The JCB Prize for Literature 2021 has revealed the ten novels on the longlist. A panel of five judges – Sara Rai (Chair), author and literary translator; Dr Annapurna Garimella, designer and art historian; Shahnaz Habib, author and translator; Prem Panicker, journalist and editor; and Amit Varma, writer and podcaster – have picked it, and will go on to choose the shortlist and then the winner.
The shortlist will be announced on October 4, and the winner of the Rs 25 lakh prize – with an additional Rs 10 lakh for the translator if it is a translated title – will be revealed on November 13. The longlist was chosen from books published between 1 August 2020 and 31 July 2021.
Here are the opening lines of the 10 shortlisted novels.
A Death in Sonagachhi, Rijula Das, Pan Macmillan
Lalee had learned the word “phantasy”. For reasons he couldn’t articulate, this made Tilu very jealous. Tilu Shau – obscure writer of erotic fiction – had been visiting Lalee for almost six months now – every second Wednesday when his book sales and assorted hustling yielded enough cash for him to afford Lalee’s door fees. He was a slight man, and nothing much to look at. It didn’t matter to him now, but he still remembered all those little ways his heart had sunk when he was a schoolboy and a pretty girl wouldn’t deign to give him a second glance. Especially now, as Lalee stood leaning on her door frame, smoking a cigarette, face averted from him.
Not too long ago, he had read a book on the mysteries of the human psyche. Everything, it said, had its origin in childhood. And though Tilu couldn’t fault his mother for more than an occasional smack across the head and a haphazard sort of neglect, he understood that now it was de rigueur to blame mothers for one’s adult failings. He, therefore, speculated that his troubles began with his mother not being able to remember exactly when, during her two-day labour pains, the tiny, wrinkled body of Trilokeshwar Shau had touched the earth. Or, that he didn’t quite touch the earth, but plopped unceremoniously into the hands of the buxom nurse with the prominent rabbit teeth who scrunched up her nose and, pressing her front teeth down on her lower lip, said “Eh ma” in a nasal falsetto, before holding him up for his mother’s benefit, who, he was led to believe, had croaked a little. Such was the music of his passage onto this earth, and had set the background score for the rest of his life. His father was proud of him nonetheless – first male heir and so on. Parental pride had eventually given way to bitter disappointment, but at the time of his birth, overcome with emotion, his father foisted upon him the name “Trilokeshwar” – god of three realms. The family name, however, could not be remedied. Still, there were all kinds of benefits in being low caste these days. At least he’d get a government job through some well-meaning quota, Tilu’s father had thought.
What We Know About Her, Krupa Ge, Westland
I was going to see my grandfather about a matter of inheritance. I had every intention of inheriting my home, sparse and secluded as it was. It didn’t look like I would succeed, but I was determined to try.
The train was between stations, somewhere in the middle of small-town silence. A comforting, clove-scented fog settled inside my head as I lit up the first cigarette of my trip at the door of the coupé.
My mother is not an easy woman. This long-drawn fight over my claim to the house that stood on our ancestral land was necessitated by her need to give things away. She wanted to donate this house to some godforsaken NGO now. Amma was not like those irritating commies you ran into on Twitter: well meaning, politically correct, snarky and cutting people to size. The ones that turned up to work stoned, or wrote things like “rest is revolution” and “self-care is work” on their social media. She wasn’t the kind you would identify as a jholey-wali. Amma was old school; a hardened, hit-the-streets, hold-that-flag-up kind of commie. A trade union lawyer who took after her leftist father. She dressed like nothing special – cotton saree, a maroon pottu on her forehead, wedding chain, toerings, her hair oiled and braided. She lived her ideals, didn’t dress up for them as if they were something other than life itself. I admired her and her work. But her ideals had begun to encroach upon every little comfort I could access. Now she was after the place I’d called home since I was eighteen.
