literary awards

Opening lines from the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature longlist: Here’s how the 13 novels begin

What sort of reading experience can you expect from the books longlisted for the $25,000 prize?

The winner of the 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be revealed at the Dhaka Book Fair on November 18. Before that, the international jury, chaired by feminist publisher Ritu Menon from India, will announce a shortlist of five or six titles, pared down from 13, in London on September 27.

Besides Menon, the jury comprises scriptwriter and filmmaker Steven Bernstein, literary scholar Valentine Cunningham, professor of English Senath Walter Perera, and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Here are the opening lines from the 13 longlisted novels, whose authors number seven Indian writers, three Pakistani writers, two Sri Lankan authors, and an American writer based in India.

The Living, Anjali Joseph

(Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, UK)

“This morning I couldn’t open my eyes. It was light, mind you. Sunrise is that early now. But I wasn’t waking up. The alarm went at a quarter to six so I could have tea, roll a fag, look at the sky, put on the radio quiet, take a shower. I left the cereal on the table for Jason, and some fruit. It’d be there when I got home. Getting back at five...It’s hard to imagine, like a place at the end of a walk, across fields, a river, a bridge, a firest, hills, and a motorway. It’s a long way from the morning till the end of the day, a long long stretch.

Late. I flew down Plumstead Road, and up the inside way. My hair was wet, I was breathing too fast. By the time I came up the hill, the cathedral spire behind me, turned in at the factory shop and hurried through the gate it was a minute off seven-thirty.

The morning had got brighter, real daylight. I came through the first door, and the second, up the little slope, through the double doors, hurried to my table, put away my bag and sat looking calm, trying not to breathe hard as the first bell went. From the corner of my eye I saw Jane’s head move. She stood talking to John near the heel attacher but her hair swung as she turned towards me. I put my head down and started checking the first box of Audrey, a vintage slung-bag with a bow on the vamp. I got out my black wax stick and fixed a scuff on the toe. The roughing machine was on now and the first smell of leather was in the air, sweaty and sweet and sharp from the spray the men use in the lasting machines. The windows at the closing end were bright but high up and far away. The lights were on, they’re always on, and it was warm, like it always is, from the machines, and there was the sound of the machines, the humming. I carried on checking the shoes, making sure they paired, and writing down how many times I’d done it and I heard the radio and other people’s voices and felt everyone around me at their machines or their station and Jane moving about to check on things and that busyness there always is as the shoes move around all of is a busyness where each one is doing the same thing over and over but fast enjoying being able to do it smoothly but thinking too or in another place and it was like I’d always been there, never left, never gone home or done anything else, and that’s how it always is.”


The Parcel: Anosh Irani

Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India

“I go by many names, none of my own choosing.

I am called Ali, Aravani, Nau Number, Sixer, Mamu, Gandu, Napunsak, Kinnar, Kojja – the list goes on and on like a politician’s promise. There is a term for me in almost every Indian language. I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers. Parents think of me as a kidnapper, shopkeepers as a lucky charm, and married couples as a fertility expert. To passengers in taxis, I am but a nuisance. I am shooed away like a crow.

Everyone has their own version of what I am. Or what they want me to be.

My least favourite is what they call my kind in Tamil: Thirunangai.

‘Mister Woman.’

Oddly, the only ones to get it right were my parents. They named their boy Madhu. A name so gloriously unisex. I slipped in and out of its skin until I was fourteen. But then, in one fine stroke, the that thing between my legs was relieved of its duties. With the very knife that I hold in my hand right now. I became a eunuch.

Perhaps my parents had smelled the strangeness in the air when I was born, the stench of the pain and humiliation to follow. At the least, they must have felt a deep stirring in the marrow of their bones to prepare them for the fact that their child was different.”


