Founded in 1998 as the India competitor to international literary awards such as the Man Booker Prize, the Crossword Book Jury Awards have a long tradition of celebrating the best of Indian writing. With the announcement of the shortlist for this year’s awards in four categories, here is a quick guide to the fiction titles that are in the running for the top prize.
Murder in Mahim, Jerry Pinto
Jerry Pinto might just one of the most prolific writers in India. He’s a masterful translator (for which, too, he has a nomination this year), writer and editor of poetry, journalist, children’s book writer and editor, and, of course, novelist. Best-known for his sensitive yet unsparing book about living with a parent’s mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom (for which he won the award in 2013), Pinto took an unexpected turn to crime fiction with Murder in Mahim this year and he more than gets away with it.
When a young man is found brutally murdered in the toilet of the Matunga railway station, Inspector Zende of the Mumbai Police turns to retired journalist Peter Fernandes to help. As the progressive-minded Fernandes is drawn deeper and deeper into a world of cruising, criminalised sexuality and the underbelly of a metropolis he thought he knew so well, everything he knew turns topsy-turvy. A murder mystery, gory psychological thriller and social commentary rolled up in one, Murder in Mahim dazzles with nuance, empathy and a stellar cast of characters, not least of which is the city of Mumbai itself.
The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan
Karan Mahajan’s second novel is a much darker tale than his hilarious first book Family Planning, which Suketu Mehta called “the truest portrait of modern New Delhi” that he’s read. The Association of Small Bombs is also set in Delhi, but entirely different in tone and scope. The novel follows the explosion of a “small” bomb in the city’s Lajpat Nagar market and the lives changed by it. Vikas Khurana, a filmmaker whose two sons are among the thirteen people killed in the attack, struggles to come to terms with their deaths. Mansoor, a friend of the boys who survives the explosion attempts to move on with his life. Shockie, the terrorist who sets off the bomb, laments the less than spectacular death toll.
While the choice of following the lives of both victims and perpetrators of the blast already marks the book’s ambition, it is in its small details that The Association of Small Bombs shines. Beyond the most immediate effects of the explosion, it is the more subtle changes that ripple from it over the years that showcase Mahajan’s skilful storytelling. And the accolades have been pouring in. The New York Times named the novel as one of its “10 Best Books of 2016” and in 2017, Mahajan was named one of Granta’s best young American novelists.
Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, Manu Bhattathiri
Manu Bhattathiri’s debut is a collection of short stories set in the (fictional) sleepy South Indian town of Karuthupuzha, named after the black river than runs through it. The reference to Malgudi Days is immediate, and indeed Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories is evocative of RK Narayan in its depiction of the colourful characters that inhabit the vividly imagined town. But Bhattathiri, an advertising professional, creates a microcosm that is very much its own, with a warm humour lacing each of the stories that make up this collection.
The titular story Savithri’s Special Room is the tale of an old couple waiting for the annual visit from their grandson. Paachu and the Arrogant Tuft tells the story of a policeman who is adamant about creating an atmosphere of fear among the town’s residents, but is foiled by an unobliging tuft of hair. A True Liar follows Velu, who “lived to lie but never lied to live”. Each of the stories holds a small surprise. They evoke nostalgia, yes, but with a tinge of the unexpected.
Things To Leave Behind, Namita Gokhale
Namita Gokhale dons many hats – as festival director, publisher, and author of 16 books of fiction and non-fiction. With her novel Things To Leave Behind, Gokhale returns to the mountains of Kumaon that she writes about with loving detail (the novel is the last in a trilogy set in the region) and in the process gives us an unforgettable heroine in the form of Tilottama Dutt.
Set in the time of the 1857 uprising against the British rule, the events of the book take place around the “Naineetal” Lake. These are the days of the Upper Mall Road being meant for Europeans and their horses and the Lower Mall Road, for dogs, servants and other Indians. The influence of the British has infused the region, a slow progression that takes place through the permeating presence of missionaries and western notions of education and quality of life. It is a period of uncertainty, change and an uncomfortable mosaic of lives and identities caught between the past and the future.
Amidst all of this resides Tilotamma, an eccentric and feisty woman marked by her obstinacy and irreverence, who is given magnificent company by a vivid cast of characters that Gokhale fleshes out with seemingly effortless ease. A historical epic about colonialism, caste and changing cultures, Things To Leave Behind is a complex and accomplished work of fiction that might garner Gokhale her first Crossword award.
Harilal and Sons, Sujit Saraf
Another work of historical fiction rounds off this year’s shortlist but set in an drastically different part of the country. Harilal and Sons is a sweeping epic about the thus far underrepresented Marwari community of Calcutta, tracing the journey of Harilal Tibrewal who is eleven years old when he leaves his family home in Rajasthan in 1889 to live in Bengal, 2000 km away.
What begins with a telling of the arduous journey becomes a decades-long detailing of how Harilal goes about setting up his business in a land unfamiliar to him and builds an ever-burgeoning family – the twin inextricable strands of Marwari life. In the process, Saraf crafts a face and personality to counter the denigrated stereotype of the Marwari businessman in Calcutta. While the characters are carefully detailed, the personal story of one man and his family in Harilal and Sons forms a larger commentary on migration, displacement and through it all, the Marwari experience.