Anti-Clock, VJ James, translated from Malayalam by Ministhy S, Penguin Random House
“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations. She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”— Lamentations 1: 1-3
As usual, I am about to go to sleep, after reading the Bible and contemplating its words.
It was Appan who ingrained in me the nightly habit of opening the Bible to any page, and skipping seven lines before starting to read, no matter what the circumstances. Since he had insisted that I shouldn’t desist from the routine even if he lay dead, I followed his instructions even on the day death visited my house.
By no means should anyone jump to the conclusion that I am an ingenuous saint. I have a wicked intent that goes against the teachings of the Scriptures. I want to kill Satan Loppo, either by tying a noose around his neck, bashing his head in with my mallet, or stabbing him through his heart. It is that lone desire that keeps me going.
The bloodier and more dishonourable ending I can think of for Loppo, the better! What he deserves is much more than what I desire. The only way I sustain my life is by keeping a coffin ready for him and waiting for death to ensnare him.
At a mere glance, a coffin maker can assess the body measurements of a person and visualise a fitting casket. It is a place where life is lidded before being sent off on its final journey. Only the coffin maker and those who have experienced death can appreciate that the dead are not merely dead. If someone believes that the dead crumble into dust beneath the earth, he is wrong.
Name Place Animal Thing, Daribha Lyndem, Zubaan
We lived in a house at the bottom of a hill. We took it on rent from Mrs Guha, the lady who lived in the much larger house at the top of the hill. Hers was a lovely Assam type house that was in several stages of dilapidation, but not so ramshackle that it could not be called quaint. Every time I would go with my father to pay the monthly rent, I would try to peek inside Mrs Guha’s house from the front door. “Stay out here,” my father would warn me as I walked in with him, hoping to get a glimpse of her living room. From the outside, as I stood on my toes, craning my neck, I could see wooden ceilings and floors, as well as a large glass cabinet that housed bric-a-brac which had managed to escape the film of dust that rested gravely on all the books that lay on top of the cabinet. Inside were souvenirs from faraway places and old framed photos of a bygone time. I imagined her travelling to Morocco or Chile, haggling with a street vendor, buying these things; artefacts that were a testimony to a well-travelled life. Proof of travel is as important, if not more important than the actual journey.
My mother, father, younger sister and I lived in that small rented house till I was eight. It was located in Nongrim Hills, a quiet neighbourhood which was at the time considered well removed from the city centre. The doors were so low that my giant of a father would have to stoop every time he got in. He would only be able to stand straight once he was inside. There was a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen that only one person could stand in at a time, and one bathroom. The living room was a soothing yellow which was juxtaposed against the riot of colour my mother had adorned the walls with. We had small pieces of furniture placed strategically so no one would bump into them. There were wall hangings made of red fabric, studded with small glass mirrors, that my mother got in Gujarat. Near the entrance, she hung decorative cloth parrots on a string. In a small corner of the room, there stood a large peacock wicker chair, on which she had placed a colourful woollen crochet blanket. We always took our family photographs around it. Nothing in the room matched anything else, which is how my mother liked it. My sister and I never thought the house was small because we never knew anything else.
The Plague Upon Us, Shabir Ahmed Mir, Hachette
The plague is upon us.
A vicious, dark plague.
Why, only the other day it struck two dozen among us.
Two dozen children and young men who, along with hundreds like them, are on the streets. All of them angry. All of them born of anger. All of them nurtured on anger: on black despair and red rage. No night has ever brought them respite. No night has ever sung a lullaby for them. Instead, it has always been black. Black, like the deep dark bowels of a crocodile with its jaws wide open. What and whom will it claim? Nobody knows. But it will. It surely will, as has the black night that has come before, and the blacker night before that.
