Seven debut novels, seven books by women, and three translations – from Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali – mark the 15-strong longlist of the ninth edition of the $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Does this signal, or even reaffirm, increasing diversity in the mix when it comes to what literary juries consider the best of literature?

The DSC Prize, unlike the rest from the subcontinent, does not limit itself to books published in India, or even to authors who are Indian citizens. Naturally, this means a wider catchment area to begin with. This year’s prize received 90 eligible submissions from 42 publishers, 30% of whom are based outside South Asia. And 27% of the authors are not citizens of a South Asian country.

Given the scope for diversity that is baked into the framework of the DSC Prize, it is perhaps not surprising that the longlist has writers of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghan and Sri Lankan origin, besides one who has nothing to do with any of these countries.

If that were not enough, diversity is also ensured through the composition of the jury. This year’s panel, with Indian academic Harish Trivedi as the chair, comprises the English academic Jeremy Tambling, the Nepali newspaper editor Kunda Dixit, the Sri Lankan academic Carmen Wickramagamage, and the Bangladeshi writer and translator Rifat Munim. Naturally, this meant a wider range of tastes and literary sensibilities, anchored in different geographies, coming together to make the choice.

No wonder, then, that, as Trivedi revealed, when the five jurors were asked to make five suggestions each for the longlist, a total of 23 different titles came in. This meant only three of these had been chosen by more than one juror. While this obviously led to a long-drawn-out process to home in on the 15-strong longlist, it also shows that literary quality holds divergent meanings in a globalised South Asia – which can only be good for literature.

The outcome, besides the mix of women authors, debut works, and novels not originally in English, is a list that consists of three writers of Pakistani origin, one writer each of Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi origin, and one writer with no direct connection to South Asia, besides nine of Indian origin.

The shortlist will be announced on November 6, 2019 in London, and the winner, on December 16, 2019 at the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhra. Here is the longlist, and what the jury said about each of the books on it.

Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy

What the jury said

Half Gods is a promising debut collection of loosely connected stories, each of which stands on its own. The main characters or narrators in one story often reappear in another. Set against backdrops ranging from the Sri Lankan civil war to a mofussil town of South India to New Jersey, the stories are about lives torn apart by one or the other watershed in history and brought together by new, diasporic realities.

Half the Night is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi

What the jury said

The hero of this novel is a Hindi novelist. His brother has migrated to America but he stays on in India to engage with our postcolonial realities. A three-generation saga unfolds involving both masters and servants. Tulsi Das’s Ram-charit-manas is quoted every now and then; also quoted are Malik Mohammad Jayasi (Padamavat), Mirza Ghalib, Mahadevi Verma and Muneer Niazi. This is a virtuoso feat, an insider Hindi-Urdu novel which happens to be written in English.

The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Devi S Laskar

What the jury said

Beyond the daily headlines from America, behind the Tweets from Trumpland, there is an everyday existence that requires fiction to bring us closer to the truth. Seen through the point of view of an American of Bengali descent, this is a dystopian diaspora novel. It is lyrically written in fragments of memory that turn the narrative of terror in today’s America upside down. We are forced to ponder questions of identity in a cross-national, inter-ethnic world.

The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto

What the jury said

Set in modern Karachi, London, Portsmouth, and the deserts of Iraq, this novel ranges over the experiences of young Muslims – Anita, Sunny, and Monty – attempting to break out in radical ways from the conditions that bind them, and that seal their identity, and make loyalty and betrayal vivid factors for them, and sexuality a spoken and unspoken force for them. The novel connects with burning issues of our time, in exciting and provocative ways.

99 Nights in Logar, Jamil Jan Kochai

What the jury said

What would you do if, on the first day of your 99-day vacation in your parents’ home village, the tip of your finger is bitten off by the family dog who then escapes? If you are 12 years of age, like Marwand, in the novel, you would make it your mission during the rest of your stay to find the dog, won’t you? In this bitingly satirical, funny and experimental novel, a boy’s personal quest also offers fascinating glimpses into Afghan history, society and myth-making.

