-time authors to the limelight. Winning awards improves recognition for the authors and signifies inclusion to a group of ‘elite’ writers, as it did for Arundhati Roy in 1997. Awards that recognise work in languages that are not commonly spoken provide the much-needed boost these dying languages require, often by their addition to the literary canon. Amrita Pritam, for instance, wrote primarily in Punjabi, and is very much a part of the Indian literary canon.

In order for these literary works to flourish in India, the National Academy of Letters known as the Sahitya Akademi was set up in 1952. The Sahitya Akademi awards are considered the highest honour in the field of literature and art. The Akademi gives 24 awards annually to literary works in the languages it has recognised and an equal number of awards to literary translations from and into the languages of India, both after a year-long process of scrutiny, discussion, and selection. Another such award is the Jnanpith Award which is an Indian literary award presented annually by the Bharatiya Jnanpith to an author for their “outstanding contribution towards literature.” Instituted in 1961, the award is bestowed only on Indian writers writing in Indian languages. Along with organisations that acknowledge literary works, newspapers such as The Hindu have the Hindu Literary Prize for Indian works in English and English translations. This award was instituted in 2010 by the Hindu Literary Review.

Representational image. Reuters/Danish Ismail

Representational image. Reuters/Danish Ismail

Although there is much written about the importance of literary awards, how often do we know about what makes up the profile of the award-winning authors? Does the list of award-winners include more males than female authors? Which state do they come from? What religion do they practice and how are the caste groups represented among this elite writers club? Are there certain groups that dominate the award-winning authors? Since these awards get covered in the media and spoken about during literary festivals it is important that the award winners are adequately represented.

To illustrate the importance of media portrayals, Cory L Armstrong and Michelle R Nelson, from the Universities of Alabama and Illinois respectively studied how newspaper sources trigger gender stereotypes. They noted that a common way gender stereotypes form is due to the media’s representation of women. For example, if stories of award-winning authors only represent upper-caste Hindu male authors, then the reader would assume that only this particular group produces work that is worthy of awards. More pressingly, they would also assume this narrow worldview as the universal worldview — that is, they could further assume that Hindu male narratives is the Indian narrative, when that’s obviously not true.

To explore these questions and more, we choose four awards acknowledging the authors and their work, specific to India. The awards selected are the Jnanpith Awards (from 1965 to 2017), which awards the authors’ achievements and work over a lifetime; the Sahitya Akademi (SA) Award in English (from 1960 to 2017) and the Sahitya Akademi Award in Hindi (from 1955 to 2017); and the Hindu Literary Prize (from 2010 to 2015).

We gathered information on the caste of the author, their religion, gender, and details on the genre of the award-winning work. Overall, awards have been conferred upon 173 authors.

Genre

The four awards are not specific to any particular genre; they are given to literary works spanning different genres. For the sake of our analysis, Poetry has been taken as a separate category. We have clubbed novels, short stories, plays/dramas, and satire under ‘Fiction’, while ‘Non-Fiction’ consisted of autobiographies, biographies, and literary criticism, amongst others. About half of the awards went to authors who authored works in fiction, while works on poetry received a quarter of the awards.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Gender

The gender distribution across the 173 recipients is represented in the graph below. Women make up only 17 percent of the award winners. Out of the 58 Jnanpith awardees, only 8 (13.8 percent) were women. The SA awards for English and Hindi constituted of 28.3  percent and 6.5 percent female award winners respectively. The Hindu Literary Prize has had one female award recipient in the seven years it has been active. Among the 50 novels across the four awards, female and male authors typically produce works from a third person point of view. In fact, 74 percent of the novels that won these awards were written in third person: 78.5 percent for female authors and 72.2 percent for male authors. Usually, novels that use a third person point of view tend to focus on the social and other environmental contexts, and hence are outward-looking. Thus, it seems that authors who write books that serve as social commentary tend to win more awards — equally true for both men and women authors.

Even though female authors won less awards, this is not to say that works by male or female authors differed in their popular appeal. When analysing the data on gender distribution, we looked at the ratings that readers on Goodreads (a platform that allows you to catalogue the books you read) assigned to male and female authors. We sourced how readers reacted to each of the award-winning books on Goodreads: each book can be rated (from 0 to 5 stars) and reviewed by the users of the platform. Readers enjoyed an average of 3.98 stars for books by female authors, compared to 3.22 stars for books by male authors for the SA (English) awards.

The fact that women writers do not win many awards despite their books being equally well-liked is problematic. That after a “long process of scrutiny, discussion and selection,” it is hard to believe that women achieved “outstanding” status only 17 percent of the time. The implication that women take up only a small space in high-brow literary culture is hard to miss. While we may have scratched the surface of talking about gender inequality in various sectors, the conversation has not seeped into the area of publishing and literature. Our finding exemplifies the well-demonstrated argument that women have been systematically marginalised in both production and performance practices in cultural and media industries. The fact that women have been largely excluded from literary awards is more upsetting because these awards often come with a monetary prize and artistic prestige.