The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam

Granta Books, UK

“Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm. Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else. Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads. They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin. His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving. His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing. That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe. Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh. Dinesh turned towards this thigh and studied the smooth, strangely well-rounded stump. According to the boy’s sister the injury had come from a land mine explosion four months before, the same accident that killed their parents also. The amputation had been done at a nearby hospital, one of the few still functioning at the time, and there was hardly any scarring on the hairless skin, even the stitch marks were difficult to find. Dinesh had seen dozens of amputees with similar stumps in the last months, in different states of recovery depending on how much time had elapsed since each operation, but he was still somehow unable to believe in the reality of all the truncated limbs. They seemed, in some way, fake, or illusory. To dispel this thought of course he only needed to reach out now and touch the one in front of him, to learn once and for all if the skin around the stump was as smooth as it seemed or actually coarse, if the hardness of bone could be felt underneath, or if true to appearance the thing had the softness of spoiled fruit, but whether for fear of waking the child or something else, Dinesh did not move. He simply sat there with his face inches from the stump, completely still.”


Selection Day, Aravind Adiga

Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, India

“I, too, have a secret.

Pebbles and pen-tops; the gold tin-foil wrappers of chocolates; battered coins and the leather handles of cricket bats; cracked green buttons and two-inch needles full of rust: I understand them all.

Pen-tops, you are really lemons. Pebbles are sweeter. Rusty needles are vinegary. The floors of rooms are buttery. Good paper is milky and cheap paper becomes bitter. Orange rinds are tastier than oranges. Only one thing in this world is tasteless.

Plastic!

He was four years old. Every evening at five-thirty his father would take Radha Krishna out for cricket practice, and then he would be alone in the room all three of them lived in; he was in Kattale.

Kattale is darkness in Kannada, his mother tongue; and so much darker than any English-language darkness.

In Kattale, his nose pressed against the mirror; he breathed on glass. His tongue grew: and he began understanding and reunderstanding.

You, glass, are just salt. The bindis that go on a woman’s forehead taste like Kissan mixed-fruit jam. Wool is burn starch. Cotton is cooler than wool, and better at keeping scents.”


The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, Ashok Ferrey

Penguin Books, India

“I was born ugly. That’s what my mother always said.

‘Sonny,’ she said, ‘when are we ever going to find a girl good enough to marry you?’ A cunning choice of phrase, because by good enough she didn’t mean would the girl match up to my exacting standards, but rather, would she be good-natured and kind enough to take me on. It made me sound like a charity case or something. I had visions of a girl in pinafore and plaits. (All good Sri Lankan girls those days wore plaits, also heavy glasses.) My mother had a smile in her voice when she said this, as if she were joking, but I could see the glimmer of shrewd assessment in her eyes – the look a butcher might give a lame horse, possessed of some vital secret known to all but the horse. As with all secrets, the import of it had seeped into me long before her meaning became plain and I grew up – this was back then, in the nightie – with this great burden of ugliness upon my shoulders.

I had thick curly black hair and flat features. But I had lustrous, velvety skin, even if it too was rather black for my mother’s refined Sanskritised tastes. My one great feature was my smile – it truly lit up the darkness I seemed to carry around with me – and it was surprisingly popular with the girls. Naturally, I smiled an awful lot. As expected, the only woman who was immune to this smile was my mother.”


South Haven, Hirsh Sawhney

Akashic Books, USA

“Siddharth Arora has no way of knowing it, but today is the last day he will ever see his mother. He is on the armchair in the family room, straining his ears so he can hear the television. His father and Barry Uncle have been making a racket all morning, and Siddharth has been trying to watch a game show. His mother thinks he is too young to watch game shows. Thinks he should spend time on better things. Going to friends’ houses, or having them over. He enjoys these things. But would trade them all in for the television. He could sit in front of the television every waking hour of the day. He wouldn’t mind sleeping in front of it.

His father hates the television. Thinks it is evil. A cancer that will ruin the greatest civilisation on earth. His father thinks he should spend more time reading. Arjun reads a lot. Arjun studies and gets good grades. In two years, Arjun will be away at college. The thought of his impending departure sometimes keeps Siddharth awake at night.

Siddharth clicks his tongue. Says, You wanna keep it down?

