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JCB Prize for Literature 2020 shortlist features three debuts in the final five

With debut novels, dystopian fiction and a work in translation, the list presents a lively diversity of themes and styles

The shortlisted titles for the JCB Prize of Literature 2020
The shortlisted titles for the JCB Prize of Literature 2020

The JCB Prize for Literature 2020 shortlist, which was announced on Friday, includes three debut novels among the titles to make it to the final five.

Deepa Anappara's internationally acclaimed first novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, which is being translated into more than 20 languages worldwide, leads the pickings, followed by Dharini Bhaskar's These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light and Malayalam writer S. Hareesh's Moustache (translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil), both of which are debut novels as well.

The other two titles in the shortlist are Samit Basu's dystopian fiction Chosen Spirits and Annie Zaidi's Prelude to a Riot, a short and powerful novel about the fragile state of India's social and political life.

"What the shortlisted books have in common is their ability to pull out tendencies from our contemporary socio-political world in India and represent them through intriguing characters, sparkling dialogue, and accomplished narration," said writer, scholar and translator Tejaswini Niranjana, the chair of the jury this year. The other members of the jury include writer Aruni Kashyap, playwright Ramu Ramanathan and arts and culture writer Deepika Sorabjee.

Anappara's novel is set in a slum and narrated from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy. A journalist who obtained a degree in creative writing, she infuses freshness and verve into a theme that could easily become hackneyed in the hands of a less accomplished writer. "The choice of a child narrator, while notoriously hard to pull off convincingly, makes the novel a tour de force," as Mint's review of the novel put it.

Samit Basu, a much loved name among sci-fi and fantasy readers, stands out in the shortlist with his latest novel Chosen Spirits, set in a near-future dystopia. Speaking to Mint earlier this year, he said, "It is fundamentally a 'people like us' social novel and the science fiction aspect of it is muted and kind of kept in the background."

Among the other writers, Hareesh is popular with Malayalam readers for his experimental prose. Moustache, his first novel in translation, has gained much critical acclaim since its release as well. Bhaskar, another debut writer, makes it to the top five with a novel which, as a review in Mint put it, is "shot through with poetic prose".

The final candidate in the shortlist is Prelude to a Riot, a chilling novel about sectarian violence and disharmony in contemporary India, sparked by the toxic spread of disinformation, by award-winning writer and journalist Annie Zaidi.

Each of the five shortlisted authors will receive Rs1 lakh. In case a shortlisted work happens to be in translation, the translator will receive an additional Rs50,000.

The winner of the prize, which will be announced on 7 November, will be awarded Rs25 lakh. If the winning work is a translation, the translator will receive an additional Rs10 lakh. The previous winners of the prize include debut writer Madhuri Vijay for her novel The Far Field (2019) and Malayalam writer Benyamin and his translator Shahnaz Habib for Jasmine Days (2018).

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