As the Nobel Committee gave the literature award to Bob Dylan this year, the writing community, for all its love of music, Dylan, and the blurring of admittedly ridiculous boundaries between genres, and, after posting their hurried compositions on Facebook and Twitter about how it is the boldest move in Nobel history since the Committee gave the Peace Prize to Barack Obama (before his Presidency effectively began and any drone attacks could be attributed to him) etc., etc. – after all that, the members of the writing community spent a whole night burping an acidic bitterness into their mouths.
Its substance was as follows: Dear Nobel Committee, next time we’d like you to go back to the time-honoured principle of giving the award to someone a large number of us have not heard of, let alone read, so we can buy their books, give a fillip to the publishing industry, our dying industry, and accidentally learn about their contexts, if only to namedrop at a lovers’ lunch or a lit meet. Thank you.
As it happens, every professional writer working today is consumed by fear that her industry is at the verge of extinction. Awards – while they do very little to help the writerly process – at least indicate that the purely thankless months and years and decades that go into producing literature still holds a valid, and valiant, torch to civilisation’s (mal)contents. The shortlist for the Hindu Prize 2016, thankfully, strikes exactly the right notes: it is serious, non-gimmicky, brief.
Here’s a quick guide to the five books in the shortlist, selected by a jury headed by noted Malayalam poet, scholar and former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, K. Satchidanandan. The other jury members are EV Ramakrishnan, Anamika, N Manu Chakravarthy and Pradeep Sebastian.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for 2015, Shekhar is the sort of writer who appears only rarely in the literary establishment. His voice is powerful, political, urgent. Yet, there is no reason to imagine that politics overpowers the plots – his concerns are deeply literary, his style, effortlessly so. His debut novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (2014) – which was also shortlisted for The Hindu Prize, in 2014 – announced the arrival of an extraordinary young writer.
Now, with his new book The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of ten extraordinary short stories, Shekhar takes his craft to the next level, portraying characters and situations, who, though drawn intimately from life, are true originals in Indian Writing in English: band-master Mangal Murmu refuses to perform for the President of India, attracting awful consequences; Talamai, migrant Santhali worker with an unfortunate beauty, must sleep with the local policeman for fifty rupees and two bread pakoras; Suren and Gita wait outside a neonatal ward hoping their blue baby will turn pink; Baso-jhi, the soul of the village, must suddenly encounter her own past – and an accusation that was long forgotten – when a string of deaths happen in the village.
The Island of Lost Girls, Manjula Padmanabhan
Artist, writer, playwright, creator of India’s first feminist cartoon strip Suki, Manjula Padmanabhan’s rivetting new novel is a masterpiece of dystopian fiction. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse world, one where everything, including the world map showing the continents we know, has been turned on its head.
It opens with the transman Youngest smuggling the young Meiji into the Island, the only place where girls are safe and protected – and literally, patched back together – after getting her out of their brutal country which has exterminated its entire female population.
Set against a startlingly original if deeply disturbing canvas, Padmanabhan’s novel will jolt you into a renewed wakefulness, in the manner that only exciting novels can. While The Island of Lost Girls novel is a standalone work, Youngest and Meiji were introduced in her 2008 novel Escape.
Jinnah Often Came to Our House for Dinner by Kiran Doshi
Written by a (now retired) career diplomat, Jinnah Often Came to Our House for Dinner is a charming historical novel that addresses the complexity of the India-Pakistan relationship by going back into the knotty years of the pre-Independence movement. It is the India of 1904. The young and dashing Sultan Kowaishi, he of the superior Kowaishis whose ancestors “according to Bari Phuppi, Sultan’s father’s aunt…were pure Arabs, quite possibly of the Quresh clan, the clan of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him),” has just returned from London to Bombay after passing his barrister exam. Among the first persons he meets is Mohammed Ali Jinnah, he of the shady Ithnasheri Khojas – “sort of second class Mohammedans” – already an advocate of note, and is quickly drawn to him.
It is also the time when Jinnah decides to join the Indian National Congress, soon to become one of its brightest stars. While the struggle against British rule holds no interest for apolitical Sultan, his wife Rehana, a memorable character, gets sucked into it.
A brilliant saga of love and betrayal, pain and redemption, drawn from family history and the most exciting chapter in India’s struggle for independence, which somehow or the other led to our dismemberment, Jinnah Often Came to Our House for Dinner tells an important, ultimately moving story about our history, and reminds us of the paradox of choices in our past and the treacheries of memory in our present.
Half of What I Say, Anil Menon
Anil Menon’s brave, brash, bizarre novel Half of What I Say is ultimately about itself. About the centrality of narrative that underpins our quests, large and small, real and fictive; about the importance of lost letters and found selves.
The anti-corruption movement in India has thrown up a new organisation: the Lokshakti. The protagonist, Vyas, a sort of cultural apparatchik with Lokshakti, is slightly obsessed with charismatic academic-film-maker-politician Durga Dhasal (do note, his name echoes the great Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal).
Vyas had sent Dhasal a manuscript copy of his eponymous novel, on the Ramayana-inspired theme of the terrible effects of long separation in a loving marriage. He writes a confessional love letter to his wife Tanaz, which, one way or other, in the interests of this irresistible novel, ends up with Dhasal, who is then murdered by a Lokshakti-controlled mob. Vyas must track down this letter.
In the process, he introduces us to a dazzling cast of characters, in the course of an epic journey that marries dystopia with contemporary realism and magic with page-turning twists and turns in plot. Anil Menon’s is a supremely refreshing voice, with so many stories to tell that they practically stun you with their fecundity.
Kalkatta, Kunal Basu
…you get to see only the ground close to your nose and know to be true what Ammi had told us long ago: that the streets of Kalkatta were paved half and half, with dirt and gold.
Renowned novelist Kunal Basu’s latest offering Kalkatta is a break from the historical turf of his other major works, and set in the gritty underbelly of the Calcutta we know and love. It hovers tantalisingly in the terrain between familiarity and its other.
Jamshed urf Jami, the “Gigolo King of Kalkatta” tells his story, in his own voice. From growing up in a refugee family desperately close to the streets, to his picaresque adventures through the world of the rich and famous of Calcutta, housewives, tourists, travelling executives, and occasionally to high-paying and dangerous “parties” that eventually lead him into the heart of darkness, Jami’s voice is fresh and piquant. It is when he meets Pablo, the youngster who suffers from leukaemia, and his artistic mother Mandira, who introduces him to a world of cultured intellectuals, that Jami’s fascinating story draws almost every aspect of Calcutta that we know – or simply guess at – into its web, and yet defamiliarises it with stunning effect as it hurtles towards a climax we could not have imagined.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.