The 2020 longlist for India’s richest literary prize, the JCB Prize for Literature, was announced on September 1. This year’s jury – chaired by Tejaswini Niranjana, and joined by Aruni Kashyap, Ramu Ramanathan, and Deepika Sorabjee – chose six women writers, four debuts, and two translations to make the cut for the ten-title list. The shortlist will be announced on September 25, and the winner, on November 7.

Shortly after the announcement, Niranjana and Kashyap spoke to about judging a prize during a pandemic, the Indian publishing landscape, and “separating the wheat from the chaff”. Excerpts from the conversation:

Can you comment on the challenges you faced and the rewards you gained during the process of reading and judging these books?

Aruni Kashyap: I think the biggest challenge for all of us was the pandemic. Due to the lockdown, the jury members did not get physical copies of the books. This was a considerable challenge – especially for me – to read because, anyway, due to the pandemic, we were spending a lot of time on the screen, meetings, teaching on screen, even grading (for me) on screen. Two of the jury members are working professors in two different universities. Our screen time increased exponentially, which meant that we could not be as productive as we wanted to.

I usually sit down and finish a book within a few hours because I am a very fast reader, and I can remember most of it, but we couldn’t read like that anymore. Reading PDFs, reading from the computer just made it incredibly slow for me.

Apart from that, I love reading, and I was delighted that I was getting to read such a wide range of books from all over the country in translation as well as from publishers who are not, as we often say, in the “big five.” We had entries from independent and regional presses. I think that was a big boon because we got to see what is being published in contemporary India. I think the award has its niche because it is only open to Indian citizens. In some ways, we got an idea of homegrown talent, something very valuable about the prize.

One more rewarding thing about the longlist was that reading these entries had given me so much fodder for my research as a literary scholar and an academic. I have graduate students working with me on post-colonial literature, which I will help better because of my reading for JCB.

I think it has helped me grow – to cut a long story short – as a scholar, as a reader. All these books will change conversations for better or worse for Indian literature, and I am going to teach some of these books sooner or later when I can. I have learned immensely by reading these books.

Tejaswini Niranjana: The main challenge of jury work in any field is to separate the wheat from the chaff – and the JCB Prize posed a similar challenge. We had to read through a great deal of indifferent writing to find those novels that made all the effort and tedium worthwhile. The main reward, then, is to be able to discover these fine books, and then to recommend them to the reading public.

What does the 2020 longlist say about the current state of Indian publishing – and contemporary Indian fiction writing?

Aruni Kashyap: I think we can make two critical observations by looking closely at the longlist. My first point is about translation and the second about how Indian writers are responding to current realities.

Translation of literature from Indian languages is here to stay, and it is slowly reclaiming and demanding its long-deserved place. But, while reading the entries, I also felt that we need a lot more good translators – in all languages.

I think translation workshops and translation studies courses should be offered in Indian universities. If public universities are not taking this up, then private universities, private philanthropic enterprises, literary bodies should start training good translators. Otherwise, the great literature, the eclectic, wonderful literary work available in Indian languages, will not be available to the rest of the world.

Of course, a lot has happened in the last ten years, and I think the JCB Prize has a major role in the future. The translated books on the longlist are here because they are great books, and they are competing with books originally written in English, but we must not forget that English books get a lot of support. The writers get a lot of feedback during the drafting process; they work closely with editors, proofreaders, and even select agents who provide intellectual and material support.

This is not the case, for example, for a book published in Assamese – as that book is coming from a very different publishing industry that is radically different from the English language publishing industry. An Assamese book, for instance, is most often only printed. If you are lucky, you will find a proofreader at most. No one edits it, no one will go through drafts with you, strengthening the manuscript before publication. After the book is out, you will have to buy the copies (unless you are a very famous author) and drop review copies in magazines and papers.

I think this is the most significant thing about the JCB Prize and the 2020 longlist: how translated literature from Indian languages is competing with Indian English writing that emerges from a far more privileged space.