The field of literary criticism is largely male-dominated, disadvantaging female writers further. That men constitute a significantly large proportion of the area of criticism might make them unsympathetic to not just female writers in general, but also to books written from the perspective of a female protagonist. It is difficult to escape the fact that these critics deem women unworthy of this literary merit. The overall sentiment that women might not be equal is further echoed by eminent writers and critics, making their paths to success even more difficult.

This trend could be exacerbated, of course, because entire sub-genres (like Romance) are written off as unworthy of literary merit perhaps because of the fact that their readership is predominantly female.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Religion

We further collected data on the authors’ religion at birth. An overwhelming majority of the awards were given out to Hindus (80.6 percent), while only 2.9 percent of the winners were Muslims at birth. The 9.4 percent ‘others’ include Jews, Parsis, and also authors whose religion was not available online.

The Jnanpith Award has 86.2 percent Hindus. The SA English has 58.7 percent Hindus, 4.3 percent Jews, 4.3 percent Parsis, and 6.5 percent Christians. On the other hand, 91.9 percent of SA Hindi recipients consists of Hindus. However, out of the seven Hindu Literary Prize award winners, there were three Hindus; one atheist, Buddhist and Roman Catholic each, and one author whose religion is not known. This trend is not surprising as 79.80 percent of the Indian population identifies as Hindu.

Out of the 173 works analysed, 50 were novels. For these, we investigated whether authors of a particular religion created their protagonists who followed the same religion. In other words, do authors’ experiences following a particular religion (or lack thereof) influence the religion the protagonist is thought to follow? This being said, the authors may not have intentionally assigned the same religion (or not) as their own to the characters they create. Our data shows that, out of the 50 novels, in 23 (46 percent) instances, authors’ religion corresponds with the religion of their protagonists, and an overwhelming 54 percent of the protagonists were clearly Hindu. Another five percent are assumed to be Hindus, based on their names and other descriptions.

This hints towards how much of the world the author creates in their novels is shaped by their immediate social environment. And because most of these authors are Hindu, the predominant voice we hear is the Hindu one — a rather narrow outlook for us to have. Many novels in English also take place in major cities like Mumbai or Delhi, and many Hindi novels are set in the cities of Uttar Pradesh. This suggests that most of our “outstanding” literary works tell one kind of story — the privileged one. One way to correct for this yawning gender gap is to have more diversity on the selection and judging panels of these awards. The authors could not find any such information available online.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Caste

Keeping in mind that the counting of caste as a category by the State through its census is a hotly contested issue, we clubbed certain caste groups under high caste (Brahmin, Vaishya, Kayastha, Baniya, Bhumihar, Karana etc) and the others under low caste (Scheduled caste, scheduled tribe etc).

There are differing opinions on whether caste as a category in the census surveys should be included or not — a debate that also applies to this article. Some scholars claim that the census classifications merely reflect social realities and that by collating data on caste, we hold up a mirror to society. The other school of thought condemns this by claiming that census and all such data gathering only serve to actively create inequalities and divisions in society. The third, middle ground claims that the caste system itself predates the colonial Raj and their methods of data collection and recording. While the census may have exacerbated the caste divisions it existed in a context that was already riddled with caste divisions. The caste system itself, specifically the varna classification of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (peasants) was devised by the Brahmins themselves who were at the top of this hierarchy — something we acknowledged as flawed and unjust.

We also acknowledge that the information available online on the caste of the authors may not be accurate. For 12 percent of the authors, caste was not applicable (NA) because they were either non-Hindus or identified as atheists. For 22.3 percent of the award recipients, the caste was not explicitly mentioned and our research did not reflect clear caste demarcations, hence they were marked as ‘No information’ (NI).

During our research, we found that caste groups and names vary across states and regions in India and to place them within the four traditional caste divisions of Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and Shudra/Untouchables was a difficult task. During our research if the caste of the author was not explicitly mentioned, we tried searching for the last name of the author instead and saw if that gave us clues to the author’s caste. Often the same last names are used by different caste groups and this also varies across the regions of India. For instance, Cyrus Mistry, who won the SA (English) prize, was the brother of Rohinton Mistry. While not much about Cyrus Mistry was available, we assumed that he was also Parsi, based on information available about Rohinton Mistry. While this might reduce accuracy, it seemed the best possible way to collate the data available to us.

Across the four selected awards, we found 62.3 percent of the authors belonged to the High caste group and only 3.4 percent authors belonged to the low caste group. Those from lower castes only won the SA (Hindi) award, but not the other three. This is, however, a very rough estimate and the actual figures may vary considerably.

Figure 4

Figure 4

This trend is alarming because it reflects how works written by those belonging to a lower caste are thought of as unmeritorious to receive a literary prize. For example, that only the Sahitya Akademi (Hindi) prize constituted those from a conspicuously lower caste, is appalling. The question of whose stories get told and by whom is a crucial discussion, and this is true even in literature. This is not just a matter of being politically correct — the stories that get lauded enter our canons, and hence our collective conscious. Who doesn’t remember Meerabai’s laments, or Premchand’s stories? While in some regional languages like Marathi, Dalit literature has been a formidable force; such literature has not graced very many works in languages like Hindi and English (which were the focus of our analyses) until recent times. Of course, this also has to do with the fact that a lot of their history was oral in nature. Whether they were oral by choice or circumstance is debatable. Untouchables have been systematically denied access to educational institutes historically leaving them with little to no options. Oral histories were one such outlet (or form of protest), wherein they could tell their stories, while also asserting their identity in a predominantly upper caste sphere.