Barry Uncle is perched on a ladder behind one of the sofas. White leather sofas that Siddharth’s mother has recently purchased against his father’s wishes. Barry Uncle says, in his raspy voice, Hah, boy? Speak up.

Siddharth scowls. Says, Keep it down!

Barry Uncle chuckles, then coughs. Says, Boy, you don’t need to hear that show. You don’t need to listen to those blondes. Just sit back and admire the beauty. Barry Uncle rests a knife on the leather sofa. Wipes his shiny brow. Says, Have a look at that redhead. I’d buy a washing machine from her any day. I’d buy ten. Reminds me of my ex. Before she blimped out, that is.

Gross, Siddharth says. But he is pleased that Barry Uncle has spoken to him about women. He turned ten five months ago, and thinks they should speak to him like a grown-up. They should speak to him the same way they speak to Arjun.”



The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

Chatto & Windus, UK

“The bombing, for which Mr and Mrs Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later. A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult. A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminium wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heinsbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity. So the truth of the matter is that no one really saw the parked car till it came apart in a dizzying flock of shards.

Strange sights were reported. A blue fibreglass rooftop came uncorked from a shop and clattered down on a bus a few metres away; the bus braked, the rooftop slid forward, leaked a gorgeous stream of sand, and fell to the ground; the bus proceeded to crack it under its tires and keep going, its passengers dazed, even amused. (In a great city, what happens in one part never perplexes the other parts.) Back in the market, people collapsed, then got up, their hands pressed to their wounds, as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were inside about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk. Most startling of all, for the survivors and recuse workers both, was the realisation that the main dusty square was rooted so firmly by half a dozen massive trees, trees that had gone all but unnoticed in all those years, there shadows dingy with commerce, their branches low with hanging wares, their droppings of mulberry collected and sold – until the bomb had loosened the green gums of the trees and sent down a shower of leaves, which Mr Khurana kicked up on the ground as he tried to uncover the bodies of his two sons.”


The Poison of Love, KR Meera, Translated by Ministhy S

Hamish Hamilton, India

“Love is like milk. With the passage of time, it sours, splits and becomes poison.

Madhav gave me that poison. I did not die; instead I killed him. I, the widow, came to Mathura’s Vrindavan. That was twelve years ago.

On the very first day, old Ghanshyam Pandit, a retired schoolteacher sporting a tilak on his forehead, had pointed to the old women with shaven heads, hobbling along slowly – walking stick in one hand and tiffin carrier in the other – through gullies reeking of manure and urine, girdled by five thousand temples, and introduced them thus: ‘Madam, look at these women. Haven’t you heard of Bhakt Meera? The devotee of Lord Krishna who wrote Meera bhajans. These are refugees, widows. We call them Meera sadhus. They sit in the bhajanmandap from dawn to dusk and recite the name of Krishna. That is their sole work. They get a daily allowance of two and a half rupees. Some milk, ten grams of rice and dal. Pitiable creatures! The contributions of Krishna devotees like you are their only succour. If you wish you may donate to the temple trust.’

Something shattered inside me as I stared at the women. Feeling dizzy, I followed Ghanshyam Pandit up a flight of winding stairs. A dim green signboard – the word ‘Dharamsala’ written on it in Hindi – hung above a narrow door. I was horrified when I entered. There was a sea of shaven heads. Reverberating, incessant crying, as if someone was being strangled – Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare...Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare...

Outside, the afternoon sun was subdued. Disoriented, I started confusing the faces of the human beings with those of the animals moving relentlessly on the streets. It was a dirty hall with more stone pillars than were required. Right in the middle, a Radha–Govind statue draped in yellow silks and garlanded with marigolds stood on a small pedestal. Seeping in through the window bars, the weak sunlight gleamed on the shaven heads. Faces filled with pathos. Skinny bodies. Tarnished eye glasses. The smell of dried flowers, soiled old clothes and sweat. The sound of broken hearts.”


