The 15-strong longlist of the 2019 edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has been pared down to a shortlist of six books, which was announced in London on Tuesday, November 6. The shortlist comprises five original works in English and one in translation. One of the books is set in Afghanistan, one in Pakistan, one in India and Europe, and the other three in India.
Here are the opening lines of the shortlisted novels.
The Empty Room, Sadia Abbas, Zubaan
The terse knock on the door the morning after the wedding allowed Tahira to open her eyes. She had been lying very still, worrying that her eyelids might flicker and betray her waking state to Shehzad, who lay next to her, unmoving, perhaps because he too was trying to feign sleep. After a perfunctory pause – in which she grabbed the gharara by the sude if her bed and rushed to the bathroom, freed from the paralysis that ahd kept her under the sheets, pretending to be asleep, and in which Shehzad pulled on his trousers in a quick and complicated manouevre – all four of his sisters, Shaista, Asma, Farah and Nazneen, entered the bedroom and sat themselves on and around the bed to talk with their brother.
In the bathroom, Tahira avoided the mirror, more shy than usual of her body, and out on the heavily worked shalwar kameez her sisters had left on a hanger on the door the night before. She came out into the dressing room and lingered, trying to distinguish words in the murmur of voices in the bedroom. She put on the necklace, earrings and bangles her sister had laid out, folded the gharara and examined her face with embarrassed, careful attention, wincing at the brightness of the lipstick she had been told by her mother she must wear the first few days – yes, even in the glare of daylight Miriam had insisted. She gave the dupatta a final tug and turned, pausing at the little raised threshold to square her shoulders, and re-entered the room. Shaista, her oldest sister-in-law, looked at her, wincing just a little. “Bring us some tea. We want to talk to our brother. Alone.”
Half the Night is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi, Juggernaut
Mange Ram, the son of a tenant farmer who worked on land that Lala Nemichand, a rich trader from Delhi, had inveigled from the indebted zamindar Nawab Mansoor Ali, was a wrestler of some renown in his district. As a young boy Mange Ram had been spotted by a neighbour, Khuda Baksh, who had been a wrestler in the nawab’s akhara for several years and, now in retirement, was struck by the child’s natural poise and agility. Khuda Baksh tried to convince Mange Ram’s father that the child could develop into a champion wrestler with the proper diet and training, and offered to provide the latter. But Mange Ram’s father did not have the resources to invest in the former. Nor did he expect that any child of his, any descendant of his forefathers, would do anything more than till someone else’s land, start a family, feed and raise his children, and die.
Setting aside a portion of the pension that came to him from the nawab’s haveli every month, Khuda Baksh himself began to feed Mange Ram the required diet of almonds and milk while also starting his training with the exercises that he had learned as a child from his ustad. Even though Mange Ram responded extremely well both to the wrestler’s diet and to his ustad’s instruction, Khuda Baksh hid his protégé from the world initially, fearing that if Mange Ram did not impress with his skills then his own personal generosity in terms of time and money would be ridiculed by his rivals as an overambitious hankering to return to the limelight which, to some extent, it was. If Mange Ram did prove his worth, all attempts to ridicule a champion’s ustad would themselves be ridiculed. Such was the power of success, the philosopher’s stone that could transmute wrong into right, that the attacker became the attacked and the poisoned darts of jealousy reversed their direction and landed on the chests of those who had launched them.
There’s Gunpowder in the Air, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, Eka
Long and slow, the jail siren wails. It’s a quarter to six in the morning. The siren going off at this time means that the headcount has tallied. All the prisoners locked up last night have been located. None of them has succeeded in slipping past the alert eyes of the state-employed guards to escape. The message in the slow tone of the siren is just that. It signals relief.
It is the first phase of the volcanic seventies. No jail in the country is a secure fort now. One prison after another has been crumbling like worm-infested rotting wood. They have been broken by a group of arrogant and audacious fire-eaters, who are known politically as Naxals. Defying rigorous security, smashing all administrative resistance, they are escaping from their confinement with impunity.