The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay

What the jury said

From Bangalore to Kishtwar and from Kistwar to a remote mountain village in Kashmir, this is a story which traverses far even as its protagonist Shalini tries to unravel sides to her mother’s life that she had shown little interest in when the mother was alive. A very personal story, firmly rooted in the realist tradition, it shows what happens when well-intentioned but ignorant do-gooders stray into territories and histories that they know little or nothing about!

There’s Gunpowder in the Air, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha

What the jury said

“Gritty” is one way to describe this novel. Set in a Bengali jail in the time of the Naxalite Movement, the narrative voice is uncompromising and unsparing in its portrayal of jail life. Yet verisimilitude is not necessarily what the writer aims for in this novel which is dark and comical in turn, sometimes at the same time. Reading this novel, we realise that prison is a state of mind when we reach its surprising yet understated ending.

Tell her Everything, Mirza Waheed

What the jury said

The choices one makes in life, are they pre-ordained? Who defines ethics and morality? What compels people to be accountable, why are they haunted by past choices? A doctor in a near-real Gulf country becomes successful, but at the cost of family and affinity. He writes letters to his daughter telling all. The letters portray the migrant life through a plot that forces readers to examine the elasticity of morality.

In the Time of the Others, Nadeem Zaman

What the jury said

This debut novel casts a fresh look at Bangladesh’s multi-faceted Liberation War. While narratives on the war coming from Bangladeshi writers are often one-sided, nationalistically imbued tales, Nadeem’s book offers insights into the many different sides to the story, covering perspectives of the young and the old, the poor and the rich, the Hindu and the Bihari communities, and surprisingly enough, occasional glimpses into the minds of two Pakistani military officers.

A Lonely Harvest, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

What the jury said

A young wife wanting to conceive goes to an annual religious festival where, just for one holy night, anyone can love anyone. She returns home the morning after to find that her husband has hanged himself for fear of public humiliation. The novel depicts her lonely life, despite support from her mother-in-law and her little daughter whom she conceived that night. Murugan’s compelling rural authenticity and compassion are in evidence here in full measure.

The City and the Sea, Raj Kamal Jha

What the jury said

Set simultaneously in Delhi in December 2012 and on the Baltic coast, this lyrical, poetic novel evokes poverty, crimes against women, memory and loss, and namelessness. It records childhood, and blighted lives, trying to face the past, however traumatic, and meditating on the unspeakable, and what resists being brought into consciousness. Written as if in a dream, disturbing conventional ways of storytelling and of seeing lives, it provokes questions and estranges our sense of reality.

The Empty Room, Sadia Abbas

What the jury said

In this emotionally intense novel, the heroine’s newly wedded life is intertwined with the early years of the newly born nation Pakistan. Both the bride and the nation feel oppressed and wish to rebel, but realize that they must rebel against their own acquiescent selves first. An old Urdu manual for perfect brides is still in circulation but we also have police shooting dead leftist trade unionists, and the poet Faiz speaking about his years in jail.

Latitudes of Longing, Shubhangi Swarup

What the jury said

This debut novel is an ambitious work of fiction that not only spans different times, i.e. colonial and postcolonial India, but also traverses across different countries in the region. With flashes of wit and humour, Shubhangi Swarup uses her unique imagination to develop four inter-connected stories, beginning with the Andaman Islands and ending in an Indian village, and to weave them all together in an intricate pattern, an extraordinary artistic achievement.

Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki, TD Ramakrishnan, translated from the Malayalam by Priya K Nair

What the jury said

One provocative theme in this novel finely translated out of Malayalam by Priya K. Nair, is that ‘all wars are essentially wars against women’. Set in Sri Lanka and in Kerala, and dealing with the fighting of the LTTE, it is told by a film-maker working on a script but with his own agenda. There are plural layers of history, reality and fictional reality in this fascinating account of searching for Sugandhi, a human rights activist.

Mother India, Tova Reich

What the jury said

This is scathing satire on modern Mother India, where imaginary characters and stories are interwoven with real-life figures and events to submerge the reader in a world of ugliness and upliftment, vice and empathy, death and life. It is a searing, original tale of three generations of women who take inter-civilisational journeys to face up to society and themselves. All this happens amidst the backdrop of recent historical events, giving the plot a brutal immediacy.