If only they could sleep. Not a heaving sleep full of dreams but a cold, insensate one. A sleep like death that would drive away the wails and sirens from their heads, the nightmares from their eyes, the rotten stench from their mouths…
Yet, no, that won’t be. They will just have to pass minute after weary black minute on the red rosary of angst, waiting for the night to end, waiting for dawn to come and set them free. But the dawn is just a wound through which a sticky redness oozes onto the horizon. The redness that they will find, by noon, squirting from helpless veins to form dirty, chaotic puddles in the desolate market squares trampled by stained jackboots. The redness that they must get used to, as it is the redness they must breathe through the day. They will swallow it. They will choke on it. They will vomit it out. But no matter what they do, they cannot get rid of it. The redness is their skin. They cannot scratch it off with their nails or tear it away with their teeth.
They are powerless.
They are helpless.
They are miserable.
They raise their eyes up to the heavens, wondering if someone is looking down at them.
At dusk, the red wound shifts to the west. Night comes, but brings no respite. And, again, the red of the day is replaced by the black of night.
Delhi: A Soliloquy, M Mukundan, translated from Malayalam by Fathima EV & Nandakumar K, Westland
It was on a Saturday, 13 June 1959, that Sahadevan arrived in Delhi for the first time. He was twenty years old. That was the day he spoke the most he ever had. All to himself.
Sahadevan would live in Delhi, the Indian capital, for a long time, growing old there. He would accomplish many things during this time, and would fail at a lot more. One of the important things he would continue to do was to keep talking to himself. It was a dialogue that would go on for four decades. For instance, when he alighted from the train at Delhi for the first time, he said to himself, “Sahadeva, do you know where you’re standing now? In the land where Gandhiji fell after he was shot ...”
Sahadevan turned voluble and talked to himself every time something momentous happened—not necessarily in his own life. 21 October 1961 was one such day. He was exhausted from having talked to himself the whole day. When he talked to himself, he also smoked continuously. The constant chatter and smoking wore him out.
Around 9 a.m. that day, in his one-room government quarters at Sewa Nagar, Shreedharanunni had left the living world.
Sahadevan had great respect and affection for Shreedharanunni, to whom he owed a great deal. Shreedharanunni was thirty-nine years old when he died. He did not suffer from any ailment serious enough to cause death. It had happened as he scanned the headlines of his favourite English newspaper, which he had got into the habit of reading the day he arrived in Delhi to start his new job. Shreedharanunni’s heart just stopped beating (“His fuse blew”, as Inder Bhatia put it).
The previous day had held no premonition of the impending tragedy. He had left for his office in the Central Secretariat as usual, at 9.15 a.m., having pulled on a pair of slightly dishevelled white cotton trousers and a half-sleeve shirt. The tiffin carrier containing his lunch dangled from the handlebar of his bicycle. He had worn these same trousers the previous day and ridden the bicycle for two hours. A great majority of mid-level babus – the slightly pejorative term for the non-officer grade government staff – employed at the Secretariat had similarly wrinkled trouser seats, as bicycles were their primary mode of transport.
Gods and Ends, Lindsay Pereira, 2021
The well appeared to have been there forever, sunk into the earth at a time when there couldn’t have been too many people around to use it. And yet, as any careful observer might have noticed, it had once been cared for, its sides carefully scoured, solid stone steps marking circles as they disappeared into its gloomy depths. Until the outer wall collapsed, sliding slowly into the murky green water, there may have been a few informal meetings held nearby. Some of the early residents of Orlem may well have stopped to chat around it on sunny mornings, to discuss dissolute husbands or the latest scandal from the Goan villages they came from, while stooping down to draw water.
On the night of 24 December, only one voice was heard. It was between 1 and 2 am, and the water lay undisturbed, its opaque surface broken only by lethargic leaves slipping, sliding, gliding down from laburnum trees looming darkly above and around the well. The only other sound came from an unsteady stream of urine pattering down, over the ruined edge, through a space where the wall once stood. ‘Come from England, come from Scotland, come from Ireland,’ the voice slurred tunelessly. ‘Looking out for a pleasant holiday? Come to Bombay, meri hai.’
