RECENTLY All India Radio carried an item in its national news that a former Union Minister has been given the prestigious Man of the Year award by the American Biographical Institute. Similarly, a press report published a few days ago had gushed:
“In spite of the recent US hostility towards Indian science, an Indian space scientist (incidentally a cousin of Amartya Sen) has been nominated Man of the Year by the prestigious American Biographical Institute”. Off and on, the Indian press carries small news items of the “unique” honour bestowed on selected Indians by the same institute by including them in its Who’s Who list.
The best thing about the North Carolina-based American Biographical Institute Inc. (ABI) is its name. The name brings to mind a hallowed scholarly organisation like the Institute of Advanced Studies. The ABI, however, is not scholarly but commercial. As its letterhead states in a matter-of-fact manner: it has been a publisher of biographical reference works since 1967. To assure you of its credentials, it informs you that it is a member of not only the publishers’ association of the south but also of the National Association of Independent Publishers.
Every year, the ABI sends out letters announcing that “your name has been nominated for biographical recognition” in the current Edition of International Who’s Who of 20th Century Achievement. The letter says in a noncommittal way: “Your nomination reflects an obvious admiration for your personal and professional accomplishments”. To decide for itself, the ABI asks the addressee for biographical details (which obviously it did not have before!). It also asks you to send 10 nominations whom the publisher could further contact. (As any commercial concern would tell you there is nothing like building up an exhaustive mailing-list).
So much for the prestige of being asked to send your particulars to a commercial publisher for inclusion in its annual directory. This is a slightly more sophisticated version of the Readers Digest’s exclusive offers.
The next higher honour bestowed by the publisher is the Man/Woman of the Year award. The letter remains delightfully vague. It refers to the winner’s “overall accomplishments and contributions to society”. The award is “based on his/her outstanding accomplishments to date and the noble example he/she has set for his/her peers and the entire community”. The letter offering the award again asks the recipient to send 10 new names. More importantly, it asks for money! The recipient can have his/her decree “custom laminated onto Finland birch wood” for a sum of $ 295. Alternatively, you could settle for an unlaminated decree and save $ 100, because as the publisher thoughtfully notes: “You may wish to use your own frame to match a particular decor in your home or office”.
The publishing company does not supply statistics of how many of its American recipients have opted for which type of decree. For the recipients from the former colonies, a third option is available. They need not send any dollars to the publishing company. They can simply contact the gullible electronic and print media in their own country for free publicity.
Being orientalists, these recipients and their countrymen suffer from an individual and a collective sense of inadequacy which manifests itself as a craze for foreign recognition, no matter how dubious.