A few days before 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) was to be announced, Scroll.in conducted a roundtable discussion, moderated by Shreya Ila Anasuya, with the five shortlisted authors and the translator of one of the works. They spoke about the origins of their novels, being shortlisted, writerly performances, debut novels (the shortlist includes three of them), and freedom of expression. Here are excerpts from the discussion – and a reminder of the shortlist, from which the winning book will be announced on Saturday, November 7:

  • 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

Shreya IlA Anasuya: Congratulations to all of you for being on the JCB shortlist and for your fine novels and your translation. Thank you for joining from different parts of the world. I’d like to begin by asking you to speak to us about how your book was born.

Dharini Bhaskar: For me the novel started with the word Scherezade. It’s a word I love, it’s musical, it has a cadence, and it carries histories – of a woman who talked herself back to life, who escaped death by weaving story upon story. Once I found the word, I knew I had to build my own story around it. So my novel is deeply indebted to the idea of storytelling, deeply committed to the idea of exploring how fact and fiction can be separated, especially within families, which are such paradoxes.

Samit Basu: In the last six years, specifically, the news every day has been making me terribly anxious about how we’re all going to survive. It’s not like the news for the previous decades were shiny and optimistic, but the last six or seven years have been particularly crisis-bound. My novel started with just wanting to build in whatever loose way a map of what was coming at us. I don’t mean the people bearing the brunt of the rapid and devastating changes sweeping this part of the world, but the people who in many ways have the option of shelter, of perhaps retreating into a fortress and waiting for the bad times to pass.

I decided to look at the multiple choice apocalypses facing us – climate change, automation, politics, society and much more. It was meant to be much more of a science fiction thing than it is, with three parts –in the late 2020s, then 2030s, and so on. But what started happening around me turned into spoilers, the world was changing faster than I could map it in my imagination. So it was clear to me that if I could pull a coherent story out of this, it would be unfair to go further forward.

Unlike my other books, which follow – or at least are aware of – of a plan when I’m starting out, this one kept stopping and starting and muddling forward and going backward. I’ve never rewritten, but I was rewriting up to the day it went to press. It’s not the job of any book to predict the future accurately, but I

Annie Zaidi: I do not plot at all when I start. I don’t even know what form I am writing in. This is particularly true of Prelude. With other books you get a sense of where you are headed within the first few pages, but with Prelude I didn’t know until I was almost halfway through.

The novel comes from conversations I was overhearing and being forced to participate in, bigoted or outright racist conversations, with the other people not thinking of themselves as particularly racist or bigoted. But almost every conversation I had – I was travelling for research – sooner or later wound up being prejudiced in some form.

I was surprised because it was in this very beautiful environment, where there was no talk of violence. But I grew fearful for this place and for myself in this place. My research was on labour rights, but now I was much more interested in what was going to happen to this place. It seemed to have a certain communal harmony, but I wondered what it would take to break this.

I began to take notes, writing things down the way I had heard them. There were literally pages and pages of what people said to me. I began to write a series of monologues, and then turned them into soliloquies. I thought it was going to be a short story in two different voices.

I sent it to a friend, who said, this isn’t a short story, it’s bigger. Keep writing. So I did, I found the bits that connected the internal monologues, and I wrote those, and it turned into a novel.

S Hareesh: It’s a story I thought of from a young age, a story about a man with a moustache. It’s located where I was brought up, it’s a story that’s naturally been in my imagination for quite a while. So there wasn’t so much preparation necessary in terms of creating the plot or storyline. Meesha was published in Malayalam two years ago. It was widely read, and there was plenty of discussion.

A novel should have a long life of being read, and discussion should continue. There should be a variety of readings – people should read it in many different ways and not in one way alone. I think of a novel as a stone released from a catapult, there’s no need to check whether it reaches the intended target, it can go in many different directions, which adds to the variety of readings it can lead to.

Deepa Anappara: My novel came from when I was reporting in Delhi. My interest was in how children respond when their friends or family disappear. Do they understand what is happening? So I wanted to write a story from their point of view.