Jude Sequeira pissed his cares away. He was dimly aware about urinating into a source of drinking water for some of his neighbours, but was too drunk to care. The half bottle of cheap whisky he had consumed lay volatile in his stomach, warming him, while making his head swim ever so gently. The song he was singing continued to pour out of him, its lyrics a jumble. After singing it twice, he looked up and stopped in awe. Above him, in a hole cut out through the trees that formed a canopy, a few stars twinkled brightly. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen stars.
Smiling to himself, he shook his penis half-heartedly, the last few drops wetting his toes. As he tried to zip up, something caught his eye. A mouse? A cat? Swaying slightly, he turned. There was a sudden moment of clarity when he recognised the figure standing before him. His lips moved as he struggled to articulate something that seemed to be just out of reach. Teetering for a few seconds, suddenly on the brink of sobriety, he slipped. The splash echoed briefly before receding into the night. The waters closed over, stifling a scream before it reached his throat. As he went down, Jude found the name he was looking for.
The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could Not Land, Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, translated from Malayalam by PJ Mathew, Hachette
There is an image that continues to linger in the memory of the elders of Kottoor. It was of 26 January 1930, when people across the country observed Freedom Day after the Indian National Congress, under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, passed a resolution in Lahore declaring complete independence from British rule. The people of Kottoor village, which lay at the foot of the Chengottu Hills in the Malabar region of the Madras Presidency, also observed Freedom Day.
Kottoor was completely secluded from the world outside. It had the Chengottu Hills and Veyappara to the west, the Oolery Hills and the Koorachundu Hills to the east, Pallikkunnu to the north, and the Thandapram Hills and the Kaliyath forest to the south. Kottoor lay in the middle, safely protected by nature. No military expeditions or other incursions had ever reached this enclave. No thieves or robbers either. It could have been that all of them had turned back thinking that no humans lived beyond the thick forest and the tall ranges. The villagers of Kottoor thus survived as remnants of some great movement, unaware of what lay beyond the hills that gave them natural protection, unaware about a world beyond it and what went on out there.
For Kottoorans, it did not matter who ruled them. None of the established instruments of governance, such as the court, the military or the police, had ever peeped into their lives. They had not even heard of the Zamorin or Tippu Sultan, the Portuguese or the British.
Since they weren’t aware of what government was, they didn’t know what freedom meant either. And if someone who knew asked, they would say: “Freedom? We already have it, don’t we? We can punish the Pariahs and Pulayas, and evict the tenants at will. Isn’t that freedom?”
It wasn’t usual for all the villagers to gather at one place, disregarding caste and community. Even the people of the same caste got together only rarely. They gathered only on occasions like weddings or deaths or during the festival in the ancestral temple. Bhagavati, Kuttichathan and Gulikan were the gods of the Kottoorans. The Nairs and the Thiyyas, who were almost equal in number, had their separate Bhagavatis, Kuttichathans and Gulikans. The Pariahs and the Pulayas had no right to watch the festivals of the Nairs and the Thiyyas. Their god was Kooly. A separate Kooly for the Pariahs and the Pulayas. And their gods did not have, like their devotees, either land or permanent shelter, and had to relocate themselves along with the devotees to the shores of brooks or the slopes of boulder-strewn hillocks.
The Dharma Forest, Keerthik Sasidharan, Penguin Random House
A wilderness grew
in the sky.
In that wilderness
In the hunter’s hands
The hunter will not die
till the beast
Awareness is not easy,— Allama Prabhu translated by AK Ramanujan
O Lord of Caves?
