A Booker winner, six translations and stories from Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Nagaland, Punjab, Kalimpong, and Kolkata feature in the longlist of 10 books for the Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature, the country’s richest literary award for contemporary fiction by an Indian writer, announced on Saturday, with jury chair A.S. Panneerselvan likening the books to “a metaphor of contemporary India”.
International Booker Prize winner Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’ is among the Hindi, Urdu and Nepali translations that make their appearance for the first time in the longlist amidst previous translations in Bengali and Malayalam.
‘Rohzin’ by Rahman Abbas, translated from the Urdu by Sabika Abbas Naqvi (Vintage Books, 2022)
‘Imaan’ by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (EKA, 2021)
‘Escaping the Land’ by Mamang Dai (Speaking Tiger, 2021)
‘Paradise of Food’ by Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi (Juggernaut, 2022)
‘Song of the Soil’ by Chuden Kabimo, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral (Rachna Books, 2021)
‘Spirit Nights’ by Easterine Kire (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
‘Crimson Spring’ by Navtej Sarna (Aleph Book Company, 2022)
‘The Odd Book of Baby Names’ by Anees Salim (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
‘Tomb of Sand’ by Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (Penguin Random House India, 2022)
‘Valli’ by Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil (Harper Perennial, 2022)
The ten novels were selected by a panel of five judges that included authors Amitabha Bagchi and Janice Pariat; author and academician Rakhee Balaram; and translator, historian and academic J Devika.
The longlist was chosen from a vast range of submissions by writers from 16 states writing in eight languages, including English, published between August 1, 2021 and July 31, 2022.
The jury will announce the shortlist of five titles in October and the winner will be announced on November 19. If the winning work is a translation, the translator will receive an additional Rs 10 lakh. Each of the five shortlisted authors will receive Rs 1 lakh; if a shortlisted work is a translation, the translator will receive Rs 50,000.
“This year’s deliberation to select the novels was an enriching experience. It was a rich collection, the translations from different languages showed how writers were pushing the linguistic and creative boundaries to document our lives. These ten novels are in a sense a metaphor of contemporary India, where each language is permitted to shine; its intrinsic beauty is not subsumed by the other,” Panneerselvan said.
Talking about the journey of the JCB Prize for Literature and the support it has had from the industry, its Literary Director Mita Kapur said the longlisted books “are bracing, vigorous, transformative, experimental in voice and story. Elemental to storytelling, each book takes soaring flights of imagination even as it is strongly rooted in India”.
“The Prize enters its fifth year, marking 50 longlisted titles that catch the pulse of our literary traditions. This journey, of course, would be incomplete without the publishers who bring these stories to light, the bookstores, online and offline, that give them a platform and the readers who open themselves to the new worlds these books create,” Kapur added.
Jury comments on the longlisted novels:
‘Rohzin’: With a dramatic love story at the heart of it, this novel is also the story of a young boy moving to a big city. It presents parts of Mumbai, like Mohammad Ali Road, that are rarely seen in English fiction. The real and the fantastical, the contemporary and the ancient, mix seamlessly while the grand themes of Hindi cinema play out in the background.
‘Imaan’ is a completely novel iteration of the humanist tradition of Bengali literature. It presents a vivid portrait of people from the periphery but is neither voyeuristic nor patronising. Each character has agency no matter how circumscribed their life may be. A raw, deeply authentic and honest story which is also well-paced, poignant and eloquent.
‘Escaping the Land’: Breathtakingly lyrical and poetic, (this) is a memorable account of a life lived on the north-eastern frontier of India. Amidst the varieties of masculinity portrayed in fiction the protagonist in this novel is a rare one-that of a man who fails and accepts his failure. There is an underlying intelligence that runs through the book, becoming more vivid as the narrative progresses.
‘Paradise of Food’ is a brutal and mesmerising account of the contemporary body, home and nation told through the food and kitchen. In a world consumed by hyper-consumerism, the book provides a bracing counter-narrative making it an important piece of work. The incredibly skilful translation highlights the poetry and music of the original text.
‘Song of the Soil’ is a shining example of how one can write about a violent incident without recreating the violence. The author blends bildungsroman (a person’s formative years or spiritual education) with a conflict story with great dexterity, bringing out new aspects of both forms. This book is able to make poetry out of brutal situations, but does so with honesty, humour, and gentleness.
‘Spirit Nights’ posits a different view of the world where the human is just another creature struggling within the vastness of creation. Simple yet evocative, full of deep insights and important teachings, this grounded, lyrical novel is a powerful celebration of oral storytelling traditions.
‘Crimson Spring’: A solidly crafted work of historical fiction, (it) not only talks about the historical moment of turbulence and terror triggered by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre but also vividly brings to life rural Punjab at the turn of the century.
‘The Odd Book of Baby Names’: Dealing with a multiplicity of perspectives, the narrative moves from one to the other with ease. A smooth and enjoyable read, with a smattering of dry humor, yet filled with tenderness and poignancy. The book proves it is possible to produce a criticism of the decaying feudal order, presided over by Muslim authorities without resorting to any othering (a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labelled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group) devices.
‘Tomb of Sand’: Wild and unruly, (it) challenges our notions of what a novel should be. The impression of several novels within one give it a carnivalesque atmosphere. This novel is witty and irreverent yet filled with tenderness and psychological insight.
‘Valli’ is a beautifully written work that transports us into another time and place. It presents a world gone by in which the natural world is an extension of the human world. The prose has many textures, with letters and quotes from scriptures, making for a deeply satisfying reading.