The five-book-strong shortlist for the Rs 25-lakh JCB Prize for Literature 2020 (with an additional prize money of Rs 10 lakh for the translator in case the winning book is a translation) has been announced. Reflecting the expansion of the literary imagination increasingly seen in fiction from India, the shortlist spans works featuring magical realism, speculation about the near future, an unusual narratorial voice, a complex saga about generations of women in a family, and a multi-perspective telling of the lead-up to a grimly real and violent incident.

The shortlist, which includes three debuts:

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Deepa Anappara, Penguin Random House India
  • Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India
  • These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India
  • Moustache, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India 
  • Prelude to a Riot, Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company, 2019

In choosing these books – and the 10-strong longlist before it – the jury, comprising Tejaswini Niranjan (chair), Aruni Kashyap, Ramu Ramanathan, and Deepika Sorabjee, has clearly acknowledged the replacement of conventional storytelling from the centre by edgy, experimental, genre-defying writing from the perimeters of mainstream fiction. Here are excerpts from four reviews (one of them yet to be published) of, and an excerpt from, the five shortlisted novels.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Deepa Anappara

From the Scroll review:

There is at least a degree of emotional security in the life of the main family: Jai and Runu’s parents have an affectionate relationship; the father, unlike many other fathers, is caring and responsible. And this means Jai is well-placed to observe and comment on the troubles of others. At the same time, the novel’s structure gives us occasional, welcoming breaks from his perspective. Apart from the three main interludes – the stories that “will save your life”, the slivers of hope for poor people in different situations – Anappara also includes a chapter about each of the missing children, where we learn about their inner lives and the circumstances that made them vulnerable to djinns or earthly villains.

But this novel is also of its place and time. It is about the many intersecting dangers facing poor people in India, and how those dangers are inseparable from the circumstances of their lives: fear of the Other, stoked by self-serving politicians; the bullying police, taking haftas in exchange for very conditional protection; the terrifying bulldozers that are always on the periphery of their world, threatening to raze it – and always, in the distance, the predatory or the apathetic rich, including employers who can’t be supportive even when the mother of a missing child needs to take a couple of days’ leave. Life here can often seem like a horror film where a variety of monsters must be ducked, or like an obstacle race full of potholes.

Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu

From the Scroll review:

Chosen Spirits is much, much kinder. It brings Orwellian dystopia and satire closer home with click-bait headlines that you may have read last week, its vision of technological surveillance is as soul-chilling as it is brilliant; and the violence without being graphic is relentless on your peripheral vision; but it also gives you mostly incorruptible, frequently idealistic, incredibly soft-hearted people, it gives you the kindness of strangers, and it gives you the hope of resistance.

Resistance not to the idea of a nation or to a particular government, but resistance to faceless cruelty, limitless oppression and the general pettiness of immeasurably wealthy corporates. And it does that knowing that you, Dear Reader, will probably fit at least one of these descriptors: entitled, young, upper-caste, upper-class, corporate-job holding, safety-seeking, liberal. You may never be able to do enough, but just the attempt, as Joey’s wonderfully wise mother says to “stand your ground, and hold on, instead of running away” is a good place to start.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar

From the yet-to-be-published Scroll review:

Bhaskar chooses a specific line from Silken’s poem: “These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light” to be her title. A line sandwiched between the idea of ruined love and acceptance. What lies in the heart of the line she chooses? Is the light redemption for her? For her characters? Amamma never finds her true love, who was taken away from her when she was sixteen. Mamma believes she has found her true love, until he leaves her. Dee’s sister Ranja, married to a man with acclaim and stability, goes insane, her personality scooped out and replaced with dinner plates and domesticity. Her other sister Tasha, who shifts from man to man, finally settles on one and decides to get married, leaving Deeya feeling ominous and unsettled. Deeya herself is irrevocably in love with an older, inaccessible man. She is married to another, who spends most of his life at sea, while she lives in America all alone with sorrow and loneliness. If Bhaskar sees redemption, or light at all in her story, I think it is in the idea of story-telling itself. That bodies are held together by memories and that memories can be tweaked and tucked into suitable corners as per the body’s desire. Despite the rotating unhappiness of the characters, the book is a happy one. The kind one could read in a single sitting. No part of it feels overwrought or untidy...

Moustache, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil

An excerpt:

The Chovan set his toddy pot down, stepped in and picked up a handful, and tucked them in the waist-fold of his towel. And then he saw another one, much bigger than the ones he had already picked up. Without thinking what he was doing, he put the one in his hand between his teeth, and bent forward to pick up the other.

The fish in his mouth remembered the history of its kind and of humankind, and deciding to die valiantly, it wriggled, making the Chovan inadvertently open his mouth.
It slid down his throat into his stomach. Chemballi had razor-sharp bones, far more numerous than other fish, on both sides of their bodies. Back home, the Chovathi waited in vain. From that day on, the spirit of the unfortunate Chovan played tricks on the boats and the people who passed by the spot, making them lose all sense of time and direction. Paviyan and his son had strayed into his trap. They rowed from canal to canal. Imagining that he recognised a collection of fields from its outer bund, Paviyan would row towards it, only to row back, realising that he had been misled. Several times he imagined that they were almost at their house.

Prelude to a Riot, Annie Zaidi

The novel is set in a nameless town in South India, presumably in the Kodava belt, with its Hindu upper-caste natives having the (originally-colonial) licence to carry guns without having to apply for individual permits. Most chapters are soliloquies by different characters, who vary in age from teenagers to nonagenarians, and come from different classes, but mainly from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds.

These reminiscences illustrate various social concerns. Communal mobilisation is in full swing with a “Self-Respect Forum” speaking of the threat to the majority “native” community from the illegal migrant labour in the plantation society, which is nonetheless exploited for cheap wages by the owners.

A youth meets a tragic end for being seen with the daughter of his master. A national survey to separate the wheat from the chaff, the native from the infiltrator, is being proposed. A young girl is forcefully fed pork at school by her peers, including her friends. Her brother senses “it” coming for his community. His deep friendships from college with those not from his community can barely survive.

A college romance that was consummated in marriage transcending caste cannot survive the cooption of the husband into a homogenous “Us” to fight “Them”, as the wife refuses these easy binaries. Other romances cannot find social sanction due to social differences. Women are often more sensitive and amenable to difference, as men, especially the dominant, refuse to accept the other, and the most strongly othered here is none other than the Muslim.