To highlight the importance of Dalit writers writing about caste politics through the work of writer Perumal Murugan: ‘Caste emerged as a legitimate subject of contemporary literature with Dalit writing. Literature produced by Dalit writers set new standards for representation – devoted as it was to describing the hypocrisy, cruelty and violence of our social order. It is a commentary in the context of the everyday labour relations and sexual cultures. This literature proved unsettling, and challenged the implicit caste imagination at work in most texts and thus rendered “caste” as much an aesthetic category as a social one.’ (In 2017, the English translation of Murugan’s novel Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Prize.)

That not very many authors from lower castes have been lauded has to do with similar forms of oppression. For instance, our understanding of Indian literature in English is primarily limited to upper-caste authors like Premchand or Arundhati Roy, even if they did write Dalit characters. However, this cannot be Dalit literature, because as the prominent Dalit writer Sharankumar Limbale opines their literature is shaped by the “lived experiences of Dalit, peppered by their pain, suffering and feeling of rebellion and anger.”

Even professors and students of English literature tend to be predominantly upper caste. While Dalit literature is being acknowledged more and more, this trend is not being reflected in the awards that are being given out. We are aware that our data regarding caste groups is not verifiable, that could be because many authors do not ‘come out’ as belonging to a lower caste. This attempt to erase caste, by trying to “pass” as an upper-caste person (and hence “normal” and “worthy”) is a problem in itself.

Authors State of origin (Overall)

Here is a map representing the authors from each state.

We further collected data on authors’ state of origin across all four awards. We found that the highest number of authors hailed from Uttar Pradesh (48) which represents 16.50 percent of the national population, while Maharashtra was second with 14 authors hailing from this state which forms 9.28 percent of the national population. Most states like Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have only one author representing each of them. The southern states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu contribute 18 percent of the total number of authors. There is a contradiction present here since Kerala has a literacy rate of 94 percent while Uttar Pradesh is at 67.68 percent.

There are 11 authors who were born in present-day Pakistan or Bangladesh who have not been represented in the map. State of origin for two authors was unavailable.

This major skew towards authors from Uttar Pradesh might be because of the inclusion of an entire category of awards for Hindi works. Even when SA (Hindi) works were excluded, Uttar Pradesh was the home of the most number of authors (10), while Kerala and Karnataka had seven authors each, and six were from Maharashtra. Twenty-two states were represented overall.

While the other awards we covered were specific to a particular language, Jnanpith is given to authors for a body of work and not for a specific work, across languages. Authors who wrote in Hindi (11) and Kannada (eight) were the highest numbers of Jnanpith award winners. This is corroborated with the fact that the most number of authors are from Uttar Pradesh (48) and Karnataka (12). Authors writing in fifteen languages have been acknowledged so far.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Conclusion

This analysis is just a small step towards exploring the profiles of award-winning authors and their work. Even though the authors represented here are a tiny part of the larger population, the gaps in representation are indications of broader social attitudes. Our analysis corroborates the arguments surrounding prestigious cultural fields, wherein a certain type of people create the canon, thereby ‘edging out’ the minority. While only sex, religious, caste minorities, and heteronormative gender were a focus of our analysis, non-heteronormative gender identities should also be explored. We do see a plethora of LGBTQ+, as well as Dalit authors writing in India, and asserting their authority; however, there is a long way to go before they enter our canons of “essential” texts. One step towards having more diversity among the award-winning authors is to have more diversity on the selection committees of these awards, while also consciously making choices to be more inclusive when deciding who gets to win these awards.

Another recommendation is to have multiple awards. It is important to note that there are multiple social realities within which we function. Since literary merit often depends on the social context, literary awards should reflect these social realities. For instance, Ali Smith’s Autumn would not have been written without the context of Brexit, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines would not have been written without the context of Bangladesh’s partition. And while multiple books by women are written off as “domestic fiction”, it is as important to acknowledge even the most banal stories as a legitimate reflection of their realities. The same holds true of books written by other minorities.

That literary awards are a reflection of, and shape our culture is undebatable. We selected awards given out by the State (the Sahitya Akademi Award) and by private corporations (Jnanpith and The Hindu Literary Awards) and found that all of them lacked the necessary representation the authors deserve. It imperative that we correct this symbolic violence and acknowledge the merit of those works that do not fall under the purview of the majoritarian voice. We owe it to ourselves.

Arathy Puthillam and Vedika Inamdar are Research Assistants at the Departments of Psychology and Sociology, respectively, at Monk Prayogshala.

Updated Date: Oct 06, 2018 17:56 PM

Updated: October 6, 2018 — 8:02 pm
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