The Crossword Book Awards were started in 1998 (the year after Arundhati Roy won The Booker Prize for The God of Small Things and achieved worldwide fame) as a home-grown alternative, or rather supplement, to international literary awards – one that would focus on literature in English from India.
In their first year, the prize consisted of a single category, which has expanded over twenty years to include four Jury Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and six Popular Choice Awards decided by public votes. The Crossword Book Awards are an eclectic mix of literary and accessible, which is characteristic of the chain of bookstores across the country – currently ninety stores and counting.
This year’s shortlist for the Crossword Jury Award for Indian Fiction is an all-male gathering of writers that includes two first-time authors, two established names, and one lesser-known writer turning his attention to fiction for the first time. Of the nineteen previous winners of the Crossword Award for Indian Fiction, only five have been women – Usha KR, Kalpana Swaminathan, Anjali Joseph, Anuradha Roy, and Janice Pariat.
The shortlist has some notable exclusions, even keeping in mind that only original works of fiction in English published between April 2017 and June 2018 were eligible for this category. Books that have been otherwise well-received or shortlisted for other literary prizes or both, yet are missing from this shortlist, are the new works of previous winners such as Pariat’s The Nine-Chambered Heart and Roy’s All The Lives We Never Lived as well as Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, Sumana Roy’s Missing, Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints, and Amitabha Bagchi’s Half The Night is Gone.
While it wasn’t possible for each of these titles to have made the shortlist, it’s worth bearing in mind some of the literature the shortlisted books were up against. The above list (though it is short and not comprehensive) is also a reminder that Indian fiction in English by women has had a particularly strong couple of years – a fact that makes an all-male shortlist harder to justify.
The Crossword Book Awards have a separate category for literature translated into English, as do the majority of literary prizes that consider translated works. Among the few exceptions to that rule are the newly-established JCB Prize for Literature – whose inaugural shortlist featured two works of translation alongside three novels originally written in English – and The Hindu Prize, which now considers translations alongside original works in English, and features two translated works on its shortlist.
Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, translated from Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib, went on to win the JCB prize – a victory which has reiterated a need to see translated fiction as equal to writing in the original language. The translations shortlist too had a notable omission – Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents, Please, translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana. What then do we know about the ten works of fiction, both originally written in and translated into English, given the exclusion of so many prominent books?
Inspired by Prayag Akbar’s experiences as a man from a religious minority in India and the growing communal divide in the country, Leila is a dystopian novel set in the near future where people must live in the areas designated to their communities based on religion, geographic origin and caste. The areas are segregated and movement between them requires permission. Narrated by a woman called Shalini whose daughter has been taken from her, Akbar’s debut sets out to try and recover some of what is lost under suppressive regimes.
Set in Abu Dhabi where Deepak Unnikrishnan spent his childhood, Temporary People is concerned with the precarious lives of migrant workers in the UAE who make up almost four-fifths of the country’s population who never achieve the legitimacy and rights of citizens and must annually renew their visas. With elements of speculative fiction and magic realism, the novel speaks to the deep dehumanisation of workers whose health and well-being are severely compromised in the pursuit of profit. Temporary People has already won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and The Hindu Prize (for which Leila was shortlisted as well). Two short pieces from the collection can be read here.
Amit Chaudhuri’s seventh novel follows a character who shares the writer’s name, profession, and childhood city: Mumbai. As the novelist in Friend of My Youth visits the city on a book tour, he meets his oldest friend, Ramu, who has been addicted to heroin for years. The novel moves back and forth in time exploring Chaudhuri’s memories of a place he hasn’t lived in in years, and honouring what those moments in time mean to him while grappling with the recent horror of the 26/11 attacks.
Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters of Katpadi (billed as a biblio-mystery: a sub-genre of crime novels whose subject is the world of books) is primarily set in an antiquarian bookstore in Chennai where Neelambari and Kayal source and sell rare books and first editions. When a cache of rare documents belonging to a British explorer is reportedly found in Ooty, the two must verify the authenticity of the texts and uncover within them possible explanations for the explorer’s departure. More than one reviewer has pointed out that the novel can read like a work of non-fiction on the ins and outs of antiquarian book trade.
Set between 1949 and 1972, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian follows a Bengali bureaucrat called Madhusudan Sen who is posted to the small town of Batia where he is informed that the eggs, meat, and fish he’s accustomed to in his diet are not permitted in his locality. When a subordinate officer, Nadeem Dalvi, sources the banned goods for him, Nadeem’s house is set on fire, and Madhusudan is determined to exact revenge.
RN Joe D’Cruz draws from the stories of his community of fisherfolk, the Parathavars, on the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu for his novel, Ocean Rimmed World, which is steeped in the experiences of people who are reliant on and must wrestle with the ocean for their livelihood. Shark hunts, the Catholic Church, urban migration, and the ordinary highs and lows of the Parathavars are brought together by D’Cruz in a sweeping narrative that shows the changing fortunes and resilience of these people. The novel was translated from the Tamil by G Geetha.
Chinatown Days is a historical novel about Chinese slaves who were brought in the early nineteenth century by the British from China to work on their tea plantations in Assam. Several generations of their Chinese-Indians descendants made a town called Makum in Assam their home till the Sino-Indian War broke out in 1962, and racial intolerance and mass deportations to China separated the community from all that they knew and had built. Chowdhury, who has translated the novel from the Assamese herself, sheds light on the little-known plight of these refugees who were arrested, sent to internment camps without proper shelter, and forced towards destinations they had not chosen.
Jasmine Days is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city presumed to be Bahrain where Benyamin spent some years working as an engineer. The protagonist of his novel is a young radio jockey, Sameera, whose large family has gradually migrated over the course of many years from Pakistan. When the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, it shatters the fragile peace between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the city, between those who consider themselves the true residents of the city and the migrant workers they believe are stealing their jobs.
Ten of Murugan’s short stories, chosen by the writer himself out of an oeuvre of more than eighty stories, are collected in The Goat Thief. Some stories are concerned with irrational fears and desires people cannot help, two of the stories are taken from Murugan’s Pee Kadaigal (Shit Tales), others deal with commonplace domestic scenarios such as a child’s tantrum or the loneliness of the elderly, and some look at the nature of obsessions. The Goat Thief is a diverse collection, and a worthy introduction to Murugan’s writing for the uninitiated, translated into English by N Kalyan Raman.
In KR Meera’s The Unseeing Idol of Light, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Prakash’s pregnant wife, Deepti, disappears after boarding an overnight train from Cochin to Calicut. Her husband is driven blind with grief and devotes the following decade to looking for Deepti and answers into her disappearance with the help of her father and his friend. When they discover a woman in a hospital who will not speak, Deepti’s father is convinced he has found his daughter again. Meera’s novel is ultimately one about obsessions, and the ways in which they limit the present for people.