Two debut novelists, Roshan Ali and Madhuri Vijay, are in the running for India's richest literary award, the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature, alongside three other writers.
Established only last year, the JCB Prize for Literature celebrates "distinguished writing by Indian authors" working in English or translated fiction. The prize money is 25 lakh – close to £28,000. If the winning work is a translation, the translator will receive an additional 10 lakh (approximately £11,000).
Among the themes explored on this year's "diverse" shortlist are patriarchy in rural southern India, religious and political conflict in Kashmir, and social and sexual marginalization in eastern India. In the words of the panel of judges, headed up by filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen, the shortlisted books taken together "remind us that fiction remains the most powerful way for a society to examine its fundamental concerns".
Debut novelist Ali, 32, competes with Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction (Penguin Random House India), a story about a disaffected college drop-out who follows a wise man to the Himalayas, and spends an inordinate amount of time in his favourite pub. The jury praised its dark humour and "wise-cracking angst"; "its laid-back style comes back and smacks you in the jaw as you realise you are in the midst of a fascinating experiment with language. An anxious, brilliant read,” they said.
Vijay is meanwhile shortlisted for her first book, The Far Field (HarperCollins India, 2019). The book's "flawed, fallible but always plausible" narrator and protagonist – a restless young woman from Bengaluru, bound for Kashmir after the death of her mother – was a hit with the judges. "Without referring to overt politics, this personal story captures all the moral complexities - and the attendant hubris - of outsider intervention in Kashmir," they said.
Another novelist on the shortlist, from Penguin Random House India's stables, was shortlisted for not one but two books. Perumal Murugan is recognised for The Lonely Harvest and for Trial by Silence, both translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, both released in the same year as sequels to a previous novel.
The remaining novels in contention for the prize comprise a book written from the point of view of an unnamed medical student and doctor, Shekhar's My Father’s Garden (Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited), and a book written by a Pakistani migrant to West Bengal who taught himself to read while in prison. Byapari's book There’s Gunpowder in the Air, translated by Arunava Sinha (Westland Publications, 2018), tells a story of a jailbreak during the Naxal days in Bengal. The judges called it "a devastating critique of what it means to be free".
Krishen was joined on the panel of five judges by authors Anjum Hasan, K RMeera and Parvati Sharma, and Arvind Subramanian, economist and former chief economic adviser to the Government of India.
He said: "Bringing voices from across the country, these novels address the many specific difficulties of living a life in Indian society. With a combination of lyricism and humour, the five novelists portray characters who are at odds with their - very different - worlds. Their private struggles help illuminate larger themes, including patriarchy in rural southern India, religious and political conflict in Kashmir, and social and sexual marginalization in eastern India. Taken together these novels remind us that fiction remains the most powerful way for a society to examine its fundamental concerns."
Rana Dasgupta, literary director, added: "This year’s shortlist displays a satisfying diversity of voices, as is appropriate to the scale and variety of this country. These five books transport us to very different parts of India, and give us access to very different kinds of life. Each of them is imbued by the spirit of its moment, which is perhaps why the shortlist has such an unsettled, turbulent flavour. But literature contains wisdom too, and the deep sense of justice in these books reminds us why, whatever our reality, we continue to care, hope and strive."
The winner will be announced on 2nd November.
Last year's inaugural winner was Jasmine Days by Benyamin, translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib and published by Juggernaut Books.