The Party Worker, Omar Shahid Hamid

Pan Macmillan, India

“The 20th Precinct’s station house is, unusually for Manhattan, located in a quiet residential area, on West 84th Street on the Upper West Side. Walking down the leafy street, it sneaks up in your amidst the town houses, tucked away behind an Eastern Orthodox Church. There are no squad cars parked outside, or any other sign of hustle-bustle. In his twenty-five-year career, Tony Russo has never experienced such serenity outside a police station.

The 20th is an unusual precinct in many regards. Although its jurisdiction covers many New York landmarks like the Lincoln Centre, the Museum of Natural History and of course, Central Park, it is considered a ‘soft’ posting, especially for detectives. While there are plenty of law and order duties, serious crime is negligible in the area. The brass and pencil pushers at One Police Plaza treat the 20th as half training centre, and half pre-retirement home for washed-up old-timers who’ve spent too many years in the war zones of the city.

Anthony Russo supposes that he must fit in the latter category. He certainly isn’t a newbie. Washed up isn’t how he would necessarily describe himself, but he can understand if that’s the conclusion an outsider would draw. He doesn’t have a lot of things going for him. He’s overweight, short and not particularly good-looking. His suit looks like it was stolen from a homeless person. One of his precinct captains once famously described him as looking like he put his clothes in a washing machine, while he was still wearing them. His tie, which wasn’t fashionable even when he bought it in 1988 has mustard and mayonnaise stains all over it. His personal life is equally chaotic with the debris of two divorces and numerous failed relationships, all sacrificed for the job.

But Anthony Russo doesn’t mind what people say about him. He wears the scars of a thousand public and private battles with honour. Besides, he made those sacrifices willingly because he loves his job. He knows he will never change, the job will always be his first love because he is so damn good at what he does. For one thing is certain. Anthony Russo, whatever he may look like and whatever people say about him behind his back, is one of the best investigative minds on the force.”


Pyre, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Hamish Hamilton, India

“The sun was blazing overhead when Saroja and Kumaresan stepped off the bus.

Beyond the tamarind trees that lined the road, all they could see were vast expanses of arid land. There were no houses anywhere in sight. With each searing gust of wind, the white summer heat spread over everything as if white saris had been flung across the sky. There was not a soul on the road. Even the birds were silent. Just an ashen dryness, singed by the heat, hung in the air. Saroja hesitated to venture into that inhospitable space.

‘Step down with your right foot first,’ Kumaresan had said to her. She was now unsure whether he had said this in jest or if he had meant it. By habit, anyway, she had descended from the bus with her right foot first, but she was not sure he noticed that. The courage she had gathered until then suddenly vanished, leaving her feeling uneasy. When her feet touched the ground, she had prayed within her heart, ‘Everything should go well.’ She could not think of a specific god. She only knew the name of Kumaresan’s family deity, Goddess Kali, but she would not have been able to confidently recognise Kali’s idol in the temple. The only image of Kali that came to her mind was that of a goddess with widened eyes, terrifying teeth and her tongue sticking out. She could not pray to that Kali who only inspired fear.

Kumaresan had already walked quite some distance. Saroja quickly found her bearings and trotted ahead to join him. Shifting the heavy bag to his other hand, he looked at her. Nothing here appeared new to him. He was used to navigating this place even in the dark. He always walked with a spring in his step when he was here, and he felt the same way now. But she was new. She seemed like a fertile crop of corn – perhaps a little withered and dull right now, but easily refreshed with just a drop of rain. He noticed her struggling to keep pace with him and slowed down, conscious of how briskly he’d been marching ahead. The very sight of her took away his anxiety and brought him some calm. He could sense that, as a girl from a crowded city, Saroja was probably terrified by the emptiness of this place.”


This Wide Night, Sarvat Hasin

Hamish Hamilton, India

“Some strange things were happening in the house. Outside, the tides were rising and the city seemed even farther away.

