The Sahitya Akademi awards for 2021 were announced on December 30, 2021. A Burning by Megha Majumdar (Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar), Things to Leave Behind by Namita Gokhale (Sahitya Akademi Award), and Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush by Anita Vachharajani (Bal Sahitya Puraskar), were the winners in the English language.

A Burning, Megha Majumdar, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, English

One of 2020’s most admired books, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is a magnificent debut with endless possibilities. Jivan, a young Muslim girl, is determined to rise through the ranks despite her shackles of class and religion.

Things take a sharp turn when Jivan is accused of carrying out a terrorist attack on a train due to a Facebook post. An opportunistic gym teacher latches his aspirations to a right-wing party and finds that his own rise to power is tied to Jivan’s fall. Jivan’s alibi, Lovely, can set her free but at a great personal cost. A Burning shows contemporary India for what it is – an endless tussle between class, fate, corruption, justice, and the quest for personal freedom in a country moving rapidly towards extremism.

“You smell like smoke,” my mother said to me.

So I rubbed an oval of soap in my hair and poured a whole bucket of water on myself before a neighbour complained that I was wasting the morning supply. There was a curfew that day. On the main street, a police jeep would creep by every half hour. Daily-wage labourers, compelled to work, would come home with arms raised to show they had no weapons.

In bed, my wet hair spread on the pillow, I picked up my new phone – purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached.

On Facebook, there was only one conversation. These terrorists attacked the wrong neighbourhood #KolabaganTrainAttack #Undefeated

Friends, if you have fifty rupees, skip your samosas today and donate to –

The more I scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.

This news clip exclusively from 24 Hours shows how –

Candlelight vigil at –

The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train. But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot. The fire spread to huts bordering the station, smoke filling the chests of those who lived there. More than a hundred people died. The government promised compensation to the families of the dead – eighty thousand rupees! – which, well, the government promises many things.

In a video, to the dozen microphones thrust at his chin, the chief minister was saying, “Let the authorities investigate.” Somebody had spliced this comment with a video of policemen scratching their heads. It made me laugh.

I admired these strangers on Facebook who said anything they wanted to. They were not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun, and wasn’t that freedom?

— Opening Lines: 'A Burning', Megha Majumdar.

Things to Leave Behind, Namita Gokhale, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, English

Namita Gokhale’s historical fiction reimagines Kumaon and the Raj like never before. The year is 1856, the proud Kumaonis are uneasy about handing over the reins to the Europeans, and the women are anxious about the threatening new influences on their beloved Naineetal Lake.

Not the ones to resign to their fates, feisty young Tilottama Dutt and her daughter, Deoki, bravely confront their new reality as Indians and as women. Things to Leave Behind brings alive the fascinating backstory of Naineetal its usual confusion of caste and culture, and reluctant entry into Indian history.

First the sky, a pure, clear blue, with clouds shaped like elephants and sheep and small birds circling the canvas. Then the low hills surrounding Panna Tal, in a grey-green haze, the trees still and expectant, waiting for the breeze to ruffle them. The lake, somewhere blue, sometimes green, the waves blinking in the sunlight. I am sitting in the grass, in the foreground, a part of the picture, as he paints me. I watch myself being studied, by his observant eyes, by the intensity of the brush as it strokes the canvas.

The brush strokes the canvas, as his hand touches my skin. My pale skin, my windblown hair, the absence of my being, my waiting self, are all restored by his gaze. A dragonfly hovers on a rock by the lake, but it is not looking at me, it is seeking its reflection in the water. I am a part of those fluttering wings, the translucent gauze of that flight.

I can see myself in the sky and the clouds. I can feel the grass on my naked skin. I have forgotten my clothes, they lie beside me in a heap of heavy fabric.

My body is like the earth: it is mud, it is moist, it seeks, it clings.

It is the month of Chaitra. The spring breeze carries the scent of flowers, the fragrance of Krishnakali blossoms. On a faraway hill, a woman is singing a nyoli. I can picture her, a hand placed over one ear, shutting out sound, the other, spread out to listen to the wind, to let it carry her song. It is a plaintive song, a sad song, as nyolis are – an ode to the passing breeze sighing from hill to dale, with only the crows, in their abiding wisdom, listening in, or a passing egret.

— Opening lines: 'Things to Leave Behind', Namita Gokhale.

Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush, Anita Vachharajani, winner of Bal Sahitya Puraskar

Amrita Sher-Gil wore many hats – she was an artist, a dreamer, and a rebel. She grew up in Budapest, Hungary and colonial Shimla, defying expectations to pave her own way to becoming one of 20th century’s most accomplished painters.

With lucid writing and beautiful illustrations, Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush is a wonderful exploration of the painter’s fascinating life through ups and downs. Perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of the book is encouraging children to never shy away from being their true selves.

In a village called Dunaharaszti in Hungary, a little girl listened carefully as her mother told her a folk story.

As she listened, her large black eyes grew bigger and rounder with excitement. She had heard the story before, but she liked to hear it again and again. The story went on, and the little girl’s mind was filled with exciting pictures – of colour-changing trees, of fairies wearing dresses with peacock feathers on them.

And when the story finally came to an end, she sat down with her sketch book and drew pictures in it with her colour pencils. The sketchbook was filled—page after page—with poems and stories that she wrote and illustrated. The little girl was Amrita Dalma Sher-Gil. Amrita was born in Budapest, on 30 January 1913, over a hundred years ago. She grew up to become an important, adventurous and exciting modern painter.

Amrita’s story is fascinating because it unfolds in the early 1900s. This was a time when people from different parts of the world had begun to travel more freely. They were crossing oceans; meeting each other and working together in ways that had never been done before. They shared wisdom, ideas, technology, culture, art and, sometimes, their lives with one another.

— Opening lines: 'Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush', Anita Vachharajani.