For the first time in its five-year history, the JCB Prize for Literature has a shortlist consisting entirely of translations. Announced in Kolkata on Friday, the five books picked by the jury from the longlist of 10 books – of which six are translations – are (in alphabetical order):

  • Imaan, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
  • Song of the Soil, Chuden Kabimo, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral
  • The Paradise of Food, Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi
  • Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
  • Valli, Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil

While the fact of all five books being translations may appear to be an interesting statistic, it probably signals something deeper going on underneath. This may well be considered a definitive signal to indicate that when it comes to fiction, translations into English of the different literatures of India now occupy centre stage of English writing, with novels originally written in English sharing the space rather than ruling over it, as was the case in the past.

Coincidentally or not, this shift has taken place over the five years of the existence of the JCB Prize. If the longlists, shortlists, and winner of the prize are to be considered a barometer of sorts of the best writing every year since 2018, when the award was inaugurated, the change can be seen distinctly.

In the first year, the 10-book longlist comprised two translations of Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, by N Kalyan Raman (from the Tamil) and of Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (from the Malayalam) by Shahnaz Habib. The shortlist included both the translations. Setting the stage for what was to follow, the jury gave the inaugural award to a translation, Jasmine Days.

The 2019 winner, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field is in fact the only English-language novel to have won the prize. In the second year of the prize, translations were not yet as prominent as they have become now, with both the longlist and shortlist also including two translations each. The jury clubbed Perumal Murugan’s two alternative sequels to One Part Woman – A Lonely Harvest and Trial By Silence, both translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan into a single entry, while the other one was Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha.

Translated books won the prize in succession in 2020 and 2021, clearly signalling the ascendance in India. of non-English literatures translated into English. In 2020, S Hareesh’s Moustache – translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil – was the winner, and in 2021, it was M Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy – translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV and Nandakumar K.

However, the 2020 longlist still had only two translated books, the second one besides Moustache being Ashok Mukhopadhyay’s A Ballad of Remittent Fever, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha. And the shortlist had just the one translation, Moustache.

The 2021 longlist saw the number of translated book climbing to three, with Delhi: A Novel being joined by Anti-Clock, by VJ James – translated from Malayalam by Ministhy S – and The Man who Learnt to Fly but could not Land, by Thachom Poyil Rajeevan – translated from Malayalam by PJ Mathew. Anti-clock went into the shortlist as well, along with Delhi: A Novel.

And now, in 2022, for the first time the shortlist comprises translations alone, after dominating the longlist with six out of ten, the other translated title being Rohzin, by Rahman Abbas, translated from the Urdu by Sabika Abbas.

Interestingly, all three translated books to have won the prize so far are Malayalam novels—an indicator of the strength of contemporary Malayalam fiction. With a translated book certain to be the winner, here’s a brief guide to the five titles in contention.

Imaan, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Imaan entered Central Jail as an infant – in the arms of Zahura Bibi, his mother, who was charged with the murder of his father and who died when he was six. He leaves eighteen years later, finally allowed out of prison, and ends up at the Jadavpur railway station in Kolkata, becoming a ragpicker on the advice of a consummate pickpocket.

Life on and around the platform is disillusioning, and far more frightening than the jail he knew so well. This free world is populated by people who live on very different principles and survival strategies from those of the genteel world. They are the ones who teach Imaan all about life—and love.

Song of the Soil, Chuden Kabimo, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral

On a day of earthquake and rain, a young man gets bad news. Ripden, his childhood friend, has been swept away by a landslide. So he makes his way back to Malbung, the village of his birth. Memories come rushing back.

Set in the foothill town of Kalimpong in the Himalaya, Song of the Soil brings alive the story of the revolution for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the late 1980s. Clear-sightedly, it lays bare the many faces of violence. And in doing so, it asks the vital question: Who, ultimately, wins in a revolution – and who loses?

The Paradise of Food, Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi

This novel tells the story of a middle-class Muslim joint family over a span of fifty years. As India - and Islamic culture - hardens, the narrator, whose life we follow from boyhood to old age, struggles to find a place for himself, at odds in his home and in the world outside.

But to describe the novel in its plot is to do its originality no justice. In this profoundly daring work – tense, mysterious, even unfathomable on occasion – Jawed builds an atmosphere of gloom and grotesqueness to draw out his themes. And in doing so he penetrates deep into the dark heart of middle-class Muslims today.

Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

An eighty-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention – including striking up a friendship with a hijra – confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two.

At the older woman’s insistence they travel back to Pakistan, simultaneously confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman, a feminist.

Valli, Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil.

High in the Western Ghats in northern Kerala is a land of mist and mystery, of forests and folklore, rich with the culture of its indigenous people, the Adivasis. Its old name was Bayalnad – land of the paddy fields – but it would come to be known as Wayanad.

Its resources attracted outsiders – traders, colonialists, migrants from the lowlands, and eventually, the timber and tourist industries. Exploitation of the forest led to the exploitation and enslavement of its people, and as the forest dwindled, so did the Adivasis’ culture, their way of life, even their language. But these were not changes quietly and willingly accepted; Wayanad became a key centre of direct action and uprising, and a stronghold for the Naxalite movement. Spanning the time between the 1970s and the present, Valli is a tale of four generations who made this land their home.

Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books and Ideas section of