Those days, I was the only one who left the island. I brought back cigars for the Captain and presents for my wife and her sisters but they sat untouched. Books and lipstick and bangles, wrapped in gold foil. Just as the dresser in our bedroom was cluttered with paints instead of make-up, still boxed up from when we packed them back in Paris. The easel bound in brown paper and string rested against the door of our bathroom. I saw the soft ghost of it in the mirror every morning when I shaved. Objects in this house had a peculiar stillness to them. Things brought back last week felt as if they’d been left here for a hundred years. Flowers rotted in their vases, fruit stank up the kitchen.

The Captain, in his lonely room down the corridor from us, had stopped making full sentences a few weeks ago. Communication was carried out through a series of hand gestures and mumbled words. He stayed in his room most of the time, with a small bell at his elbow. The leather-backed armchair he sat in came from their old house in Karachi. He had not looked so small in it then. Now, the imposing breadth of it swallowed his shoulders, his thin face and hollowed-out eyes. Now, the dull, bronze clack of the bell in the middle of the night, followed by the scurrying footsteps of a manservant to help him walk.”


Those Children, Shahbano Bilgrami

HarperCollins, India

“21 May 2–

My Dear Son, Aftab,

Beta, you Can, no Doubt, imagine with what FEelings I write this letter to you so sOOn after the Tragic and untimeLy demise of N. Your Ammi, your brothers, and your doting sister, Durdana, Join with me in extending our profoundest SYMpathies.

I trust the Children are well. They sHOUould take this in the spirit of our great religion: everything happens for a reason, and that reason is the indisputable will of the great Almighty God.

It has, in fact, been more than a dECade since we saw them last. They must have grown. You and N made such a concerted effort to keep these precious buds (now, surely, sprouting tendrils!) away from their native rOOts, and us, that I daresay I wouldn’t recognise THem if I saw them strolling up our road. I cannot begin to compreHEnd your reasons for preferring to keep them immured in the strange customs of their adopted lan, but – well, I’m sure you had your reasons. I know your Ammi and I, tHough nOt in favour of the alliance, would have welcomed your offspring and, in time, you and N, too, notwithstanding her very different BAckgroundD. I only hope that it is not too laTE to teach the CHildren our culture and our WAys. And as for poor n – well, she has met her Maker at last. May ALLAH shower her with blessings.

This is, in fact, why I am Writing to you, to persuade you – even order you as a FAther – to come home, bring yOUR family, live witH us as you should have done years ago, America is no place for a widower and four motherless children. Little Fati Jamila, with her unfortunate condition, would be far happier heRE with her Dadi, who can show her ways in which to make herself usefuL.

Please don’t disappoint mE.

Abba”


In the Jungles of the Night, Stephen Alter

Aleph Book Company, India

“Here in the clouds, Jim could feel an unsettling sense of communion. Monsoon mist spilled through the branches of deodar and cypress trees. No mountains were visible, only a cowl of murky white, obscuring the ridgelines, the lake and the tops of taller trees. Jim’s hair was wet from the veil of moisture. The rain had stopped but his rough cotton shirt felt damp and droplets of water clung to the blonde hairs on his arms.

He had come to the graveyard alone. There were leeches this time of year and patches of stinging nettle growing between the headstones. His father – Christopher William Corbett – was buried in the cemetery. He had died seven years ago on 21 April 1881, when Jim was only six. Out of habit more than grief, he had stopped at his father’s grave and run his fingers lightly over the inscription, as if he were reading Braille.

Many of the headstones in the cemetery dated from 1880, when the great Nainital landslip claimed 151 lives – 108 Indians along with 43 British subjects. Most of the Christian victims were dug out of the debris from the mudslide and reburied in the cemetery next to St John in the Wilderness Church, on the Mallital side of town. This catastrophe was one of Jim’s earliest memories and he could remember listening to the cannonade of rain on their sheet metal roof, non-stop for two days, and then hearing anxious voices calling out in the storm. The next day he was led by his sister Maggie to a point beyond the garden fence, where they could see a massive scar on the hillside where the mountain had collapsed, consuming homes and hutments as well as part of the Naina Devi temple at the western end of the lake.”

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