Saturday, December 18, 2010

On the Shakti Bhatt prize ceremony, and narrative non-fiction

I was at the British Council last week when Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish was awarded the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, and many of us present felt there was something apt, and poignant, about the decision. Following Fish, a work of narrative journalism about fish and fishing communities along India’s coastline, is exactly the sort of book that would have had Shakti clapping her hands in approval - a solid, original idea backed up with conscientious research, insight and intelligent writing.

In this interview she did with me just weeks before her death in April 2007, Shakti mentioned that Indian publishing needed more high-quality work in the field of narrative non-fiction, but that there were obstacles. “It's easier said than done,” she said, “because writers need advances for research and travel, and few Indian publishers are willing to fork out that kind of money. But it would be money well spent, and bigger publishers should be more open to taking a risk – this is a genre that deserves to be encouraged also because of the scarcity of creative journalism in India.”

If Shakti's life and career hadn’t ended so abruptly, I’m certain she would have taken some of those publisher’s risks herself. Her words still have a lot of relevance. Having worked on a non-fiction book myself last year, I know firsthand that most writers don’t have the luxury of spending a few weeks or months exclusively on researching and writing their books – you have to continue earning a livelihood on the side – and this often necessitates making compromises. (I had to make my trips to Mumbai on my own expense, plan my schedule days in advance with my other commitments in mind, and if an important interview with a busy film personality fell through at the last minute, it felt like the end of the world.)

During his conversation with Nilanjana S Roy at the prize ceremony, Subramanian mentioned that all his official leave was spent on traveling for and writing Following Fish. It’s a pity to think that there might be many skilled writers around with good ideas for non-fiction, but not enough resources. Hope that changes soon, and that (to replay an old tune) publishers prioritise quality over quantity and loosen those purse-strings a little.

P.S. On a more personal note: the very last time I met Shakti, she berated me in her usual spirited way for not taking the initiative to work on a book of my own. I think I told her there was no chance in hell of my ever writing one, and she said something like, "Rubbish! I'll hound you until you write one just to get me off your back." I don't know what she would have thought of the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book, but I wish she were around to see it.

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