The longlist for the 2020 JCB Prize for Literature – at Rs 25 lakh for the winner and Rs 10 lakh for the translator in case a translated book wins, the richest literature prize in India – was announced on September 1. Of the ten novels, four are debuts and two are in translation (from Bengali and Malayalam). And six of the ten are by women writers, and one of the two translators on the list is a woman.
The four-member jury is chaired by author, professor and translator Tejaswini Niranjana (chair). The other members are author, professor and translator Aruni Kashyap, playwright and director Ramu Ramanathan, and Deepika Sorabjee, head of arts and culture portfolio, Tata Trusts. The field comprised writers from nine states writing in five languages (Assamese, Bengali, English, Malayalam, and Tamil), and the eligible books were published between August 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020.
The shortlist will be announced on September 25, and the winner, on November 7. The 2019 winner was Madhuri Vijay for her debut novel, The Far Field. Here is a quick guide to the longlisted works.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Deepa Anappara
This debut novel, narrated by nine-year old Jai, meanders through a slum on the outskirts of an Indian city smothered in smog. Jai, who spends his time watching reality cop shows – until he starts working at a tea stall to earn back his mother’s savings which he has used up – observes his basti in contrast with the rich neighbourhood that lies beside it.
When one of his classmates goes missing, he believes his friend has been abducted by a djinn and decides to investigate in the style of the police shows he watches. Part adventure novel and part critique of modern Indian society, this coming-of-age novel is both child-like and precociously literary. A section of this novel won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Deborah Roger’s Foundation Writer’s Award and the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a first novel.
In Search of Heer, Manjul Bajaj
This book reinvents the epic romance of Heer and Ranjha – a popular tragic romance of Punjab which originated during the Lodi dynasty and was made famous by the Sufi poet Waris Shah – into a transgressive feminist tale. Ranjha, the youngest of seven brothers, goes to search for Heer, his goal being to marry the famous beauty he has never even seen, revealing at the outset the face of fragile masculinity.
Heer is a feminist warrior who rides horses and demands that the sweet dishes made for her brother be shared with her. The novel is narrated by many characters, only two of which are humans – Heer and Ranjha. The others are a crow, a pigeon, a camel, and a goat. The book has all the original elements of the tragic romance: the villain, the romance, the musicality. But it subverts the patriarchal notion of love, placing hope in its bleakest moments, never forgetting how community politics blends into romance.
Undertow, Jahnavi Barua
Set in Assam, Undertow is the story of Rukmini, a medical student from Guwahati who marries a foreigner and is subsequently exiled from her community. Her mother Usha is the archetype of the ideal Indian woman; one who marries the man selected by her parents and dotes on her husband. Rukmini runs away to Bangalore where she still exiled from the community, constantly aware of the outsider-ness.
She settles with Alex, her husband, and has a daughter, Loya who returns to Assam to find her roots and unite with her grandfather. The novel, which is centred around identity politics, becomes an important read in a time where Assam itself is experiencing a political anxiety about identity and space.
Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu
This book is set in Delhi, 10 years from now, and falls into the category of dystopian science-fiction, although author Basu calls it simply “the best-case scenario.” Joey, the protagonist, is an associate reality controller. The reality of the world is bleak, where JNU is replaced by a giant mall, and Joey’s past where she attended protests at Shaheen Bagh fall into the “Years Not To Be Discussed.”
Yet the book rebels against the science-fiction genre by defying the lone-male protagonist journey and converting it into the survival of the typical middle-class family in India.
These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar
This debut novel is about three generations of women – Amamma, the protoganist’s grandmother, Mamma, and finally the protagonist herself. Deeya is irrevocably in love with an older man. Her mother fell in love with a man who left her. And Amamma never got to experience the love she wanted because she was married off at a young age.
All three women are touched with loneliness and weave stories to protect themselves from their own heartbreak. Inspired by Richard Silken’s poem Scheherazade, the art of story-telling in this novel is reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, where a woman tells a story every night to save her life.
Moustache, S Hareesh
This Malayalam novel, translated by Jayasree Kalathil, is about the art of rolling the moustache, a masculine symbol of virility. The story is about Vavachan, a Dalit man, who grows out his moustache for his role as a policeman in the local theatre. Vavachan belongs to the fishing community of Kuttanad, an area of paddy fields and swamps that spreads over three districts of Kerala. When he grows out his moustache, a right reserved for upper-class men especially in the mid-20th century when this book is set, he is accused of stealing despite having no earlier record of theft. Vavachan, who knows the rich ecology of the region, will not be caught easily, but a manhunt is set up for his capture. The book mixes the magic and myth of the moustache with caste politics and the rich history of Kerala.
A Burning, Megha Majumdar
This debut novel highlights the fraught relationship between politics and social media. A train is bombed by terrorists and people gather on social media demanding justice. Jivan, in an impulsive post on Facebook, claims the police too are terrorists for watching so many people die. She realises that she has made a dangerous comment, but doesn’t anticipate that she will be taken away in the back of a van and made to confess that she orchestrated the train attack.
Jivan is taught English by a tutor from the hijra community, called Lovely, who alone believes she is innocent. It is telling that Jivan is a poor Muslim woman, and Lovely, one of her believers, is from another oppressed community in India. PT Sir, another enigmatic character, completes the triptych of people in this novel. A Burning is a novel about people who live on the margins of society and their inexorable fates.
A Ballad of Remittent Fever, Ashoke Mukhopadhyay
Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, this book is set in Calcutta and spans some seventy years, from the late 19th Century to the 1960s. During the rule of the British Raj, with the World War 1 looming in the background, the city is riddled with plagues and infections. Dr Dwarikanath Ghoshal is an eminent physician who is observant about the rampant state of epidemics. He studied medicine against his father’s will and later converted to Christianity. Although he doesn’t dismiss age old traditions and superstitions, he tries to inculcate a scientific temperament in those around him.
Dr Ghoshal and three further generations of his family all work in the field of personal and public health, combating against disease, viruses and the unclean environment as well as superstition and irrational beliefs, even as their personal dramas of love, loss and longing play out.
The Machine Is Learning, Tanuj Solanki
The book is narrated by Saransh, an MBA graduate who employs people for an insurance company that will soon be replaced by Artificial Intelligence. In fact, he is the creator of the app ISmart that will render many in his company jobless. The protagonist is aware of injustice, but doesn’t do much about it.
His girlfriend Jyoti pushes him to question the ethics of his work, but he has trained himself to look past it. Solanki blends technical jargon with questions about morality and weaves a narrative set in an unusual location for literary fiction in India: the corporate workplace.
Prelude to a Riot, Annie Zaidi
Set in a nameless South Indian town where upper-class Hindus have the right to carry guns without applying for individual permits, Zaidi’s novel looks into the heart of communal disharmony and weaponisation of identity that is relevant to Indian politics today more than ever. This majority community sees the migrant plantation community, employed as cheap labour, as a threat.
This catapults into a series of incidents where Zaidi, in the words of Hansa Sowvendra Shekhar, “attacks entitlement from wherever it comes – be it from wealth, caste, religion, or from the mere fact that one was born and has lived one’s entire life in a particular place.”
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is a consulting editor with Scroll.in.