The first outing of the JCB Prize for Literature is underway and the shortlist for top 5 has been announced. At an intimate conference held in a bookstore in Delhi, two members of the jury – writers Arshia Sattar and Vivek Shanbhag along with JCB Literary Director and author Rana Dasgupta.
Out of entries sent by 42 publishers, the jury shortlisted five of what they felt were the best works in terms of diversity of ideas, storytelling and the ability of the book to compel readers to read till the end and remember it after. The shortlisted entries include books by renowned authors such as Perumal Murugan, and Anuradha Roy and also debutante novelists such as Shubhangi Swarup.
Speaking to News18, Rana Dasgupta said that said that this is a great time for Indian literature. “When we started out with the award, we were worried if we would find ten books in the long list. But the response was overwhelming and the jury surely had a very hard time narrowing down,” Dasgupta, who has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his novel Solo among other accolades, said.
He added that awards like the JCP were a great way to bring Indian writers to the fore and explore the rich variety and diversity of literary thought and writing in India. And unlike the prestigious Pulitzer or Man Booker awards, it’s specificity to India would help bring Indian works to international spotlight.
The Tokyo Cancelled writer said that the award was also an effort to bridge the gap between writers, publishers and retail that currently exists in India. “We wanted Indian writers to have the same name as Bollywood stars or sports personalities in the country. And awards are a great way to bring them recognition and increased circulation,” Dasgupta said.
He also added that the shortlist was a great way to shape literary opinion among young Indians who may otherwise get derailed with various kinds of ‘pop’ literature that seems to be prevalent today, at least on social media.
“Not that there is anything wrong with any genre. Books are not in competition with each other and all kinds of books can and should exist in a healthy literary sphere. An award like this is just a guide for those who may want to look a bit further and experiment with new, complex genres,” Dasgupta said.
Jury member and author Arshia Sattar also believed that the competitions such as these were a great way to increase access among writers from marginalized minority communities.
“Winning an award or being on a shortlist makes sure the names of these authors gets into the papers, gets into readership. Sometimes, like in the case of Benyami’s book, a translation works miracles in terms of increasing circulation,” Sattar said. She added that what was interesting was the variety of themes that were explored by writers in the shortlist.
“Each of the books are different from each other and talk about distinctly separate issues which are binding nonetheless. The diversity in text comes from the diversity in the writers themselves,” Sattar said.
Speaking to News18, Kannada novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag said that a strain of resistance and assertiveness was common in all the books that were shortlisted. In fact, the author of the celebrated and delightful Gachar Gochar said that the assertive strain pervaded through all the works that were submitted, barring gender and otherwise status of the writers. Shying away from naming a favourite, Shanbhag stressed that all the novels on the shortlist were remarkable.
The winning novel will be announced on October 24. Until then, here’s a quick look at the shortlist:
Half the Night is Gone
The first book on the shortlist is ‘Half the Night is Gone’, by Amitabha Bagchi, whose first novel Above Average became a bestseller in 2007 upon publication. His second novel The Householder also released to critical acclaim in 2013 while his third novel These Places was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Prize 2015. His fourth book, which has been shortlisted for the first ever JCP Award. It explores the inner and outer lives of the men in two families, one rich one poor and working class. The book explores class dynamics within friendship and human relationships and according to the jury, offers an insightful look into Indian masculinity.
Jasmine Days is one of the two translated works in the shortlist. It has been written by the eminent novelist Benyamin, who has over twenty books to his name, and translated from its original Malayali by Shahnaz Habib, who teaches writing at a US University and consults for the United Nations. The book traces the lives of immigrant workers in an unnamed Middle Eastern city during the Arab Spring of 2011. No doubt the author, who has lived in Bahrain for several years before taking to full-time writing, has borrowed from his own rich experiences. The protagonist is Sameera Parvin, who through the course of the events in the book, is forced to confront several questions about choice, love, loyalty and morality. The book was hailed by the jury as a complex take on some burning questions of our time.
The second work of translation on the shortlist is Poonachi, a novel written by the celebrated Tamil Author Perumal Murugan and translated by N Kalyan Raman. Breaking from his usual style of realistic characters and narratives, Murugan’s latest book takes on the narrative from the perspective of a black goat. However, the novel which at first perusal reads like a delightful caper, soon reveals itself to be a deep and twitching political satire. Jury said readers should expect a work of mastery and extraordinary wit from this one.
All The Lives We Never Lived
Anuradha Roy is one of the two women writers who are on the shortlist apart from Shahnaz Habib. Her book All the Lives We Never Lived traces the life of a woman who chooses to define her individual identity over her husband, family and even her country. It is a story of struggle and passion and takes a hard look at the conflicting roles women may take on such as those of wife, mother and self from the perspective of the protagonists’ son. The award winning author is known for her short stories and her four novels, each of which have been critically acclaimed.
Latitudes of Longing
Last on the list is the debut novel of journalist and filmmaker Shubhangi Swarup. Latitudes of Longing has already started creating a buzz in local literary scenes as adebut to watch out for and author and the jury described it as a breath of fresh air. The novel blends reality with a touch of magic and supernatural, and takes readers on a journey through India’s heartland. It digs deep and asks several important questions about the relationship and antagonisms between humans and the environment. On another level, it is also a tale of discovering fault lines and fissures that exist in humans, just like they do in the rocks that scatter the Earth.