Five instead of the usual six books feature in the 2019 shortlist of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, with three of them – two works of non-fiction and a novel – by Indian authors, and one novel each by a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani writer. Now in its twelfth year, the prize, as the name explains, is for fiction or non-fiction works by debut writers published in India.

Arguably one of the most innovative pieces of fiction in the past twelve months, Bangladeshi writer Numair Atif Chowdhury’s Babu Bangladesh makes the list after the author’s tragic pre-publication death. Joining it are two other novels, Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Pakistani author Nadia Akbar and Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Indian writer Roshan Ali.

Rounding off the list are two works of non-fiction: No Nation for Women by Priyanka Dubey, and Early Indians, by Tony Joseph. The winner will be selected by a jury comprising writers Sonia Faleiro, Prayaag Akbar, and Ruskin Bond.

Here is what Arshia Sattar, co-curator of the prize, had to say about the shortlist, and each of the books on it.

“Our selected books speak of origins and futures, of satirical masculinities and the continuing vulnerability of women in our society, of vaulting ambitions and the sweetness of dreams. Never flinching from confronting ugly truths or recognising the gossamer thread of hope, they provide a vivid commentary on South Asia’s social and political fissures, its unresolved anxieties and its contemporary concerns.”

Goodbye Freddie Mercury, Nadia Akbar

“[The book] set amongst the young and the restless of Lahore’s social elite where drugs, parties and even powerful political connections cannot provide an escape from the pervasive violence and rampant corruption that hang like a pall of dust over the landscape, all but suffocating a new generation’s aspirations and hopes for change.

Babu Bangladesh, Numair Atif Chowdhury

“[The novel] ...creates the biography of a national superhero who has lived through both his country’s bloody past and the threatening chaos of its imminent future. Although surreal and psychedelic, unconstrained by anything except Chowdhury’s febrile imagination, this roller-coaster of a novel wears its thrumming political heart on its sleeve.”

Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Roshan Ali

[This is] ...a fresh new voice to the age-old search for the meaning of life. Cynical and utterly sincere by turns, Ali’s Ib remains an unremarkable boy who wanders close to the cusp of manhood as he considers such big questions as love and death from a distinctly 21st century urban Indian perspective.”

No Nation for Women, Priyanka Dubey

“...a journalist’s uncompromising commitment to foreground stories of sexual violence against women in India. Dubey shows us that some of the most determined fights for justice come not from our media-saturated cityscapes but from the severely disenfranchised families of victims in rural areas. This is a timely reminder that the power to resist belongs to us all, it is both universal and democratic.”

Early Indians, Tony Joseph

[This book] ...strides purposefully to the very centre of the battle for our history, collating evidence from genetics, archaeology and linguistics that strongly contests the version of our past being created by our current political dispensation. Joseph’s rigorous science writing can be one of the few weapons we have left against the so-called knowledge produced by ideology and prejudice.”