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‘I want to take the JCB Prize to the smaller towns and cities’: Mita Kapur

The new director of the JCB Prize for Literature shares her vision for taking India’s richest literary prize to the next level

Mita Kapur.
Mita Kapur. (Photo:

Soon after the announcement of the winner for 2019 in November (Madhuri Vijay’s novel The Far Field), the JCB Prize for Literature, India’s richest literary award, announced the appointment of a new director. Mita Kapur, CEO of the Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi, took over the mantle from writer Rana Dasgupta, the founding director of the prize since its inception in 2018. In January, one of the first public announcements Kapur made is a plan to make the shortlisted books widely available to visually impaired readers. This attempt to be more inclusive and amplify the reach of the prize informs her vision for it. Lounge met Kapur on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival in January to find out more. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What made you take on this role?

I had an instinctive respect for the prize from the moment it was launched. One could sense that it was an impartial entity, that it was ethical, transparent and genuine in its effort. What really held my attention was that it is mandatory for publishers to submit translations and, of course, the fact that there is an award for the translator, which, I believe, is the crying need of the hour.

It’s difficult to build something that reaches an institutional level straightaway. Rana achieved this phenomenal feat in the first two years. He gave the prize a solid foundation. He worked with all the stakeholders cohesively and made sure it was truly representative of the Indian spirit. For a founding director, all this was like climbing Mount Everest, and he did it. When I was approached, I knew it was a big challenge, but I am always up for a good one.

In the time since you started Siyahi 14-odd years ago, the literary fiction landscape of India has changed dramatically. Advances have gone down, the readership seems to have fallen. What is your sense of this moment in Indian publishing?

That’s a large question. Connected with issue of advances is the condition of the economy. And linked to the issue of readership is the matter of disposable income, what technology has done to us. You can’t hold one reason responsible for what literary fiction was 10 years back, and what it is now. A decade ago, you were not seeing so many translations making it to the shortlists of literary prizes, and winning them. When I began Siyahi, one of my mandates was to encourage translations. It remains a passion, even though there’s no money in it. I am fortunate I am getting a chance to work on the JCB prize because our visions meet. And it also offers a resource that can be used effectively.

Do you think the JCB prize has been able to make literary fiction a part of India’s public discourse?

A huge part of it has been achieved. It is being noticed and talked about, accepted and respected. The very fact that the prize is fostering translations, and making the effort to reach out to more and more publishers across the country, speaks for it. It has given a much needed adrenalin push to the industry.

As a country, we are too large, too diverse, too nuanced. There is a lot of work in the translations going on in different parts of the country in isolated pockets. What the JCB prize intends to achieve is a comprehensive representation of the wealth of Indian storytelling and a recognition of what India loves to read—that’s my dream.

I want to make the prize more inclusive in terms of creating new readers and making sure people are exposed to new forms of writing. I want readership surveys, not only by speaking to editors but also to the design teams, the salesperson who goes to sell the backlist to distributors and retailers. I want to reach out to a bookseller sitting in a small bookshop in Shillong, Itanagar or Guwahati to check which books are selling—in their own languages. I want that kind of intel coming in so that we can become more representative. I want literary merit and popular taste both to be taken into account.

Is the perception of Indian literary fiction in the West changing?

Every year when I am in Frankfurt, I find publishers looking for new voices from India. They want to read books about how a young Indian woman lives, works—those kinds of stories. The kind of reach literary fiction by the big names has is far larger, but publishers are looking for that one unique voice to come up.

Any new plans and surprises?

Let the surprises come when they do! I want to start at the base and build up from there. For me, it’s always the larger vision that matters, never the short-term goal. I want to take the prize to the smaller towns and cities of the country.

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