Literary shortlist

The five selected books span a wide range of subtexts and subjects, from Naxalism in Bengal to the conflict in Kashmir

Since 2018, the JCB Prize for Literature has been awarded to a “distinguished work of fiction” by an Indian writer. For the 2019 award, the longlist was released early September in Mumbai and the shortlist was announced at a press conference in Delhi. The award will be presented on November 2.

The longlist included works by writers in Bengali, English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. The shortlist was selected by a jury of filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen, author and critic Anjum Hasan, author KR Meera, author Parvati Sharma, and economist Arvind Subramanian.

The shortlist is:

  • Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali
  • There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari
  • Trial by Silence and Lonely Harvest by Perumal Murugan
  • My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
  • The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

At the press conference announcing the shortlist, the chair of the 2019 jury, Krishen, 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.”

Rana Dasgupta, the literary director of the awards, added: “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.”

Each of the shortlisted writers will get  Rs 1 lakh. If a shortlisted work is a translation, the translator will receive Rs 50,000. The winner of the prize will receive Rs 25 lakh. If the winning work is a translation, the translator will get Rs 10 lakh.

Last year, the JCB Prize for Literature was awarded to Jasmine Days by Benyamin, translated from Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib.

Here’s the jury’s rundown of the books that made the 2019 shortlist.

Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali

Ib is a strange young man who is alienated by the rhythms of modern life and finds little in his circumstances that is worth redemption. Stuck between his mentally ill father, timid mother, and a domineering grandfather who intends to push Ib into a life of convention, Ib retreats to his imagination. As he drops out of college, follows a wise man to the Himalayas, and spends an inordinate amount of time in his favourite pub, he tries to make sense of the world around him.

This is Roshan Ali’s debut novel. Powered by the rhythmic influences of Saul Bellow, this novel is a wry look at Ib’s nihilistic tendencies and the lies we tell ourselves to navigate contemporary life.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

The only thorn in the flesh of newly appointed jailer Bireshwar Mukherjee, a formidable man with a  spotless record are the inhabitants of Cell No 12, the prison within a prison, which houses five Naxals — fiery young men dedicated to demolishing class society. When Bhagoban “Bhogai” Sardar, a thief who has committed a petty crime, returns to jail, where he feels at home, Bireshwar Mukherjee has an idea. Bhagoban will secretly function as his pair of eyes on the inmates of Cell No 12 and detect their nefarious plans. Slowly, however, Bhagoban gets drawn to the empathy of these strange young men. As the Naxals plan a daring escape that will either win them freedom or cost them their lives, he has to make a decision about a purpose that’s bigger than him.

Published in 2013 as Batashe Baruder Gondho in Bangla, Gunpowder in the Air is a darkly comic indictment of the Indian prison system as well as a deeply empathetic historical document of Naxalism in West Bengal.

The Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence by Perumal Murugan. Both novels translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

At the end of Perumal Murugan’s trailblazing novel One Part Woman, readers are left on a cliffhanger as Kali and Ponna’s intense love for each other is torn to shreds. What is going to happen next to this beloved couple?

In A Lonely Harvest  — one of two inventive sequels that picks up the story right where One Part Woman ends — Ponna returns from the temple festival to find that Kali has killed himself in despair. Devastated that he would punish her so cruelly, but constantly haunted by memories of the happiness she once shared with Kali, Ponna must now learn to face the world alone.

In Trial by Silence, the other sequel, Kali is determined to punish Ponna for what he believes is an absolute betrayal. But Ponna is equally upset at being forced to atone for something that was not her fault. In the wake of the temple festival, both must now confront harsh new uncertainties in their once idyllic life together.

My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

The novel, narrated in the first person by an unnamed medical student and doctor, is divided into three sections.

The opening section, “Lover”, finds him studying medicine in Jamshedpur. After a string of affairs, he discovers an all-consuming, unrequited passion for Samir, a junior at the college.

In “Friend”, the young doctor, escaping heartbreak, finds relief in Pakur where he meets Bada Babu only to uncover a sordid tale of apathy and exploitation.

And in “Father”, he takes refuge in his parents’ home in Ghatshila and wonders if his father’s obsessive gardening has anything to do with the choices his son has made.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bengaluru, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to confront him.

But upon her arrival, Shalini is brought face to face with Kashmir’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in.

Soon, all the novel’s characters — Riyaz, Amina, Bashir Ahmed, Shalini’s father — arrive at a moment of crisis, where they must change something vital about their lives or perish. In the end, Shalini herself is forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.  

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