The winners of the Neev Book Awards 2020, awarded to children’s literature in India, have been announced. A winner was named in each of the four categories – Early Years, Young Readers, Young Readers and Young Adults. As part of the Neev Literature Festival, the prizes have been awarded for four years now.
Here are the winners for 2020, along with short clips. They were chosen by a jury made up of four educators – Colin Kelman, Anuradha Ruhil Barua, Dhooleka Raj and Myra Garces-Bacsal – of three writers – Rasil Ahuja, Gita Vardarajan and Kamakshi Murti, and two teacher-librarians – Katie Day and Nadine Bailey. .
Small years: Ammu and the sparrows, Vinitha R, Pratham Books
Emerging readers: The miracle of Sunderbaag street, Nandita da Cunha, Kalpavriksh
Editor’s presentation text:
Young Zara sits alone every night in a dump on Sunderbaag Street. One day, Miss Gappi plants an idea in Zara’s mind. This launches them on a mission that changes Zara’s life… and the lives of many residents of Sunderbaag Street.
Junior readers: The Adventures of Kohinoor, Devika Cariapa, William Dalrymple, Anita Anand, Juggernaut Books
(Devika Cariapa adapted the original adult book by Dalrymple and Anand into a children’s version).
If the Maharaja was afraid, he did not show it. Ten-year-old Duleep Singh looked like a king in every square inch as he entered the dazzling Shish Mahal, the throne room of the great fort of Lahore. But as the serious-looking men in red coats and feathered hats surrounded him, he gripped the hilt of his gem-adorned sword firmly to keep his hands from trembling.
The words of their strange tongue hovered above his head as he searched desperately for a familiar face around him. Maybe a quick nod from someone to tell them they were doing the right thing.
But he found himself all alone. Her father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was dead. Just like his half-brothers. Her mother, Rani Jindan Kaur, had been taken away and locked up in a palace outside of town. The few remaining nobles of the Sikh court watched in grim silence. The men in the red coats were now smiling and nodding encouragingly as the boy made his way to a desk.
March 29, 1849. The Lahore Treaty awaits the signing of the young Maharaja. The independent Sikh kingdom of Punjab was handed over to the East India Company.
This private British trading company had recently become very wealthy by using large chunks of Indian territory. To help them, there was an army twice the size of Great Britain. They had been eyeing the Punjab kingdom for many years. But it was only after the death of the mighty Maharaja Ranjit Singh that they had their chance.
Power struggles within the royal family, poisonings, brutal assassinations and finally two bitter wars had led to this point. Young Duleep Singh, isolated from his family and without any trusted advisor, gave in to the intense pressure on him. Vast swathes of some of India’s richest land were now ceded to the Company.
And there was something else. Something these “red coats” wanted above all. The most valuable item not only in the Punjab, but possibly all over India.
Hidden somewhere in the pages of the treaty which Duleep Singh tremblingly signed were the words “The gem called Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Shooja ool-Moolk by Maharaja Runjeet Singh, will be handed over by the Maharaja of Lahore … ”
Young adult: Oonga, Devashish Makhija, Tulika
Oonga rushes to the peepal tree and climbs sideways like a squirrel. He stops at a low branch, wonders if he should settle down here. But then he changes his mind and climbs higher, to the highest branch that will support his weight. From there he has a clear, uninterrupted view of the horizon. He will be the first to spot Hemla Didi and his cycle. The only creature that could spot her before him will be the eagle. So he looks up to the sky above the treetops and tells the eagle to let him know if she sees Hemla Didi.
The only eagle circling the top of the tree must have heard little Oonga’s plea, for she breaks her circle and soars higher and higher until she dissolves in the midday sun.
The hot black road sparkles under the blinding white sun, its tar melting in places. Hemla rides cautiously, paying attention to the sticky spots. If her bicycle tire hits any of them, she will have to walk back to Oonga. By the time she reached him on foot, the sun would have set. And she can’t afford to break the heart of her favorite little man again.
Part of her is angry. To the contractor who was commissioned to do this section of road. She knows he’s a corrupt man. Like most of his ilk. If the tar had been of good quality, this road would not be like this. In fact, when this road was kuchcha, it was much more robust. The inhabitants know how to create trails that last them for years. But these entrepreneurs, they are sent by these greedy for money, and decide that all kuchcha should be done pukka, no matter how useful it may or not.
How can I ever convince the Adivasis that they have to be open to the idea of development, if that’s what they get in the name of it? Hemla thinks, a cloud of worry begins to fall over her again.
She is so lost in her own disturbing thoughts that Hemla does not notice a dusty jeep lying on the prowl by the side of the road. He sits there – a hunting beast made of cold metal – as still as the warm, thick air of those parts, as if waiting for his prey to pass unsuspectingly.
This is the last stretch of the pukka road before Hemla has to embark on the jungle trail. She can see the jungle trees in front of her. The shade they promise is inviting. The kuchcha trails in the forest can be bumpy, but the softness of the earth, cool shade, and lack of noise more than makes up for the bumpy ride.
In her haste to dive into the forest again, Hemla begins to pedal faster. She doesn’t notice the high-pitched roar of the jeep passing in front of her and slowing down. And just as she’s about to pass him again, he abruptly pulls out of his way. Hemla stops, jumps out of her seat. She doesn’t know why, but she doesn’t want to engage with anyone who might get out of that jeep. Today, she must go to Oonga at all costs.
She holds her handlebars and walks briskly on her bike, rushing towards the trees. As the jeep shakes and dies, it spits out two men. Their uniforms have the same camouflage print that CRPF soldier Hemla saw a short time ago. She does her best to walk past their questioning gaze, but the older of the two walks up behind her, grabs her bike rack and is forced to stop. The youngest rushes to block his path.
Pradip opens the carrier clamp and slides a package. Covered in postage stamps, this package has clearly come a long way to reach Hemla. Pradip reads his name on it, “Hemla Mandingi”. Hemla is calm, her face closed. “It’s you, isn’t it?” Pradip asks, in Hindi.
“Yes why?” Hemla asks, starting to get very uncomfortable.
“Take that radio off of you and get in the jeep,” Pradip said, grabbing Hemla’s elbow.
Hemla raises her hand, asks to know: “Why? What did I do?”
Pradip is in no mood to argue. “Ask the sahib when you meet him,” he growls, and tries to pull his transistor radio off his shoulder.
Hemla sharply spreads his arm, almost stumbling. “Show me a warrant first,” she shouts defiantly.
Pradip looks at her in disbelief, laughs at her, grabs her elbow hard, snatches the radio from its strap, throws it to the ground and pulls her towards the jeep. Sushil held the bike by the handlebars the entire time. He looks a little confused by it all. He watches Pradip jostle with Hemla and push her into the back of the jeep. Sushil quickly kicks the bike off the road and allows it to crash into a ditch on the side. He climbs into the back of the jeep as Pradip starts the engine in the front.