October 2015: Letter from Writer and Translator Chaman Lal on his blog

Writers undoubtedly feel happy at receiving awards from credible literary organisations like Gyanpeeth, Sahitya Akademi, state awards etc., not for money, which also may be of some consideration to some writers, but more for the honor and recognition of their literary worth. Sahitya Akademi awards did carry respectability of this kind. But when present Sahtya Akademi chief tells Nayantara Sehgal and by proxy to all award returnees, that Akademi award has given them fame and money in form of royalties, how would she return that? This shows his arrogance and pitiability also. Fame and money, if some writers in India can really earn from writing, are mutual kind of thing. Some writer’s respect and fame is more than the award giving institutions-Would Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorki, Lu Xun or Ngugie Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o will be considered lesser writers in absence of Nobel prize not given to them? Giving an award to a certain writer gives award giving institution a better name and respect. Nayantara Sahgal or Krishna Sobti like writers are not among those whose writing got more money or fame because of Sahitya Akademi award, rather Sahitya Akademi got more respect for awarding them.

Since writers yearn for recognition and respect from society by getting award or in some conditions renouncing it, in crucial times of a society, which presently Indian society is faced with. It is return of award rather than receiving, has become more honorable today, to protest against increasing intolerance, communal hatred and violent interference in people’s personal lives in terms of eating or cloth wearing habits or their mutual relationships among themselves(To separate young Hindu and Muslim friends/couples violently in the name of ‘Love Jihad’ like fake or in words of Arun Jaitley-‘manufactured’ terms/tendencies), murders or violent attacks on people holding certain rational ideas, with state becoming indifferent and/or becoming complicit overtly or covertly. To keep mum in such alarming socially oppressive conditions, precursor to real mass fascist practices will be shying away from the duty of a socially aware/concerned individual, which a writer is, as a Public Intellectual also is. To return award with an expressed anguish in the form of a statement is like playing a role in waking up a society from slumber or  freeing it from certain illusions, in which it has been trapped into. To give a wake up call is the primary duty of a writer, which he/she d perform through his/her writings and giving up award is tolling the bells for waking up people, who are faced with fire in their neighborhood, which their writings can not do in such emergent situations! Every renunciation of award from writers every day is like making the sound of bell more loud—Jago sone walo…..suno meri pukar—Wake up O’ asleep Ones—listen to bells of fire around and save yourself and society from it-that is the only meaning and ‘politics’, if any of the writers award return. What is ‘politics’ for those, who triggered this fire of hatred, is the human duty of humanist writers in form of return of awards. If this is crime, then let it be!

It is an irony that Sahitya Akademi, a great institution is taking such shape, where returning an award has become more respectable and honoured act than receiving an award! It is not the writers, it is Akademi who is now reduced to indignity and it has to do a lot to repair the damage it has done to itself by not siding with the authors and playing to the tunes of an oppressive government.

This is moment of crisis and choices have to be made clearly-with whom I stand and  I stand with my fellow writers of Punjabi as well as other languages, who have taken side of suffering humanity and spoken against the patronisation of communal hatred, attack on institutions of knowledge, attack on freedom of ideas and their expression fearlessly. I will be guilty to the spirit of Pash’s poetry, if I don’t honour the spirit of his poetry, which I have translated and it is Pash, whose poetry was honoured in translation, and I have to remain true to his spirit of poetry even in matter of translation prize. So to remain true to the spirit of Pash’s liberating humanist poetry, I join with my fellow writers in returning this prize money and honour given to me by Sahitya Akademi in the form of National Translation Prize in year 2002, for the year of 2001.

Chaman Lal,

Professor (Retired), JNU, New Delhi



October 17, 2015