The excitement in India over the inevitably high-profile literary prizes for works of fiction usually overshadows awards given for non-fiction works. From the JCB Prize to the DSC Prize, from the Hindu Prize to the Tata Lit Live awards, from the Crossword Awards to the Atta Galatta prize, even when there are categories for non-fiction, it is the fiction that holds all the attention.
It is in this context that the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation Book Prize, established in 2018, is of significance. For, this award specifically “celebrates high-quality, non-fiction literature by emerging writers from all nationalities”, with the winner getting Rs 15 lakh – the same amount, not incidentally, as the DSC Prize.
Indeed, while fiction maps the world and the people with imagination, it is, arguably, non-fiction that is telling the real and diverse stories of India today. And that is why each of the six books on the shortlist – chosen out of 117 applications and sweeping over a range of forms and tools, from autobiography and reportage to anthropolofy and history, and themes – is worth reading.
No matter who wins the prize – the winner will be announced during the Bengaluru Literature Festival, being held between November 7 and 9 – it is the shortlist that actually makes for a reading guide to present-day India. The jury comprises the four trustees of NIF – Ramachandra Guha, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, and Manish Sabharwal – and two members of the advisory board – Niraja Gopal Jayal and Rukmini Banerjee.
As Guha, the chair of the jury, puts it, “We‘ve got a compelling glimpse of the multitude of narratives that exists in India through the submissions that we have received for the Book Prize. Each book nourishes a conscious and creative conversation, and we were struck by the lucidity, strength and eloquence of the writers – and we hope that they will be read by many for years to come.”
Here is what the prize has to say about each of the shortlisted books.
Interrogating My Chandal Life, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Sipra Mukherjee, Stree Samya Sage
A socio-political activist and a celebrated writer of Dalit literature in Bengali, Manoranjan Byapari has worked at many kinds of jobs and also been writer-in residence at Alumnus Software, Calcutta. He is a popular writer in the literary magazines and in 2014; he received the Suprabha Majumdar prize awarded by the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi.
Interrogating My Chandal Life is a translation of Byapari‘s inspirational memoir Itibritte Chandal Jibon. Through a powerful narrative for the need for agency and dignity, he takes the reader through a layered investigation of his own identity. A harsh reminder of the inequality that exists in our society, his writing permeates with poverty, disease, anger as well as a fierce will to live.
A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic, Rohit De, Princeton University Press
An Associate Professor at the Department of History at Yale University, Rohit De is a lawyer and historian of modern South Asia. De’s fields of interest include Modern South Asia, Global Legal History, Law and Society, Nationalism and Decolonisation, Comparative Constitutionalism. He has assisted Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan of the Supreme Court of India and worked on constitution reform projects in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
De’s book A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic is a scholarly work that explores how the Indian Constitution of 1950 has liberated one of the largest population of the world. Contrary to the argument that the Constitution has little influence on the masses, De illustrates the power of the Indian legal system through four important, diverse cases led by minorities of the country.
Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, Snigdha Poonam, Penguin Random House India
Snigdha Poonam is a national affairs writer with The Hindustan Times in Delhi, and her work has appeared in a wide range of Indian and international publications such as Scroll, The Caravan, The New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Financial Times. Recipient of the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for a work of reportage that appeared on Huffington Post, she writes mainly on Indian politics, society and culture.
Dreamers touches on the topic of “aspirations of millions” and provides a perspective on the challenges the youngsters of India are facing, and its impact on the country. Snigdha Poonam’s remarkable cultural study of the unlikeliest of fortune-hawkers travels through the small towns of northern India to investigate the phenomenon that is India’s Generation Y. Her intelligent reporting skills are displayed through the impressive collection of profiles that provides a vivid glimpse of the potential of the young people to change the course of the country.
Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands, Alpa Shah, HarperCollins India
Alpa Shah is an Associate Professor–Reader in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She also leads the Programme of Research on Inequality and Poverty, funded by major research grants from the EU European Research Council and the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Shah is committed to public engagement and has reported and presented on the underbelly of India for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service.
Unfolding like a thriller and brought to life by Shah’s years of research and immersion into the daily lives of the tribal communities in a Naxal stronghold, Nightmarch investigates what drove the marginalised towards Naxalism. A reflection on economic growth, rising inequality, dispossession and conflict at the heart of contemporary India, Shah’s gritty journey reveals how and why people from very different backgrounds come together to take up arms to change the world but also what makes them fall apart.
How India Became Democratic, Ornit Shani, Penguin Random House India
Ornit Shani is a scholar of the politics and modern history of India. Having received her PhD from the University of Cambridge, she was a Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge University. Her current research focuses on the modern history of democracy and citizenship in India.
How India Became Democratic is a scholarly work by Ornit Shah where she explores the deep connection between being an Indian citizen and his/her right to exercise one’s franchise. Through this well-researched book that makes a thought-provoking claim that “Indians became voters before they became citizens”, Shani details the entire process of the institutionalisation of democracy by allowing us to grasp the glory of that moment.
Living Without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos, Piers Vitebsky, HarperCollins India.
Piers Vitebsky is an anthropologist and the Emeritus Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He has authored many books and has numerous documentary film collaborations featured in BBC, Channel 4 and National Geographic. His book The Reindeer People won the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction in 2006.
Living Without The Dead lays bare today’s crisis of indigenous religions and shows how historical reform can bring new fulfilments – but also new torments and uncertainties. Vitebsky explores the loss of the Sora tradition as one for greater humanity: just as we have been losing our wildernesses, so we have been losing cultural and spiritual possibilities, tribe by tribe. From the award-winning author of The Reindeer People, this is a heartbreaking story of the extinction of an irreplaceable world, even while new religious forms come into being.