A gay doctor in a small town faces betrayal on every front: love, friendship, family. A young man with a schizophrenic father and a troubled mother embarks on an existential journey for meaning. A group of political prisoners conspires to break out of jail in the face of class and caste rivalries. A woman travels to Kashmir to solve a mystery surrounding her mother’s death, and to bring closure to her grief, while politics plays out in the backdrop. A single mother, or a couple, tries to make sense of sin, injustice and love in their lives, with alternate trajectories.
As the synopses of the five books – one of them actually two books in one – shortlisted for the Rs 25-lakh JCB Prize for Literature 2019, announced on October 4 in Delhi, suggest, contemporary fiction in English (original and translated) has moved quite some distance from the urban, cerebral and conspicuously “literary” school of Indian writing in English that used to be centrestage even a few years ago.
Indeed, if the shortlist for the prize – and, earlier, the longlist – is to be considered a proxy for all that is remarkable about fiction in English from India right now, there are clear signs that the old order has changed. Here is the shortlist:
- Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Roshan Ali, Penguin Random House India.
- There’s Gunpowder in the Air, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, Westland Publications.
- Trial by Silence; Lonely Harvest (treated as one novel), Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Random House India.
- My Father’s Garden, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Speaking Tiger.
- The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, HarperCollins India.
The end of rarefied sensibilities
Consider, first the settings of these novels. Only one of them is set mostly in a big city – Roshan Ali’s Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, which follows the protagonist’s rambling journey through Bengaluru and other parts of the country, including the Himalayas, in a plotless quest for something to anchor his life to. Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field also begins in Bengaluru but moves to Kashmir. Perumal Murugan’s two sequels to the now-famous One Part Woman is set in rural Tamil Nadu. Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air plays out in – and just outside – an unnamed central jail in Kolkata. And Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden takes us to the small town of Pakur.
This shift of locale is not just cosmetic. With it comes entire transformations in themes, characters, language, sensibilities, and discourse. Gone, for the most part, is the high literary idiom and the self-conscious effort to inject Indian street into the English language. These books – two of them in translation – are written in honest, sometimes artless prose that stays close to the ground that the narratives operate in.
From Shekhar’s rawness to Byapari’s brutal directness, from Murugan’s lyricism to Ali’s and Vijay’s subtlety, all these works abandon the mediation of a crafted, often contrived version of language that was earlier used for effect by many writers. There is no effort here to make an impression with every sentence – the language is close to the rhythm of life and the stronger for it.
The characters, too, do not inhabit upper- or middle-class society, even if some of them have their origins there. The spaces they operate in these novels are constructed by expanding writerly imaginations that do not limit themselves to the cerebral but get down and dirty. As a result, the people in these five books are viscerally tangible, often physically so, and not embodiments of ideas or channels of their creators’ outlooks on the world.
So, what does ‘literary’ mean in 2019?
What are these novels telling the jury, and us, now with urgency that makes them appear the best of these times we live in? Anger, violence, betrayal, and caste and class are some of the threads with which these narratives of conflict are woven. And in almost every case, the discourse pits the individual or the underdog against power – whether that power is represented by state, society, institutions, or even other individuals – and emerges with unsettling conclusions. There is often no closure in these novels, where only the pages come to an end but not the stories.
If these five works have been chosen as the shortlist for the Rs 25-lakh prize, it is not because they share these qualities, but, arguably, because these qualities represent, even without our formally identifying them as important for literature – and all art – the gestalt of our times. The massive social churn of the past decade (and longer) in the India has affected every individual, forcing them to reconsider their place in the personal and political space. And the most striking of contemporary fiction is born from this churning.
So, while anger, violence and betrayal may not be what makes these five specific works stand out from the rest, they are an intrinsic part of any fiction that talks eloquently to us today. And in picking these books, that, perhaps, is what this prize is effectively acknowledging.