But it so happen that my life changed. I moved away from India and stopped being a journalist. But I had these questions in my head. I had interviewed many kids at that time, and I had those stories and their voices. They lived with me almost a decade before I tried to write the novel.

It is in many ways an extension of the work that I did as a journalist. It’s a fictional reconstruction of what it’s like to experience disappearance as a child, it was an attempt to give the characters the agency they lacked in real life. That was my reason for writing this book. It took a really long time for me to tell the story – there were all these ethical questions about writing about poverty and children – and finding the voice.

Jayasree Kalathil: I was reading Meesha, the Malayalam version of Moustache, when it was being serialised in Mathrubhumi magazine and then pulled out. I was asked to translate the book at that time. I hadn’t read the whole book yet, so I read it – and absolutely loved it.

In terms of translation I go through a process of randomly translating passages, not necessarily from beginning to end. There are pretty much many versions in the beginning.

I’ve not translated much – Moustache is only my second translation. It takes a while for me to get into the characters and the world – that’s the most important thing for me. Once I get a voice for the book, not necessarily for each of its characters, I get the book ,and then it becomes easier.

One of the best things for me as a translator was that Hareesh was very playful in the way he wrote the book, allowing a lot of play with language and words. It doesn’t expect you to stick very faithfully to what it is in Malayalam, so it allows you to have fun and create a language that you think is suitable, instead of being weighed down by the original. It was hard work but enjoyable

SIA: Now that all of you are on the shortlist of this prize, how do you navigate all the attention you’re getting? And what are your thoughts on whether one work of literature can be fairly judged against another one?

JK: This is only the second book I’ve translated, so at this point in time I’m quite happy to be shortlisted for awards. After my first book got the Crossword Award for Translation, I said to my friends, maybe this means I can stay on and translate.

Of course, the JCB Award is not for translation, it is for the novel, and I’m happy to be Hareesh’s co-traveller. But you’re right, I don’t know how anyone can judge one book against another, especially if you look at this shortlist, with the books so very different from one another.

SH: Kerala is a land of many literature awards, more than one of which have come my way. But with the JCB Prize being one of the main awards we have in India right now, I’m very happy to be shortlisted

AZ: As someone who writes for a living – I don’t really know how to do anything else – I will say that the prize really matters. Not so much for the acknowledgement, which can come in many ways from readers, but for the money. I know lots of writers who struggle to make rent, and most writers I know have other jobs. So a prize like this one brings breathing room, a few months’ time that might allow one to work on something else. It might also get publishers to take the winners’ writings a little more seriously.

In countries like India financial incentives are urgently needed. We don’t have an Arts Council like in the UK, we only have the Sahitya Akademi, which also works through prizes rather than enabling the creation of new work.

Winning an award [Nine Dots Award] has given me a lot of freedom. I happen to have a job right now, which I applied for before I got the [Nine Dots] award. I like this kind of teaching, but the prize really did set me free it set me free to do the kind of research I want to without having to wait for grants.

For two years before that I applied for at least 20 different things – grants, prizes, films, documentaries. I got rejected for everything. With the prize I can do all the projects that I was rejected for.

SB: As someone who’s been writing for a living for decades, I find myself measuring a grant or an award in terms of the slabs of time that it earns me. This kind of currency exchange rate is between your bank balance and the time you have free to do the work you want to, you don’t have to listen to anyone else when you’re doing those things.

In some way it’s deeply amusing to be part of this prize, the award process, there’s been a lot of observing changes in people’s behaviour, the little, unexpected pleasures of people being happy or of being annoyed, which is something I’ve been recording in my head very, very deeply with great enjoyment

DA: I don’t look at awards as one book being better than another, that’s not possible as it’s the subjective opinion of a group of people. But it’s true that recognition helps in terms of what publishers can do for you and making your work more popular.

Besides, I’ve always looked at longlists of awards to learn something about a book that I might not have picked up otherwise. It’s really good to have a prize that’s completely Indian and free from the Western gaze. We’re very hypocritical in how we approach what the West says about Indian writers. I’ve heard so many things since my book has come out, there have been people who say I’m pandering to the West or something similar, whereas when I was writing the book I thought it was so Indian that I didn’t even think western publishers would pick it up.

