The JCB Prize for Literature, which awards Rs 25 lakhs to a work of Indian fiction, will announce a winner on November 2, 2019 from a shortlist of six novels. If the winning novel is a translation, the translator will receive Rs 10 lakh, which is twice as much as was awarded to the winning translator – Shahnaz Habib for Benyamin’s Jasmine Days – the previous year.
The shortlist, announced on October 4, retains only one out of the four female-authored novels included in the longlist. Mukta Sathe’s A Patchwork Family, about a young woman navigating life in the justice system, Sharanya Manivannan’s The Queen of Jasmine Country, inspired by the devotional poet Andal, and Amrita Mahale’s Matunga novel, Milk Teeth, did not make the shortlist. The critically acclaimed and widely read Milk Teeth was a particularly surprising exclusion. Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and The Sea, imaginatively based on the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, and Paul Zacharia’s A Secret History of Compassion, a farce/satire about composing an essay on compassion for The Communist Party, were the other two novels that were not included in the shortlist.
The shortlist includes novels that cover Santhal lives and politics, Kashmiri relations with the mainland, pre-independence life in agrarian Tamil Nadu, jailing of Naxalites in 1970s Bengal, and mental illness in an urban Indian nuclear family. As I read the six novels – two of which are being considered a single book for the purposes of the prize – I was struck by the sheer number of new literary experiences they expose a reader in India to.
I hadn’t encountered a novel about prison conditions in India before. Nor could I recall having read fiction about the difficulty of scaling political ranks as a member of an Adivasi community. Of course, it isn’t simply the fact that under-told narratives are featured that makes the shortlist worthwhile reading. We’ve compiled a reader’s guide which explores the ways in which the shortlisted novels excel, as well as the areas in which they falter.
Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Roshan Ali
A young man named Ib lives on the periphery of larger society. Brought up without a set of principles he could relate to, and raised around his father’s largely untreated schizophrenia, he drifts into inactivity, disinterest and fantasy. In adulthood, he has one friend. The world isn’t the kind, joyful place he was led to believe it was. He experiences an overwhelming ennui. He doesn’t (as is often the case) seek psychiatric help. His relatively well-adjusted friend cannot reach him with care or reasoning.
The novel’s standout moments come in the form of Ib’s observations of other people. He writes of his mother who must care for him alone as her husband worsens in mental health, “There was no place for humour in Amma’s life: Her wounds were too grave for laughter to be any kind of medicine.” In another instance, listening to a conversation at a social gathering, he senses that, “A few were silent…because they were modest and spoke only when spoken to and did not have that desire to hijack, however gently, a conversation.”
Ib understands others in a way he cannot understand himself. His assessment of modern life is that it is lonely and devoid of meaning, which is a position many can relate and be empathetic to. A city often doesn’t offer community and ties. But Ib’s recursive philosophising on the emptiness of life can feel like a missed opportunity to see what a more self-aware narrator could have made of his anguish.
There’s Gunpowder in the Air, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
In simple prose that runs a little over a hundred and fifty pages, There’s Gunpowder in the Air examines life in the 1970s in West Bengal for the economically and socially disenfranchised. The novel takes place entirely within a prison that is one of several that hold recently arrested Naxalites in heavily secured cells. Espousing a vision that sees ordinary landless workers liberated from their feudal overlords and awarded with redistributed land, the Naxalites pose an immediate threat to those with financial and state power.
Byapari, who was imprisoned for a time, carefully reconstructs what life within these prisons comprised. The prisons are run with little oversight and rampant corruption that benefits so many levels of bureaucracy that no official can hope to curb it without running the danger of being fired themselves.
The central plot revolves around an advancing plan among the Naxalite prisoners for a communal escape so they may rejoin the movement. Alongside the story of the evolving plans of the Naxalites, the stories of the prisoners and staff in the prison are explored as Byapari paints a compelling picture of how poverty and hunger feed crime, and how humaneness and cruelty are unevenly divided among prison officials.
Dispassionately written, it is a moving novel about prison abuses, and how horrendously people considered lesser humans are often treated in both the workforce and in prisons. Byapari does not linger over their suffering but chooses instead to allow the details to speak for themselves. There’s Gunpowder in the Air deserves to be widely read.
The Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
For the second year in a row, Murugan’s fiction has been included in the JCB shortlist. Last year, Poonachi (translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman) ultimately lost to Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (translated from Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib). This year, his ingenious twin sequels to One Part Woman are in the running. The Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence are two possible futures for the married couple in One Part Woman, Kali and Ponna, who have remained childless for twelve years.
The sequels can be read independently of One Part Woman, as Murugan seamlessly incorporates the past into them. Ponna and Kali’s families convince Ponna to attend a religious festival for women unable to conceive where the women may have intercourse with other men in the hopes of getting pregnant. The families manipulate Ponna into believing Kali has consented to this and that he sees the festival as a divine intervention in childbearing. Kali learns of where his wife has gone only after it is too late.
In The Lonely Harvest, Kali is unable to bear the shame of being emasculated and dies by suicide. In Trial by Silence, Kali is alive, and must live with what has transpired. Trial by Silence is possibly a better novel because it must contend with the difficulty of reconciling the estranged but living. Murugan’s incredible grasp of gender roles and relations, and the subtle and cautious ways in which women must handle men in order to survive make Trial by Silence an especially satisfying read. Both novels are well-written and well-paced, and in their exploration of two vastly different realities, they expand our understanding of who people can be.
My Father’s Garden, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
The unnamed protagonist and narrator is a young queer medical student (and later, doctor) from the Santhal community in Jharkhand. As he carries out complex duties as a government doctor who often sees unprivileged patients, he sees first-hand the way the vulnerable must eke out lives amidst uncertainty and displacement. The three sections of My Father’s Garden are titled Lover, Friend and Father, and each is a study in male lives. There are no answers the protagonist appears to reach or be drawn, to except in the case of his father, and he seems to accept this essential unknowability in life.
It takes a few pages to settle into the narrative. But once one has, the author’s deft, emotionally intelligent prose vividly draws the protagonist’s experiences as a young adult in the Santhal community, a medical student, and government doctor. It isn’t an easy novel to summarise, nor is it interested in offering the reader a sense of finite beginnings and endings.
Instead, My Father’s Garden is far more interested in showing the full spectrum of experience that can make up a person’s life. In the protagonist’s case, this includes the political ambitions of Adivasi communities in Jharkhand, the importance of sacred spaces where no trees are felled, and the sorrows that follow a man hoping to receive unconditional love from another man in a deeply homophobic society. It’s a rare blend of political and lyrical writing that contemporary India desperately needs.
The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
Shalini, the narrator of The Far Field, has been raised in a comfortable, upper middle-class home by a working father and a stay-at-home mother in Bengaluru through the ’80s and ’90s. Three years after the early death of her turbulent but larger-than-life mother, she remains grief-stricken and adrift. Hoping to find some closure, she sets out to find the only friend she can remember her mother having, who returned to his village in Kashmir many years ago.
Armed with a single detail with which to find him, she arrives in Kashmir, and finds a place where it is devastatingly common for people to disappear without a trace. As she grows closer to the families she meets there, she witnesses the continual scrutiny and oppression they must live under. The novel moves back and forth in time between her childhood in Bangalore and her sojourn in Kashmir.
The author spent time teaching in a school in Doda, Kashmir over a period of four years, and was keenly aware of the ways in which Kashmiris have been repeatedly misunderstood and dehumanised by many outside the region. The Far Field is the place in the distance, the place by the border. It is a place where a mainlander is a tourist, an intruder, an observer, an oppressor. One of the greatest strengths of the novel is that it leaves the reader reeling with anger and shame.
There are some implausible moments in the plot. But, for the most part the writing is precise and effective, and the characters’ personalities grate on the reader in a way that is ultimately instructive. Shalini is a memorable if alienating narrator, exhibiting a pattern of questionable choices. In part, she is uncomfortable to read because we wouldn’t want to be her. But perhaps that discomfort is acute because there is a possibility that we already are like Shalini in some ways, and that, given the wrong circumstances, we might make some of her mistakes.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is a consulting editor with Scroll.in.