literary awards

The Hindu Prize for fiction: first lines from the six shortlisted books

Here are the opening passages from each of the books. Predict the winner if you can.

Shashi Deshpande: Shadow Play

Traditionally, a wedding comes at the end of a story, a story with a happy ending, that is; in fact, the wedding is the happy ending. However, it is not the end but the beginning: the beginning of a new life for the couple, the creation of a new family - in fact, the beginning of life itself. Which is why, perhaps, the whole world loves a wedding; why it looks upon it with the same fond indulgence with which it looks upon babies and lovers.

This is a rather unusual wedding, a quiet and modest affair taking place not in a lavish wedding hall, but at home. The young banana plants on both sides of the rickety gate, (a gate that has been hastily and badly painted as dribbles of paint and large blobs show) as well as the festoon of mango leaves and marigolds strung above it, tell the world an auspicious event is taking place within. But it would as well be a baby's naming ceremony, a sixtieth birthday celebration, or a satyanarayan puja; though, in fact, even these are celebrated with a greater flamboyance.

Anita Nair: Idris, Keeper of the Light

For a fleeing moment, the howling paused. The boy shifted within his cage of bones. He unfurled his tiny fist and looked at the pebble that had brought him there. A pigeon's egg, black as his Fatima Naaya and smooth as her cheek. He held it against his lips and whimpered, “Aabo.”

In that ephemeral stillness when the howling had paused, he felt he was at home again; in Fatima Naaya's arms as she held him tight and pressed his face into the crook of her shoulder and sang softly: abate amino, jijinneey rabtaaye, aabe majoogto...

The boy whimpered and shifted again. When the howling resumed, he shuddered, squeezed his eyes shut and willed his ears to stop hearing. For when the wind funnelled through the jagged sides of the high mountain pass, even Allah sitting on his throne in heaven must wince, the boy thought.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

Rupi Baskey cannot believe she was once the strongest woman in Kadamdihi, who bore her eldest squatting in the middle of a rice paddy, skin-deep in slush.

This happened in Ashadh, in the middle of the planting seasons. At the time, Rupi had been in the fields with the other women, transplanting rice saplings. Her sari and petticoat were hitched up to her thigh and there were generous splashes of mud on both. Her hair had come loose over her face and, in pushing it back, she had put streaks of mud on her cheeks and forehead.

Though Rupi was not as big as she should have been at the end of a full term, her belly was quite rounded. And as she was heftily built, the duration of gestation, too, was hard to reckon. Rupi had herself been insure, as she had never been trained in the ways of motherhood by either her mother or her mother-in-law. She only knew that she would be with child the day her husband touched her.

Shovon Chowdhury: The Competent Authority

"If I hear one more lecture from your mother, I'm going to kill myself!"

Hiring a policeman was such a headache these days, thought Mr Chatterjee, as he scooched under the steering wheel and checked how much cash he had. It used to be so much easier in the old days. All you had to do was pick up the phone, and within a couple of hours, you'd have one at your doorstep. The rates were reasonable, the service was good. Basically, the country was going to the dogs, with no work ethic whatsoever. Of course, with his background in economics, Mr Chatterjee knew what the problem was. A simple matter of supply and demand. More and more people needed to hire one now, and the government had not expanded the available pool of trained manpower. Rampant inefficiency. What the hell was he paying his taxes for?

Mr Chatterjee was parked under a tree, in a narrow lane just next to the police station. There was a shady character pissing against the wall in the distance, his pee washing a crudely painted advertisement on the wall which said: “Dr U.R. Rehman, Sexologist. All sexual disturbances available.”

Ashok Srinivasan: The Book of Common Signs

Not To Be Loose Shunted

PAYLOAD 22.4 / TARE 10.8 / AREA 21.1 /

WHEN EMPTY RETURN TO WADALA

I never knew my father and never saw the sea till I was fourteen years old. My father left us when I was two years old and mother was expecting the second: it was a girl. She was born dead. Later I learnt that mother herself had nearly died giving birth to her. Apart from the wedding photographs (crowds, garlands and fluorescent lights), there is a clear picture of my father taken in his extreme youths: he is standing between a stack of wooden sleepers and a pile of fishplates at a railway level-crossing; he is laughing; you can see the iron tracks meeting at infinity just beyond his hip; black moustache and strong, white teeth. My mother almost never speaks of him.

The only thing I know is that he was a very special kind of armchair traveller. He preferred to travel mentally by train, surrounding himself with the latest Bradshaw, maps with broad-gauge, meter-gauge and narrow-gauge tracks.

Deepti Kapur: A Bad Character

My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one. His body was left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east. I wasn’t there, I never saw it. But plenty of others saw, in the trucks that passed by without stopping and from the roadside dhaba where he’d been drinking all night. Then they wrote about him in the paper. Twelve lines buried in the middle pages, one line standing out, the last one, in which a cop he’d never met said to the reporter, He was known to us, he was a bad character. It’s a phrase they use sometimes, what some people still say. It’s what they’ll say about me too, when they know what I’ve done. Him and me, (long dead) Sitting in the cafe in Khan Market the day we met, in April, when the indestructible heat was rising in the year, sinking in the day, the sun setting very red, sacrificing itself to the squat teeth of buildings stretching back round the stinking Yamuna into Uttar Pradesh.

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