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A brave new world of reading

  • The recently released Man Booker shortlist and the JCB Prize longlist draw attention to writers celebrated and overlooked
  • A cursory glance at the lists reveals an unmissable truth: We are living in a brave new world of reading

Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari’s ‘There’s Gunpowder In The Air’ (translated by Arunava Sinha) has made it to the JCB Prize longlist.
Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari’s ‘There’s Gunpowder In The Air’ (translated by Arunava Sinha) has made it to the JCB Prize longlist. (Photo: Mint)

The literary season kicked off well and truly this week with two major prizes moving a step closer to identifying the year’s best books. On 3 September, the Man Booker Prize announced its shortlist, featuring a mixed bag of canonical names and curiosities. On its heels came the second edition of the JCB Prize for Literature, India’s richest prize for literary fiction writers in English and in translation, which unveiled its (rather unusual) longlist.

Whatever the merit of the books chosen, a cursory glance at the lists reveals an unmissable truth: We are living in a brave new world of reading, where, in spite of all the lament about publishers struggling to attract readers to literary fiction, the genre is far from dead. On the contrary, it is one of the few that remains gallantly in step with the changing realities of the world, acting as a mirror on which the vanishing present, with its turmoil and trepidations, is reflected.

The Booker shortlist provides a luminous illustration of this axiom. It’s true that the presence of not one but two celebrity writers—Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie—in it has left many eyes rolling. Both have won the prize earlier. Indeed, Rushdie has been something of a fixture in it, having won the Booker of Bookers to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the prize in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008 to mark its 40 years, both times for his 1981 Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children. Atwood has made it to the shortlist six times and won the prize once in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. Even so, can there ever be too much of a good thing when it comes to writing?

Rushdie’s Quichotte, a modern-day adaptation of Don Quixote set in Donald Trump’s America, is a story for our times. As is Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, another novel that takes us into the heart of the dystopia that is contemporary America. The other four books in the shortlist make bold formal and stylistic statements. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, for instance, runs for over 1,000 pages, with only about eight sentences in it. Spoken by a woman in Ohio who is hemmed in by her responsibilities as a housewife, the book is a feat that may not be bedtime reading. But then, how many of us would have picked it up in the age of Twitter had the judges not put it in the shortlist?

Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is also an odd nut: the time referring to the last moments of the life of a sex worker who is fatally assaulted in Istanbul. And then there is Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra Of Minorities, his second novel and second Booker shortlisting. Now how many writers can claim that distinction?

Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ is in the 2019 Man Booker shortlist.
Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ is in the 2019 Man Booker shortlist. (Photo: Getty Image)

Finally, there’s Girl, Woman And Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which follows the lives of a dozen characters, mostly black women in Britain, through the years, described by its publisher as “a gloriously new kind of history".

History, as a chronicle of the immediate and distant past, is also an abiding theme in many of the books on the JCB longlist. With four debut novels and two translations, it also brings attention to some of the names that may have slipped from the news cycle. To pick a few: Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari’s novel of the Naxal years in Bengal, There’s Gunpowder In The Air (translated by Arunava Sinha), is a work of searing honesty. Bearing witness to a period of bloody upheaval, it speaks to 21st century India, where the iron hand of authority continues to clamp on personal and political freedom.

Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth is drawn in gentler lines. Set in Mumbai, among the urban middle class, it is a coming-of-age story that may resonate with urban readers of the 1990s generation. Raj Kamal Jha’s The City And The Sea is anchored in the Nirbhaya tragedy of 2012 and, in the garb of fiction, raises questions about masculinity and the persistence of violence against women in India’s public domain.

The fact that the JCB Prize is open only to Indian citizens is probably a double bind. On the one hand, as the chair of the 2019 jury, Pradip Krishen, said in a press release, the prize does present to us the “richly bewildering category" that is “Indian fiction today". On the other hand, the limitation of nationality may leave the jury with slim pickings. Original fiction in English isn’t the most preferred genre for publishers and the ones that get published are very often of uneven quality. Translations don’t fare much better. As the jury itself noted, several novels had to be left out of the longlist due to poor translations.

The winner of the inaugural JCB Prize last year was a novel in translation, though—Malayalam writer Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (translated by Shahnaz Habib). And translations of two sterling novels—one in Bengali, the other in Tamil (actually, a set of two sequels by Perumal Murugan to his novel, One-Part Woman)—appear in the longlist this year. Hopefully, apart from the boost it offers to fiction writers, the JCB Prize will help encourage a robust culture of translation as well. But, most of all, may it turn many more of us into adventurous readers of novels.

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