True, not everyone is able to escape. The prisoners who fail have to atone for their transgressions with their lives. But no one is deterred. To them, killing and dying are like games children play. No law or regimentation or repression can obstruct those who are not afraid of death.
The City and the Sea, Raj Kamal Jha, Penguin Books
My name I cannot tell.
There is a law in my land to protect me, to ensure that I am not shamed, it doesn’t allow my name to be mentioned in public, this means I will have to whisper it, under my breath, and if you wish to hear, you may need to move a little closer to where I am or wait for a while, for the noise of small things to fade. In this hotel lobby where I sit, in this silent town by a quiet sea 6000 km away from home. The sound of guests, for example. Their chatter, checking in, checking out, tying tags to suitcase handles, snap of elastic, tap touch of fingers keying in credit-card pins.
Or, we could wait for night to fall, for guests to leave, some to step out through the revolving door into the street, some to walk up to their rooms, others to disappear. Like shadows do in light.
That’s when I will say it, my name.
I shall break the law, speak the unspeakable.
You will know who I am.
But what’s the hurry, I am not going anywhere, I cannot go anywhere.
So let’s wait for my child and his father, for them to come back from the hotel front yard where they have gone to watch snow, for the very first time.
My child says he will return only when he is all white, when his hands freeze, when he can’t wiggle his fingers in the mittens we bought at the airport, only then will he come back. You will have to hold me, Ma, he says, thaw me with your breath.
Sure, I say, I would love to do that.
Now, go. Go into the snow.
99 Nights in Logar, Jamil Jan Kochai, Bloomsbury
Budabash got free sometime in the night.
We didn’t know how. Just that he did and that we needed to go and find him. Me and Gul and Zia and Dawood heading out onto the roads of Logar, together, for the first time, hoping to get Budabash back home before nightfall.
This all happened only a few weeks into my trip, my family’s homecoming in the summer of ‘05, back when it cost only a G to fly across the oceanm from Sac to SF to Taipei to Karachi to Peshawar all the way up to Logar, where, at the time, though it wasn’t dead, the American war was just sort of dozing, like in a coma, or as if it were still reeling off a contact high from that recently booming Afghan H, leaving the soldiers and the bandits and the robots almost harmless. So that all that mattered then for a musafir from America was how he was going to go about killing another hot summer day.
Gulbuddin said it’d be a four-man operation.
He said it in Pakhto because my Farsi was shit.
“You see,” he told me, Zia, and Dawood as we huddled in the orchard before our chase, “more than four and we’ll look like a mob, but any less and we might get jumped.”
The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, Harper Collins
I am thirty years old and that is nothing.
I know what this sounds like, and I hesitate to begin with something so obvious, but let me say it anyway, at the risk of sounding naïve. And let it stand alongside this: six years ago, a man I knew vanished from his home in the mountains. He vanished in part because of me, because of certain things I said, but also things I did not have, until now, the courage to say. So, you see, there is nothing to be gained by pretending to a wisdom I do not possess. What I am, what I was, and what I have done – all of these will become clear soon enough.
This country, already ancient when I was born in 1982, has changed every instant I’ve been alive. Titanic events have ripped it apart year after year, each time rearranging it along slightly different seams and I have been touched by none of it: prime ministers assassinated, peasant-guerrillas waging war in emerald jungles, fields cracking under the iron heel of a drought, nuclear bombs cratering the wide desert floor, lethal gases blasting from pipes and into ten thousand lungs, mobs crashing against mobs and always coming away bloody. Consider this: even now, at this very moment, there are people huddled in a room somewhere, waiting to die. This is what I have told myself for the last six years, each time I have had the urge to speak. It will make no difference in the end.
But lately the urge has turned into something else, something with sharper edges, which sticks under the ribs and makes it dangerous to breathe.
So let me be clear, here at the start.
If I do speak, if I do tell what happened six years ago in that village in the mountains, a village so small it appears only on military maps, it will not be for reasons of nobility. The chance for nobility is over. Even this, story or confession or whatever it turns out to be, is too late.
Disclaimer: Arunava Sinha, the translator of Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air, is an editor at Scroll.in.