Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Some words on the piper

'To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.'

Update : 06 Nov 2022, 02:05 AM

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, not only was the literary world divided into more than one faction, but a significant section bemoaned the fact that Leonard Cohen, perhaps one of the three greatest songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century, along with Dylan and Paul Simon, was overlooked and had been so for a long time. The year was 2016 and on the occasion of the release of his then album, Cohen was asked to comment on Dylan's win. Cohen had magnanimously responded, “To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” 

What Cohen was trying to suggest is that even if Dylan had been ignored for the prize, it would not have dented his status as one of the legends of poetry and song-writing. Dylan would be the Mount Everest, with or without the attestation and recognition of the Noble Committee. 

Just very recently, lovers of Bengali literature have been made aware of the news that Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, had been nominated for the coveted prize in the year 1971. According to the rules of the Nobel committee, the names of the nominees and the nominators are not made public for 50 years since the year of nominations. Pablo Neruda won in 1971, Tarashankar died later that year and since the prize is not awarded posthumously, he was never considered again. It was a case of so near and yet so far for the Bengali reading public -- had he won, he would have been the second author to win it after Rabindranath Tagore. 

Every year, days before the announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature, there is a palpable anxiety and tension that builds up amongst the different publication houses, readers, and lovers of literature the world over. There are even betting sites dedicated to this event and hence it is not innocuous nervousness anymore -- this is an anxiety with decent money at stake.

Every year there are names that do the rounds, names that have delighted readers with their craft, wordsmiths that have created worlds of their own and where we have sought shelter and refuge. I do not think that the announcement of the prize is an event in their calendar, it is something that the readership and the fan base has built and hyped up. So, at the end of the day, it is more of a validation of that particular fandom and of our tendency to hero worship or raise an author to an elevated deified pedestal. And with social media in the horizon and a faction of keyboard warriors everywhere on the prowl, there are always debates as to why a particular author did not win it, or why a particular author did. Haruki Murakami, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera -- probable winners every year and sites of academic and intellectual skirmishes- the list is long. 

But what does a Nobel Prize win for a particular author do for the book and publishing industry? Not surprisingly, there is an increase in interest and sales the world over. For instance, when Annie Ernaux won it this year, there was a never seen before interest in her works among the readers in India, whose readership pool is mostly Anglophone. Discounts were given on websites like Amazon on her novels and academics and intellectuals were asked to contribute articles on her craft and her lifelong works in newspapers and magazines. 

Reading the novels of the French author became a marker of belonging -- one has to be really eccentric and ex-centric if one hasn't read whom the Nobel committee deems worthy of the biggest prize in that field. But did it make a really significant change to the legacy of Ernaux? Isn't art beyond the euphoric recognition and celebration of an award? Isn't the greatest reward for a writer/ poet/ songwriter the fact that her/his words can change the course of someone's life and being?

I began my article with Cohen talking of the futility of judging the influence of Dylan's lifelong works by awarding him the Nobel Prize. I shift to something less cerebral perhaps. A few seasons ago, when Karan Johar asked Mahesh Bhatt on the former's infamous chat show what he would like to change in the Indian Film Industry, Bhatt's rapier-like response was, “It's pathetic lust for the Oscars.” It addresses the kind of colonial and Euro-centric hangover we still suffer from, a belief that one has to be validated by a Western/ European standard of judgement to cement one's place in history. We look up to European masters of film-making and storytelling, while our own languish in obscurity and sometimes, poverty. I am also reminded of a section in The Little Prince where the prince informs his young listener about a scientist/ mathematician who took giant strides in discovering and establishing a theorem but was summarily rejected because he belonged to the non-European world and wore his traditional native clothes, only for the theorem to be accepted by the outside world when expounded by a white man. 

And yet there are those who have turned down the Nobel. Sartre refused to accept it when awarded in 1964. And Boris Pasternak's refusal was more complicated, since it was under Soviet pressure. Dylan too was the cynosure of a lot of conjecture- many of his followers and fans had been certain that he would abstain himself from accepting it. The likes of Chinua Achebe never won and yet, he was perhaps the single most dominating literary voice from the African continent to have emerged in the last 50 years. Rushdie hasn't won and the desperation amongst his faithful was such that some of them were hoping that the recent attack on him would have been the final push needed to secure the still eluding recognition -- almost a kind of a sympathy vote to get him the prize. 

How are we to judge greatness or great artists now? Have authors been reduced to names on the betting tables on whom wagers are put every year before the announcement of the prize? Is the Nobel prize, the single most deciding factor in cementing the author's legacy? Ruskin Bond may never win, or even be nominated. But readers of Indian Fiction have his name on their lips every time a train stops at an unknown station under the fading light of the sun. R.K. Narayan never won, but every time someone visits any small sleeping town in South India, one is transported to the world of Mani and Rajam and their other associates of the fictional Malgudi. Or to put it in another way, is the Nobel prize potent or big enough to measure the influence of Marquez on fiction and writing in general?

I want to end with a personal anecdote. In 2016, in the month of August, I was part of a committee of a particular Examination Board, which was overseeing the changes in its syllabi for their class X and XII. For the latter, the hierarchy wanted a poem criticising war and the terrible destruction that it brought with it. The usual suspects -- Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon were rejected. A colleague of mine and I suggested Bob Dylan's lyric John Brown, which was a searing anti war poem. It was met with a chorus of disapproval, the dominant idea being Bob Dylan was not a poet per se, but a country singer/ songwriter. But the power of the poem was such that the naysayers had to give in and the poem was included in the syllabus. A few months later, Dylan won the prize and my colleague and I both received a phone call from the convener of the meeting, thanking us for sticking with Dylan and the poem. John Brown is a work of art. No recognition is big enough to do justice to it. 

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He is the co-editor of Plato's Caves Online, a semi- academic space on literature, politics and art. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse.

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