My second observation is that if you look closely at the longlist, you will realise that Indian English writers are responding to current realities, which is amazing. As a writer myself, I believe that writers should write socially relevant books; I think that writers have a moral responsibility today to bear witness, speak truth to power; and, coming as I do from a highly militarised, highly fraught, highly racialised place like Assam, I understand this much more than anybody else, and I can arrive at this conclusion that writers address social responsibility through their art.

My late mother, a novelist, was part of a progressive writers’ group in Assam, inspired by leftwing ideas. She and her colleagues decided that they would write the kind of fiction that would change society for the better, that would contribute to the creation of a more equal society. My father was also part of the left movement in Assam and were part of similar writers’ groups in Guwahati. So this meant all discussions about fiction in my household were measured against these parameters. Is it asking questions, speaking truth to power? What kind of a society does it envision? Are the ideas progressive? This is the environment in which I grew up. That something is well crafted was never enough for the three of us!

Later, my mentor, Indira Goswami, who was also a professor in Delhi University, took the idea of social responsibility more seriously, and decided to become the mediator or interlocutor between ULFA and the government. So I think social responsibility is a key theme in regional languages, especially in under-represented literary traditions. And it is not just Indira Goswami who did this, so did many other writers from Assam.

Coming back to the point, the books by Samit Basu, Megha Majumdar, Annie Zaidi, and Tanuj Solanki take on totalitarianism, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, religious fanaticism, capitalism, etc. This shows that Indian-English writing has suddenly woken up to the fact that the country has changed and they need to respond to this new reality.

You will see how the writers on this list, especially the three I mentioned, are grappling with this. Megha Majumdar’s book, A Burning, literally talks about a burning issue in the same way, Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits is a cautionary tale, and Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi is a deep investigation into Indian society. Tanuj Solanki’s novel is a critique of capitalism.

The longlist also shows the different kinds of experimentation that Indian writers are engaged in order to respond to contemporary realities. Samit Basu’s book is set in the future, Annie Zaidi’s book is told in Faulknerian style from multiple perspectives, and so is Megha Majumdar’s book. There is an experimentation with craft, and definitely a rejection of the linear / traditional novel in some of these books.

All the writers are trying to ask: “How do we tell a story, in 2020, after 2014? How do you tell the stories of a world that has changed so much?” And I think these questions are at the back of their minds, and they are finding answers by, in a sense, by rejecting traditional modes and telling these stories from many perspectives, many different subject positions, and temporal frameworks.

Tejaswini Niranjana: The 2020 longlist covers an impressive range of fictional genres. These include coming-of-age novels, magical realist and dystopian novels, those dealing with urgent contemporary political and social issues, folklore, and inter-generational sagas. It’s good to know there is so much diversity in Indian fiction writing today, and that Indian publishing can support this diversity of offerings.

You mention “memorability” in the press note for the longlist. What else do you wish for readers of this longlist to take away from these books?
Aruni Kashyap: I want readers to pick up all these books and give them the love and adulation that they deserve, but, at the same time, to also think about a couple of other things as they read the books on the longlist. I want readers to pick up more books in translation, to read in their own languages if possible. It’s a matter of practice, please start reading.

I also want readers to pick up books from under-represented communities and literary traditions. I don’t mean regional, but literary traditions. I think the North-East of India has a unique literary tradition, and literature from this region needs to be read and analysed with the parameters that this tradition sets for itself.

Tejaswini Niranjana: All these books represent brilliantly imagined fictional universes, with characters and narratives that will haunt the reader for a long time.

The 2020 longlist

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Deepa Anappara
  • In Search of Heer, Manjul Bajaj
  • Undertow, Jahnavi Barua
  • Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu
  • These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light,
  • Moustache, S Hareesh, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil
  • A Burning, Megha Majumdar
  • A Ballad of Remittent Fever: A Novel, Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha
  • The Machine is Learning, Tanuj Solanki
  • Prelude to A Riot: A Novel, Annie Zaidi