A Prize Too Far?

31 Oct,2019

 

By Avik Chattopadhyay

 

Abhijit Banerjee wins the Nobel. Bezwada Wilson wins the Magsaysay. Satyajit Ray is bestowed with the Irving Thalberg award. Arundhati Roy wins the Man Booker prize.

 

All moments that have made the nation proud and also brought certain special and superlative people to the forefront who would have otherwise remained in the inside pages of a newspaper. They were brought to the front page by being associated with certain awards and prizes that are the gold standard in their respective fields…the Nobel in Economics, the Magsaysay for Social Service, the Thalberg for a lifetime contribution to films, the Booker for literature and so on.

 

As Indians we have gone into overdrive every time such an achievement happens. I personally have tried my hand at “reflected” glory by having known Siddhartha Mukherjee in my adolescence, Bezwada Wilson as a professional and now Abhijit Banerjee as the elder brother of my business partner! Apart from the fact that I keep good company, I sure take pride in the value of the associations. Of the stature of the prizes and awards. For these are testimonials of their individual prowess at a global level and a recognition of their contribution to the betterment of society at large.

 

So, in the middle of all the euphoria of Abhijit-da [co]winning the Nobel for Economics, one simple question came up in my mind. Why could we never have an award or prize of international scale and fame? One that people from every corner of the world would crave for. One that every media publication in the world would write about. One that would make us proud as a nation for not only having produced stalwarts but also recognising ones from all walks of life, all fields of endeavour and all forms of excellence.

 

Sadly, we have none.

There is the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding but it has hardly attained that global stature and the last one was anyway given in 2009 [to Angela Merkel]. Tells you about the commitment to continuity by the award givers. And the present government will have none of it as “Nehru” is a bad word nowadays.

 

We have lots of film awards, but none at the level of the Palme d’Or.

We have lots of sports awards, but none at the level of the Laureus.

We do have a few awards for journalism, but none at the level of the Pulitzer.

 

Why is this so? Why could India not create at least one award of global stature that had the world looking forward to the winner being announced every year? We take pride in being the first nation to have attained freedom through peace. So why not one for peace movements? We take pride in being the world’s biggest feature film market. So why not one for non-English movies? We take pride in being one of the world’s oldest civilizations [a few flagbearers will claim us to be the oldest]. So why not for historical studies?

 

Four clear reasons why not.

 

First. We fear global comparisons.

As a nation, we are a very apprehensive lot with lots of mental reservations about being evaluated on development parameters at a global level. We would love to vote by the millions for a movie star on the internet and declare him the “most popular” in the world. We have made religion out of a sport that is played by only a handful of nations with just 12 of them being full-time members of the sport’s governing council! We hate being exposed to indices and metrics that put us out in the open against people of other nations. Years of thriving on mediocrity in the garb of development have led us to this unique state of being. The ones that go out and establish themselves on the world map do so purely by themselves, with little support and encouragement from the nation. But once they get global recognitions, they become beacons of all that is great and glorious about India!

 

Second. We take comfort in volume and not value.

We are a very opportunistic nation, taking recourse to facades that help us in specific contexts. So, as a poor nation, why do we need to have international prizes and awards and give away serious prize money to outsiders? Don’t our poor need to be fed? Such precious money cannot be wasted at all. We are all about numbers…population by the millions, roads by thousands of kilometres, schools by hundred-thousands, languages by hundreds, rituals by thousands and so on. We are not really about the qualitative aspects of the population, the roads, the schools and so on. Hence, the sheer value of creating and nurturing an award of international stature does not hold much water.

 

Third. Philanthropy is not our thing.

Imagine a Man Group in India putting their money behind an international award for literature like the Booker. Or someone like the Rockefeller Fund partnering with the family to create the Magsaysay. Or the motion picture association creating an Oscar. That’s not really our cup of tea. Non-government awards and prizes are constituted to pat each other on the back. They are not necessarily for greater good. People of dubious repute or minimal contribution are given the nation’s highest civilian honour! How many like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad have we had who had the guts to refuse the Bharat Ratna as he felt he was not eligible enough? Why could the Ambanis not institute a global award for entrepreneurship? Why could the government not revive the Nehru Award in the right spirit?

 

Fourth. Sadly, we still lack self-esteem.

Collectively, we are still not out of our colonial hangover. We still feel that we are not good enough to be counted at the global scale, apart from a few Guinness Record events being stage-managed. We will crave for associations and recognitions from overseas but not have the ego to go ahead and create one recognition of global repute. Political pontification and posturing do not help. Building tall statues and long bridges are not a sign of self-confidence. Creating gold standards whereon stalwarts from across the world are evaluated surely are.

 

After winning the Nobel in 1913, on being called to yet another celebration ceremony in Kolkata, Tagore had politely refused being garlanded. He said that while he did not yet know how the Western world recognised a poet standing on the Eastern coast, back home he was sure to acknowledge the ‘intoxicated euphoria’ of his own people but not consume it!

 

 

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