Arguments over history, and who gets to narrate it. A continuing conundrum in Kashmir. Raised voices from the North East, as well as from others outside the designated mainstream. Dealing with the tragic fallout of the pandemic. A feeling of time compressed, and then accelerated.
For many, an uneasy amalgam of the above aspects is what has defined India in the recent past. It’s only fitting, then, that the novels on this year’s JCB Prize for Literature longlist reflect these themes, sometimes directly, often by implication. It’s a stack of books teeming with issues of contemporary significance.
Some things old, many things new
Refreshingly, more than half of the ten are debut novels. In no particular order, these are Lindsay Pereira’s Gods and Ends, Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Dharma Forest, Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her, Rijula Das’s A Death in Shonagachhi, Daribha Lyndem’s Name Place Animal Thing, and Shabir Ahmed Mir’s The Plague Upon Us. The wide variety of narrative styles and subjects in these first novels is fitting testimony to an expanding literary spirit.
Moving on to the others on the list, there are three novels in translation: VJ James’s Anti-Clock, M. Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy, and Thachom Poyil Rajeevan’s The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land. Finally, there’s veteran I Allan Sealy’s Asoca, which happens to be his first book since 2017’s Zelaldinus: A Masque.
It’s not only in the subjects of the debut novels that one finds diversity. If Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy, Pereira’s Gods and Ends and Das’s A Death in Shonagachhi give voice to marginalised and often overlooked communities in enclaves of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, respectively, Ge’s What We Know About Her, Rajeevan’s The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land and Sealy’s Asoca delve into the nation’s history, recent and ancient, inscribing it in ways that are both personal and political.
While James’s Anti-Clock deals with the way in which time unravels for those in a village in the South, Lyndem’s Name Place Animal Thing writes of the way it flies for a young girl in the North East; and both also show the ways that individuals tie their identities together with threads of memory, religion and ethnicity.
The shifting nature of reality and the way we exploit it for our own ends come to the fore in Shabir Ahmed Mir’s The Plague Upon Us, which invokes Sophocles’s description of an ancient scourge to grapple with the situation in Kashmir in tones of bleakness and betrayal. Sasidharan, too, raises issues of ethics and responsibility in The Dharma Forest by taking a mythological theme – that hardy staple of the Indian literary landscape – to retell stories of the Kurukshetra War with a focus on the consequences of the actions of Bhishma, Draupadi, and Arjuna.
Talking of translation
Notably, all the translated works on the longlist are from a single language, Malayalam. In contrast, there were only two works in translation on last year’s longlist, one originally in Malayalam and the other in Bengali. The skew does seem unfair and other languages would have been very welcome – but then, the purpose of a list is to indicate merit, not inclusivity. With an increasing number of translations from all over the country that are being published of late, there’s a good chance next year’s longlist will see more representation.
Given Malayalam literature’s rich tradition of playing with form, it’s no surprise that The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land and Anti-clock are inventive and even playful in structure and narrative. Another novel on the list that eschews traditional means of telling is The Plague Upon Us, which experiments with changing perspectives and truths.
Such inclusion of work that doesn’t conform to conventional narrative form is heartening. They’re necessary reminders that the solemnities of straightforward realism aren’t the only way to capture everyday lives.
It’s a bit vexing, though, that there are only three novels by women on this year’s list. Even if you apply the caveat of judging for quality, not gender, this seems odd, given the memorable voices that have emerged of late. In the 2020 longlist, for example, there were six, double the number, which then led to three on a shortlist of five. Another omission is that of Dalit voices, in the manner of last year’s Moustache by S Hareesh.
Finally, for entirely personal reasons to do with an inability to pay attention, it’s with a feeling of consternation that one notes that at least half of these ten novels are over 300 pages – over 500, in one case. One can only admire the fortitude of the jury and the optimism of the authors.
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