ILA: Full-time writers already have a precarious existence, and by the time a book is out you may be thinking about your next project. But with festivals and readings and prizes is there more pressure on the writer to be a public performer. What do you feel about playing this role?

AZ: I have a feeling this intense flurry of activity has come in the past four to five years in India, because a lot of literature festivals have got corporate funding. But I think the money will dry up eventually, so I don’t think this will last.

I enjoy festivals mainly because I get to meet my friends there. I take the panel discussion seriously enough to prepare, I talk to my co-panelists, I read the books, I don’t treat it as pure entertainment. Having said that, I do believe it shouldn’t be taken too seriously for too long.

I remember feeling quite comforted a few years ago when I discovered Virginia Woolf had to do a fashion shoot for Vogue or one of these magazines, so I said okay, they did it to her, so it happens to everyone, we all have to perform in a way. It gets irritating sometimes, but I also think writers have always been expected to do this performing. Charles Dickens did a lot of it.

ILA: A question for the debut authors here. Does being recognised for your first book in this way influence your work going forward?

DB: Getting your first book published is almost impossible sometimes. I worked in publishing, I know the budget constraints and other constraints, it’s hard getting the approvals you need for a debut novel. It’s an honour and a privilege, therefore, if you have publishers willing to back your first book. Publishers don’t want to support anything that doesn’t come with guarantees, which obviously debut authors don’t. So, having debuts nominated for prizes changes the way they are viewed.

DA: I don’t really feel like a debut writer, because I was working as a journalist for so long. Although this is my first published book, I wrote three books before this which are only on my laptop. I’ve studied creative writing here in the UK and I’m doing a PhD now, so from what I have observed, industry here is much more willing to take risks with debuts.

I’m actually interested in seeing the support publishers provide writers who had entire careers before publishing their first book, and perhaps this would not have happened had publishers not submitted these first books for awards. But with the pandemic the support may be hard to find, which is why awards are so important, which gives you some momentum to go forward.

ILA: It’s great that this shortlist has a work of speculative fiction – yours, Samit. Do you feel though that this is a category that publishers create rather than writers?

SB: In India we don’t really have genre publishing, we have people writing and reading across genres. The challenge for Indian writers of speculative fiction is not so much in finding an Indian audience, because they are mostly published by the same companies who are publishing literary fiction or children’s fiction or crime fiction, as it is in breaking through the diversity barriers in western publishing, which is highly categorised. There, you need those first few successes to lay down the tracks of conformity on the basis of which they will publish more of your works.

ILA: Can we talk about how literary institutions can be more egalitarian with their reach? Translation is of course one solution – it’s great that this year too the JCB shortlist includes translated books.

SH: Malayalam literature is rich with works that would have benefited from being translated into English, just as Bengali or Tamil or Hindi literature has been. But not much has been translated compared to what’s available, and even when it has, not much attention has been paid to quality.

In recent times there seems to be more of an effort to translate Malayalam literature into English, and there’s also been translations from other regional languages into Malayalam. But even a regional language writer who has been writing for a while and is well-established finds it very difficult to be picked up by English language publishers. Books in regional languages do not get the same kind of support. More needs to be done to provide such support, including efforts like the JCB Prize, because regional literatures should reach more people.

JK: I’ve grown up reading translations, but into Malayalam rather than from it. We used to have a lot of translation from Bengali, from Kannada, from Tamil, from Marathi, into Malayalam. I see many more translations into Malayalam from English and other languages now, with very little attention to how well they are done. I speak a few Indian languages, but the only languages I can read are Malayalam and Hindi, and unless books in other languages are translated into English, it reduces the number of books you can read.

AZ: I haven’t read enough in translation. I grew up with limited access. I was given a lot of books compared to many others – India is an incredibly book-poor country – but a lot of my formative reading was British classics. My foray into Indian literature has been relatively recent, only over the past ten years or so. A lot of it had to do with editing an anthology of women’s writing ­–otherwise I would not have made a concerted effort to go and look for Indian literature, particularly women’s literature, from all languages and not just English.

