The five-book-strong shortlist for the JCB Prize for Literature 2021 has been announced. The shortlist – and, arguably, the 10-strong longlist before it – picked by the jury, comprising Sara Rai (Chair), Annapurna Garimella, Shahnaz Habib, Prem Panicker, and Amit Varma – appears to be focused on works that are ambitious and experimental in scope, with large canvases.

Conflict lies at the core of all the five titles, whether it be political, ethnic, community, or existential. As Rai said in her statement, “The novels dive deep into these particular, ordinary lives and come up having discovered in them the extraordinary.” The shortlist, which includes three debuts and two translations from the Malayalam:

  • Anti-Clock, VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Penguin Random House India, 2021.
  • Name Place Animal Thing, Daribha Lyndem, Zubaan Publishers, 2021.
  • The Plague Upon Us, Shabir Ahmad Mir, Hachette India, 2020.
  • Delhi: A Soliloquy, M Mukundan, translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV and Nandakumar K, Westland, 2020.
  • Gods and Ends, Lindsay Pereira, Penguin Random House India, 2021. 

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. Here are excerpts from the reviews or the text of the five shortlisted novels, along with the jury’s comment on each.

Anti-Clock, VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S

From the review:

Anti Clock creates a world within the coffin shop that Hendri owns, and cloisters us within it, almost as if we, as readers, are trapped in a coffin of the protagonist’s guilt and grief. The space of the coffin itself becomes important in the novel. Hendri remembers what he told his fearful wife: “A coffin keeps you safe like a womb and rocks you to sleep like a cradle”.

He also recalls them making a coffin their “love-nest” after she stops fearing coffins. In Anti Clock, coffins become a space for sex and debauchery as well as a space of death. Coffins house sexual encounters, mouse-tails, premature death wishes.

Friendship and family are inextricable from each other in Anti-Clock. Hendri says that as a coffin maker who inherited his occupation from his father, he also inherited his friendship with the grave-digger, Antappan from his father, who was friends with Antappan’s father. Of their friendship, Hendri says “The glue that binds us together is the corpse that connects the coffin to the grave”.

From the jury

This book is so outrageous in that it’s about a coffin maker. James has got lots of insights into the characters. He is very inventive, very imaginative with a great sense of humour. There is a sort of eccentric genius animating the story with the anti- clock, a coffin maker, and an antagonist who is such a caricature yet feel so real because we see him through the eyes of the protagonist. 

Name Place Animal Thing, Daribha Lyndem

From the novel:

On this morning as they continued their conversation, the quiet was pierced by ghastly cries for help. My parents ignored them at first until the sounds grew louder and louder. The cries sounded like they were coming from a wounded animal. My father came into the room we were sleeping in to peek outside, trying to detect the source of the sound. His presence woke me up, and I sat upright on my bed to also look outside my window. I heard my father exclaim “My god”; he rushed out to call my mother and tell her what he had seen. She told him, “Hurry up! Get dressed and go help him!”

The urgency in their voices scared me and I tried harder to get a look at what they had seen. My father put on his shoes and some warm clothes and ran out. That is when I saw him, it was Ajay, and he seemed to be covered in blood. He could not even stand. I saw my father run toward him, trying to hold him steady. My father shouted to a man that happened to pass by, calling to him for assistance. I could see him gesturing, asking the man to stand with the boy as my father went to look for Bahadur. He was not around, and it was only his wife who was home. Bahadur had gone to get milk. The family ran back to where Ajay was; he seemed in a worse condition than when my father had left him in. On seeing him bloodied and moaning, his mother was beside herself with shock and needed to be consoled. His legs and his hands bore wounds and he bled onto the asphalt road.

From the jury

“The book offers a clear sighted, honest and intimate view into a girl’s world. It describes the ordinary and in that it becomes extraordinary. Daribha’s writing is plain and elegant. She writes with a great lightness of touch where even heavy topics like insurgency are dealt with in an oblique manner. The writer has managed to very skilfully inhabit a child’s voice and a child’s way of looking at things while keeping it all consistent.” 