Hours before Jara the hunter killed the much beloved eighth avatar of our Lord who was seated under that leprous tree of enlightenment, enlightenment, he found himself awash in a wave of melancholy that crashed in as he dreamed of making love to his wife who, even in that ephemera between deep sleep and wakefulness, straddled over him, as she usually did, with the purposefulness of a good samaritan trying to resuscitate a drowned man. The source of Jara’s despair was a golden-coloured deer that he had been chasing for days in the woods near the Raivataka hills, but it had eluded him and, in turn, had led him deeper into the forests and closer to the river known as Hiranya whose tributaries emptied themselves into the great ocean near that old settlement of Prabhasa Kshetra. Every time he came close to capturing it, the deer vanished in ways that left Jara with no recourse but to admire the animal’s cunning for self-preservation. It was in that despondent mood, just as the sun was about to set, while he sat upon a makeshift seating post on the branch of a sal tree, that he saw the deer again, past the bushes and brambles. Only this time, the deer stared back at him, as if it knew that they had met earlier. For a moment, a smile came over Jara as he wondered if he was stuck in an eternal cycle of action and reaction, condemned to repeat the same chase all over again tomorrow. Out of instinct, or more perhaps from some deep-seated intuition, he reasoned that there was no escape out of this forest of illusions except by continuing to chase this lustrous animal. It was already dark when he began to run after the deer once more. From deep inside the forests, faint echoes of a flute and a smell of sandalwood permeated the air. Unlike other evenings however, not a leaf moved on this occasion. Up on the nearby trees he saw monkeys and macaques stare at him from the lower branches, as he jumped onto the ground. On the highest of branches nearby, he saw apsaras seated on them, who, too, watched him chase the animal. Further, to his north, were a group of young, attractive men standing under the very same branches of the trees upon which the apsaras and the monkeys sat. Gandharvas, he told himself – referring to spectral emanations from the heavens who percolate into human lives, like water through sand, as and when they choose. They, too, were observing him closely. The forest suddenly seemed to awaken, as if all lives within it had become sentient and now watched him foolishly run after that animal. Jara began to panic. Why are all these beings revealing themselves to me? Is this world real, or am I living in the dreams of a storyteller who imagines these words at dawn while his wife sleeps nearby? With thoughts swirling as fast as his body continued its pursuit, Jara concluded that there was only one way to find out – to put the reality of this world to test.
Asoca: A Sutra, Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Random House India, 2021
“A-so-ca! Put down that meat hook and get off of that stove!”
Mother talked funny but she was easily the beautifulest of the queens, so I hung the hook back up. But I didn’t swing back down till I had Alexander and his flunkeys running for their lives.
“He’s shoving!” Susima whined. “And he emptied the ash bucket over Ghasita!”
Old news, but I did it to show that he was my dog and if I wished to change his colour I had every right to.
“Be a Maurya, baba,” Susima’s mother said, ruffling his hair, and went on pricking gooseberries. She had good knees and I was a bit in love with her.
The kitchen courtyard swarmed with gardeners dumping gooseberries. ‘Oy!’ they’d shout and flirt as they collided with the sorting maids. Jam-making came after the midwinter bonfires and was taken seriously at the palace. Rows of cream-and-ochre preserving jars stood in readiness, glazed like soldiers on parade. I loved that uniform, and later I put my Camelteer guard in it, cream tunic and ochre stole. Baskets of gooseberries covered the yard, and more were being brought in every minute from the orchard by grinning gardeners. Gooseberries spilled from the baskets and went rolling across the clay floor. Susima overcame his sulk enough to kick one back to me, but I was already taking the lids off the jars to make sure there were no centipedes trapped inside. When I saw he was trampling something I ran to join him and squashed one or two under my heel. Gooseberries squeak as they split, then die gaping. The floor was a mash of pale green fruit tagged with stalks and tiny leaves.
Mother was stirring a vat of brown cane syrup with a ladle seized from the cook whose job it was. Today the queens invaded the kitchen and stayed all day till the last jar was capped. Other royals were shucking cardamoms and pounding cinnamon. A black haze of peppercorns, roasted and crushed, hung in the air and made me cough. The cooks, brahmans to a man, curled their lips and retired to the Yard of Crows where they sunned themselves and yarned.