By Gokul Bhagabati
STOCKHOLM– Sitting at table number 18 during the Nobel banquet at the magnificent Stockholm City Hall, following the Nobel Prize award ceremony at the equally spectacular Stockholm Concert Hall on the same day (December 10, the day when Alfred Bernhard Nobel breathed his last), I pinched myself twice to ensure that what was unfolding before my eyes was real.
The 2015 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economic sciences along with the King of Sweden took their designated seats as did around 1,500 selected guests who came from around the world dressed in traditional European attire. Three empty wine glasses of different sizes and an elegant bowl containing turbot and scallops with sea plants, brown butter and bleak roe waited for each guest on the table.
Just before sitting down in accordance with a printed booklet, there was time for small talk. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, as Tobias Degsell of the Nobel Museum had told us — a small group of visiting journalists — that laureates he had interacted with over the years could throw in dollops of conversations which could spark creativity, essential for big ideas to take birth. These men and women were unlike you or me, at least in the realm of ideas.
Although the men around me did not look much different in appearance as there was a dress code for the evening – white tie and tails for men and long evening gown for women – except the skin colour which was predominantly white, I very well knew that the similarity ended there.
The man I started my conversations with turned out to be an associate professor who takes classes on cinema studies at Stockholm University. When I asked Professor Bo Florin if he would like to see the Nobel Prize award ceremonies happening in different parts of the world and not just confined to Stockholm or Oslo as has been the tradition, he looked bemused at first but his face brightened soon. “Why not? I think that is a great idea that can take us to different places,” he said.
A little later, on a sober note, Florin, who said he also teaches his students about Raj Kapoor’s 1951 film “Awara”, added, “But most Swedish people won’t like it to happen even though Alfred Nobel in whose memory these prizes are given was very international in his outlook.” After all, the man had wanted the Nobel prizes to be given to those who conferred the greatest benefit on mankind irrespective of nationality.
Alfred Nobel had even spread out the awarding process. “The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting,” Nobel had written in his will.
On ordinary reading of the will, though, it’s not clear if he wanted the award ceremonies to be held only in Sweden or Norway although that has been the case since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901 five years after the death of Nobel in 1896.
As I was taking note of Florin’s comments, Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, proposed a toast to the King. Everyone got up from their seats and drank a sip of Champagne Taittinger Brut Millesime 2008 that was served a little while ago. And before anyone could settle down and pick the thread of their conversations, a toast to Alfred Nobel’s memory was proposed by the King. And there we were all set to see the evening turning into a delightful night to be enjoyed with some of the finest wines of the world and meticulously prepared food interspersed with animated conversations and heavenly music.
The wine did not make me heady on that winter night. But it did open up a few gates in my brain for a flurry of thoughts to enter and I remembered what Olov Amelin, director of Nobel Museum, had told us in the morning after briefing us about the new Nobel Centre that is being constructed in Stockholm after decades of deliberations on its designs. He agreed that where the Nobel Prize award ceremonies should be held was not explicitly mentioned by the creator of the prize who was born in Sweden, grew up in Russia and died in Italy. Nobel was was also a poet and spoke several languages fluently and he once famously said: “Home is where I work and I work everywhere”. Amelin, however, added that since Sweden was a politically neutral country, it was indeed best suited to host the award ceremonies and the Nobel banquet.
The other two wine glasses were refilled and our plates replaced for the purpose of serving more food, but I kept wondering if taking the award ceremonies to India or African countries and allowing the students in these countries to engage with the laureates, as is currently done in Sweden prior to the award ceremonies, could inspire them to take more interest in science and literature. Perhaps it would help them aim for the sky.
A soothing husky voice of a young girl crooning the famous 1999 Backstreet Boys song “Show me the meaning of being lonely… ” suddenly silenced other voices in the hall for a few moment.
Lively discussions again followed the song — for the night was still young and there were plates to be replaced and more music to be played, and certainly, more glasses to be filled. For the moment, I just let it sink in, raising an imaginary toast to the man who had made it possible to honour, and celebrate with, the best and the brightest minds the world has produced.