The Plague Upon Us, Shabir Ahmad Mir

From the novel:

I wake up in a strange room. The first thing I hear is the eager tick-tock of a clock. I open my eyes and see the clock hanging on the wall. A sentinel of time, keeping watch. How futile.

I feel groggy but the room is full of light. And it smells funny. There is a man sitting beside me. He too smells the same. Funny. He sees me trying to get up and says, “Relax. I am here for you.”

Of course he is here for you.

The voice has returned. “So, how do you feel?” the man asks.

“There is someone in my head. A voice. It doesn’t let me be.”

“Hmm, okay… What does this someone, I mean, this voice… What does it want?”

The voice whispers the answer and I repeat it to the man, “It wants to know who brought the plague upon us.”

“And do you know?”

Tell him.

“No! How should I know?” I cry out.

“Okay, okay. Calm down. Here, drink some water.”

He hands me a glass. I take a little sip. Tick-tock, tick-tock… The clock goes on and on.

“Well, why don’t you tell me something about yourself? About your childhood and growing up and all that stuff,” the man says with a smile.

“I don’t remember anything about myself.”


From the jury

“The book has this edge of insanity that matches the situation in Kashmir. The timeless emotion of Oedipus Rex is evident in what the author puts forth. The instability in the characters is reflective of the instability of Kashmir – with many subconscious factors working to make the book more evocative for the reader, and the story becoming more complex with each retelling.” 

Delhi: A Soliloquy, M Mukundan, translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV and Nandakumar K

From the review (forthcoming):

Delhi is neither solely character-driven nor solely plot-driven, which is really the best way to tell a story like this. Against the backdrop of chaos, the characters do their best to build themselves dignified lives. There are books that achieve this effect by zooming in and out of the picture, and Mukundan certainly does that too to an extent, but the form the book really takes is that of a slow-paced story punctuated – punctured – every now and again by whatever fresh hell the Powers That Be (the Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani governments) manage to cook up next.

Mukundan does show us that each event is experienced differently by people in different walks of life – the Emergency in particular – but ultimately, all of them seem to end up losing. The protagonist, Sahadevan, through whose eyes the story is told, is a thoughtful, intelligent man, given to introspection and internal monologues. No complaints from me, they’re really good monologues. Through this device Mukundan dissects themes like the intersections of war, patriotism, and communality – themes that are once again painfully relevant today.

From the jury

“The book is a rambling, intimate epic. It captures what it means to be a small person in a big capital. How the relentless wave of history impacts these marginal people who have come to Delhi in search for a better life. Mukundan has brought to life the very real characters in this book with great sincerity – all through the novel you are looking at the small things and through them understanding the big.” 

Gods and Ends, Lindsay Pereira

From the review:

“The format of this novel is such that the reader’s eye flits between characters, providing a passing glimpse of each of their lives, as if we’re passing them on the street or peering through a chink in their curtains. Some characters we meet only once, and only for the space of a few pages; others, such as Francisco the grumpy landlord or Philo Sequeira, the local misfit, we return to over and over again.

The latter and her family are the closest thing the book has to a centre. Lindsay Pereira does an effective job of depicting Philo’s angst, which ranges from the universal – dissatisfaction with her looks, unrequited love for one of the most popular boys in her school – to the grim – sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Gods and Ends is frank and unapologetic in its choice and portrayal of themes, and its characters are all without self-pity and, often, even remorse.”

From the jury

“With a biting sense of humour and a quirky voice, Lindsay Pereira puts forth an intriguing debut. Part of the attraction lies in its unconventional form and structure. Each of the residents of Obrigado Mansion seem to be competing in being more malevolent and pathetic than the other, making each of them particularly foul, but Pereira doesn’t offer any excuses for them, making them all unforgettable.”