Your view changes when you do this. What I felt and thought as a reader and writer, as someone who was exposed mainly and only to Indian writing in English, or Anglophone writing from elsewhere, completely changed once I began to read writing from different times and different cultures within India. I had to go looking for a lot of it, but not only did it change the way I think as a writer and reader, it also changed the way I feel as an Indian woman. My sense of who I am changed.

ILA: I want to ask about the intensifying of attacks on the freedom of expression, and the pressure to legitimise certain narratives. One of the books we are talking about here has faced trouble. Sometimes it’s physically dangerous for authors. How does a writer keep writing in the face of such hostility?

SH: Meesha had to be withdrawn from Mathrubhumi after the third instalment because of a short exchange of dialogue. The magazine editor had to resign. DC Books then decided to publish the entire book, and when the case went to the Supreme Court, it was very supportive and insisted that the book be published. But even now I face reactions from people to the book.

I was travelling in a train recently – there was this bookseller on the train who introduced himself and told me that at least once a week he is scolded or badmouthed by someone for having Meesha among the books he tries to sell.

My neighbours don’t talk to me because I wrote Meesha. Those things do happen, but public opinion in Kerala is with writers – there’s support within Kerala for people writing what they want to write. Right-wing sentiments are spreading, but writing is an act in the service of democracy, and we have to keep doing it.

JK: I was asked by several people how someone with my name – it was assumed I’m a Hindu woman – could collude in publishing Moustache in the English version. My response always is, have you read the book? And almost all the time they haven’t. I tell them I liked the book, and that’s why I translated it.

I think the English translation has helped in that many more people can read the book away from the controversy and its context. There’s plenty of criticism, and that’s fine, different readers read books differently, but reading it away from the specific controversy is useful

SB: If you’re writing in English, it’s hard to follow a narrative similar to the one Jayasree just give us. The challenge is of combating invisibility rather than too much visibility. I don’t know about theatre, but with the exception possibly of theatre, writing books in English is still a space for free creative expression in this country. Unlike the visual or audio media, English books are still seen as restricted and elite.

Still, as we move forward, it won’t be the threat of violence and bans so much as it will be internal censorship. A lot of it will be corporate self-cleaning – this book is not suitable for us at this time, we don’t think this book is the right fit for our audience, and so on. The mode of using data tools can encroach upon the writing – anything that does not toe the line of marketable conformity is something that writers will have to find their own ways to get around.

AZ: That’s true, writing books in English is still relatively free. Despite the challenges, there is still considerable support from publishers. At least, I’ve got it up to this point. And yes, censorship will be internal. I’ve seen bits of it crop up – let our legal team take a look at this, or things like you are referring to classics that are in the public domain. As the Wendy Doniger episode shows, there are limits to the risk that publishes are willing to take.

Personally I would say there’s a little bit of a chilling effect, not so much because of possible lawsuits but from the way journalists are being treated and the way police FIRs can be filed for a Facebook post. If you start to feel this chill in one space, it filters through into writing. If you’re afraid of posting something on Facebook, sooner or later you’ll be afraid of writing it into a book.

DB: If a writer has a story to tell, very often the urge is so deep that even if there are forces outside that are threatening you find a way to tell the story. The big question is whether you will get published. Publishing works with very different imperatives. Publishers might be scared about some things, in which case writers will have to look at other ways to get their work out there.

DA: I have friends who are journalists, and I’m concerned for people who are on the ground. English language fiction is still a space where you can be relatively free. Every time someone asks me are you afraid about having written something about specific people, I always say those people are not going to read my books, I don’t have to be afraid.

My immediate concern is for journalists who are out on the ground. As far as fiction goes, writers have always found a way to write whatever they have to. Think of Milan Kundera, who wrote about what was happening under the communist regime right under their noses. It’s up to us finally to find ways to continue to work, I don’t know whether circumstances will be favourable.

SIA: Thank you, everyone.