literary awards

A reader’s guide to the 11 books on the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature longlist

From treacherous hypocrisies of Indian society to the fictional retelling of a real life death sentence, this year’s contenders reflect the diversity of fiction in English.

Diversity is what makes any line-up interesting; it is also one of the key elements that contribute to the making of a great work of fiction. Eloquent prose, moving storyline, standout protagonists – they all follow suit naturally.

This year’s longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2016 is a collection of works which, instead of boasting of each of the above elements in place, focus on diverse themes – among others, characters returning to their native lands to seek answers to their inexplicable past, the atrocities that form the very being of a place people used to call home; the learning and unlearning of relationships.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has been won by formidable novels in the past – Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland (2015), Cyrus Mistry for Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2014), Jeet Thayil for Narcopolis (2013), Shehan Karunatilaka for Chinaman (2012), and HM Naqvi for Home Boy (2011).

This year, the longlist has eleven novels in the running, to be pared down to a shortlist later.

The Way Things Were, Aatish Taseer, India
Aatish Taseer’s sixth book has Sanskrit at its heart, framed by India’s past and its effect over its present. When Sanskrit scholar Toby, the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, dies, it falls upon his son Skanda, also a student of Sanskrit, to bring his father’s ashes to India. Skanda’s journey spans over a year in India, where he finds himself in the very world he had tried hard to escape. As he attempts to understand his parents’ relationship, history unfolds in the backdrop – the Emergency of 1975, the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, and so on. Tying these events together is his tryst with Sanskrit, which dramatically comes alive as a character of its own.

Family Life, Akhil Sharma, US
There’s a sense of familiarity when emigration forms the theme of a novel written by an Indian living in a foreign land. But Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is not just another novel about a family moving to New York for a better life; it is the time-tale of his family, a family that collectively and individually lives the domestic tragedy of his elder brother’s accident and subsequent brain damage in a foreign land. Birju, the narrator’s elder brother, accidentally hits his head in a swimming pool and suffers profound brain damage, and the episode changes the family’s lives forever. Written ever so simply, Family Life is a profound piece of biographical work that quite naturally compels one to pray for a miracle that sadly never happens.

Odysseus Abroad, Amit Chaudhuri, India
Do not expect surprises in the plot when it comes to Amit Chaudhuri. Instead, read what you’re offered and find joy in the small traces of subtle humour that Chaudhuri carefully slips in between the lines. Odysseus Abroad is the story of Ananda, who is studying to be a poet in London. Twice a week, he meets his maternal uncle, the bachelor Rangamama, who, despite his eccentricities, is his sole friend and companion on the lonely streets of London.

Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy, India
The past is never truly behind us. While at times it surprises us by catching up with the present, at other times it is we who willingly probe the past. Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of seven-year-old Nomi who, after witnessing the murder of her father and being abandoned by her mother, finds herself in an orphanage run by an internationally acclaimed guru. She is soon adopted by a family abroad, but her memories of being sexually abused by the guru continue to haunt her through her growing up years. Nomi returns to India after 20 years as a filmmaker’s assistant desperate to piece together the truth behind her family’s disappearance and boldly face the demons of her scarred past.

Hangwoman, KR Meera, (translated from the Malayalam by J Devika), India
KR Meera’s Hangwoman borrows its narrative from a real life event – the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee by Nata Mullick for raping and murdering 14-year-old Hetal Parekh. It’s an event that remains alive in the history of West Bengal even after a decade. Meera’s protagonist is the twenty-two-year-old Chetna Grddha Mullick, who is appointed the first woman executioner in India. She takes over the government job of her legendary hangman father, the 87-year-old Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick, and readies herself to confront the evils of the perverse and male-dominated society.

A Little Dust On The Eyes, Minoli Salgado, Sri Lanka
A Little Dust in the Eyes weaves the themes of love, loss, dislocation, departure and eventual return. Simple as it may sound, there’s complexity underneath and that is what makes Minoli Salgado’s debut novel a beautiful read. Savi and Renu are cousins separated by a civil war in Sri Lanka; while Renu is desperate to bring political killers to justice, Savi is struggling with the damage of a broken childhood. The two are reunited after many years, but just then the tsunami strikes and changes the course of their future. From the comfortable bustle of a seaside city in England to the unpredictable calm of coastal Sri Lanka, A Little Dust on the Eyes is metaphoric of many things undone and untold.

The Book of Gold Leaves, Mirza Waheed, India
The setting of Mirza Waheed’s new novel is familiar – a war-torn Kashmir. But the love story of Faiz and Roohi is one that has not been told before. In Srinagar, Faiz makes papier mache pencil boxes for a living. Roohi is the quintessential girl waiting for love to come to her. And so it happens: a beautiful Shia-Sunni love story begins to brew in the unpredictably terrifying valley of Kashmir. This is the early 1990s; it is not their love that decides the future, it is the land where they live which dictates every move. These are times when violence and unrest are the new normal and everything else, especially love, secondary.

The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne, US
A futuristic novel where two protagonists, Meena and Mariama, of different origins, find their paths and stories intersecting through multiple themes of sex, gender, class and identity. Both characters are on the run. Meena Ramachandran, an Ethiopian-born Indian woman, flees from Mumbai after finding snake bites on her chest. She undertakes a journey via the Trail (an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea) to Ethiopia to unravel the mystery of her parents’ death. In a parallel world, Mariama witnesses the rape of her mother and escapes to join a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. One heads east and the other west. Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is about how these women’s fates entwine in shocking and moving ways.

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee, UK
One can write about the lives of others only if one is able to get inside their heads, ensuring there isn’t a trace of judgement or empathy. Neel Mukherjee does exactly that, well enough for his readers to look at those very lives from an astonishing, third-person outlook. Mukherjee’s second novel is based in the late 1960s and focuses on the bourgeois drama of the Ghosh family. Three generations of the Ghoshes live under one roof in a four-storey house in south Calcutta. The novel centres on their strange lives, dabbling with issues of domestic desires, caste struggles, and political unrest in the country.

She will Build Him a City, Raj Kamal Jha, India
Three stories run parallel to one another, only to come together as a whole in the end. Exquisite juxtapositions of a woman, an orphaned child and a wannabe killer form the book’s core plot. But this isn’t just a story about these three characters. Or about the urban centre that Gurgaon is. It is the joint story of the place and its people, endeavouring to make and remake their existence, attempting to write and rewrite a new tale that makes modern India look modern. Placing urban landscapes against temporary dwellings and damaged lives, Jha’s take on the reality of a town and its people is unflinching and at times unbearable.

Don’t Let Him Know, Sandip Roy, India
Journalist and writer Sandip Roy’s debut book of short fiction is one that revolves around the theme of family and homosexuality. The stories are interconnected to each other, depicting the lives of the Mitras. Avinash Mitra is a closeted gay man who keeps this fact hidden from his wife, Romola, for the longest time. What he doesn’t know is that Romola is fully aware of his orientation and preferences, but remains silent by choosing to ignore what she knows. Their son Amit later finds out the truth about his father through a decade-old letter. Betrayal is another of the strong themes that hovers like a bad omen, while secrets have a life of their own.

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