A lament for the Sahitya Akademi Award of India.

And a review on the brilliant “Laburnum for my head” by Temsula Ao

The home page of sahitya-akademi.gov.in

Sahitya Akademi Award, who? Indian youth today rants on Oscar winners, and Booker prizes. But ask them about their own country’s highest academic honor, and they fail miserably. Ask them about Indian Filmfare award, and the reaction would be the same.

I feel them because I am one of them. We are not to blame entirely, because these great institutions of India, the apparent gatekeepers of literary and film culture are not popular and remain obscure. Hell, they don’t even make an effort to be inclusive.

For example, take the website of Sahitya Akademi Award in the picture above.

I mean, wouldn’t you expect better content, grammar, and sentences from the great National Academy of Letters itself. No doubt, the Indian youth doesn’t care about them anymore.

But I recently started hunting and reading good books published in English by Indian authors and to my great surprise, Sahitya Akademi awards the best of literature from India, though winning the award does no good to the author. You see, in India, only chick-lit with titles like, “You swiped right to my bed”, “Of course I will marry you, only when you get richer”, “This is the shit story of your life”(names tweaked a bit to protect the authors) become famous and earn money. Not for any literary content, sorry, but only because of heavy marketing and catering to adolescent fantasies with stupid stories.

The first book that I picked up was “Laburnum for my head” by Temsula Ao, which won the award in English language category in 2013. It was a biased choice to pick this book because I am from the North-Eastern region of India and was delighted to see a writer from the region on the list.

“Laburnum for my head” is a collection of eight short stories based in Nagaland, a tribal majority state in North Eastern India. The theme of the stories is universal, with a very tribal setting. Temsula Ao was also awarded the Padma Shri 2007, for her contributions to literature in India.

A brief synopsis of the stories that moved me the most from this collection.

  1. Laburnum for my head — The titular story is a very simple and comforting tale about an old woman, Lentina who harbors a singular wish, to have a laburnum tree in her garden that would flower with yellow blossoms during spring. But alas! her laburnum saplings would die time and again. When her husband passes away, she has a moment of epiphany. She decides to do away with human pretensions like ostentatious gravestones for dead family members and buys herself a plot of land south of the cemetery. She decides that she will have a different burial, with a laburnum tree bursting with yellow flowers instead of a dead gravestone. Aided by her driver who turns into her confidante, she achieves her dream in death. This is a moving story that would stay with you. Every time I see a laburnum tree, I am reminded of this lady.
  2. Death of a hunter– A simple story of how a brave hunter, Imchanok is crippled by the specter of the magnificent animals he kills on his hunts. Even though much of his kills are an act of protecting his farm lands, he is consumed by guilt. There is a haunting imagery of a monkey leader taking the bullets for itself while urging its clan members to safety; this scene is enough to send chills down your spine.
  3. The Boy who sold an airfield– This is the wittiest tale of the lot, the story of a simple, smart boy Pokenmong or Porky, as the British officers called him. How he manages to sell an airfield that did not belong to anyone to unsuspecting villagers and turns his fortune is the funniest thing you will read in a long time.
  4. The letter– With a disturbing ending, this shows the struggles of both the villagers and the underground extremists in an eternal struggle for survival in disturbed Nagaland. Frustrated by the continuous exploitation by the underground military, a group of village youth kill an insurgent who comes demanding money in the village. But when one young man in the group finds a letter on the dead man, he realizes that often the hunter and the hunted are forced by their circumstances, not by their nature to do what they do.
  5. Sonny– Sonny was a revolutionary who is now dead and lamented by the lady who he was in love with, but had left when he chose the path of a rebel leader. This story shows the hypocrisy and power politics lurking in the inner circles of the insurgents, the vortex of which sucked Sonny in; Sonny who only wanted justice for his motherland.

The language of the book is very simple, and at 110 pages the book is a quick but leisurely read. I would not recommend it to people who equate flowery language alone to good writing.

But I would urge my fellow Indians to not neglect Indian literature. Please make a conscious effort to read and respect the good writing from our own native lands, or else the deluge of cheap chick literature in the market will silently kill the good work by struggling Indian writers.

Have you also come across good literature neglected in your own country? Please feel free to comment about it, I would like to learn more about it.

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