Fiction » Contemporary Fiction

The Best New Indian Novels

recommended by Rana Dasgupta

India has a thriving literary community working in 22 official languages plus English, says Rana Dasgupta, the literary director of the JCB Prize: a major award for the best new novel by an Indian author. Here, he talks us through their 2019 shortlist.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Rana Dasgupta

Rana Dasgupta is an award-winning novelist and essayist, and the literary director of the JCB Prize for Literature. He is the author of Solo, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and Tokyo Cancelled, which was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His latest book, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, won the 2017 Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage. He lives in Delhi, India.

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You are the literary director of the JCB Prize—a major literary award, worth 2.5 million rupees, or around $35,000—for the best new novel by an Indian author.

This is our second year, and it’s very exciting. There was a great desire amongst publishers for something like this to exist. Literary fiction can be difficult. If you are selling—I don’t know—a biography of Indira Gandhi, then people pretty much know what they’re getting. But novels are much more difficult, especially when you’re trying to introduce unknown writers. That’s why prizes are essential.

In the absence of a really authoritative, well-publicized prize in India, there wasn’t a lot of attention for some of the truly great books published over the last decade. That’s what we have created.

Is it a good time for contemporary Indian fiction?

Yes. Right now, extremely interesting things are happening in Indian literature. Which are the result, also, of the very original personalities currently working in Indian publishing.

It’s quite different from, say, 20 years ago. The big novels of the nineties were quite genteel, if not in their subject matter, certainly in the background of their authors. Today, English-language publishing is seeking a much greater diversity of voices.

This year, for instance, we have on the shortlist a book by Manoranjan Byapari. It’s about jail, and he writes from his own experience. Manoranjan was an illiterate refugee who fell under the protection of a revolutionary group called the Naxals. Thrown into jail for his association with them, he taught himself to read and write. After his release, he became a voracious reader while working as both a rickshaw puller and a corpse burner in a crematorium. He has now written a dozen novels in his native Bengali. His shortlisted novel, There’s Gunpowder in the Air, which is wonderfully translated by Arunava Sinha, describes the spaces and characters that he has known in his life, many of which have never featured in English-language publishing before.

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Another book on the shortlist, My Father’s Garden, was written by a member of one of India’s tribal communities. His novel follows a gay male character from the same community in Jharkhand: it is a moving exploration of power and sexuality in small-town India. So we’re hearing very different voices; we’re hearing about very different spaces and themes, and I think that’s very exciting.

Fantastic. Before we get to the shortlisted books, could you tell me a bit about the JCB Prize’s criteria?

The idea for the prize came from Lord Bamford, the chairman of JCB. He wanted to create a prize like the Booker Prize in India. It was very important to him from the beginning that it should be open to works written in languages other than English, because most of the company’s Indian employees and partners are not English speakers. So that has become an essential part of the DNA of the prize: not only are we open to translations into English, but we almost force publishers to translate novels: they have a quota of four entries, and two of those are reserved for translations. If they don’t have any works in translation, they forfeit half of their quota. So we try to act as a catalyst. We don’t just accept what is published; we also try to galvanise publishing to do new and different sort of work.

The second thing is that the prize is only open to Indian citizens. The thinking here is that we really wanted to create a prize that offers a detailed literary portrait of contemporary India, one that truly reflects the depth and range of Indian writing today. We didn’t want it to be taken over by writers from Britain, Australia, Canada and the US, who are anyway eligible for many other similar prizes. Restricting it to Indian citizens makes things much simpler: Indian publishers, in choosing their entries, are under no pressure to enter books by the very big global literary figures. I think this gives a much more democratic feel to the prize.

Absolutely. As you say, shortlists are so important in determining which writers gets discovered: who sells novels and whose novels gets read. So it would be a shame if shortlists were to be dominated by the same names the world over.

Yes, a central aim of the prize is to give more recognition to writers in India, and to help them make a living from what they do. Writers in other countries already have various forms of support; all but a few Indian writers of literary fiction are working around full-time jobs.

First of all, the JCB Prize for Literature is itself worth quite a lot of money. The prize itself is 2.5 million rupees (around US $35,000). And we give an additional one million rupees (around $14,000) to the translator of the winning work if it happens to be a translation. There’s prize money for the shortlisted writers, too.

Even more significant, however, is that we put a lot of effort into publicising these books. We want to make sure the books on our shortlist are as widely known and read as possible.

Then let’s get to the books. Let’s start with Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali.

This is a debut novel—in fact, we had quite a lot of debut novels on the list this year, which is exciting. Roshan is a young writer. He’s in his early thirties, somebody who has been dreaming of doing this for a long time, but it’s taken him many years to get around to this point.

The novel is set in Bangalore, which is where Roshan is from, and it’s about the kinds of things that many young, middle-class people in Indian cities contend with: a slightly orphaned feeling, a feeling that they’re not well-understood by their parents or others of the previous generation, and who are looking for some kind of new way to think about the meaning of life.

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The titular Ib is a young man with dysfunctional parents. His father is mentally ill; his mother doesn’t really have a lot of influence over things. So he retreats more and more into his head, and his life takes some strange routes to exploration, eventually following a kind of hermit up into the Himalayas. What’s compelling about this book, I think, is his portrait of contemporary urban Indian youth.

As you know, India is a young country. It’s dominated by its youth, and Bangalore is probably the most youth-dominated city of all. It’s the city of the tech industry, where a lot of people roll up from other places to work in those kinds of jobs, and so it has a lot of people like Roshan, middle-class young people looking to make a life in the city, and often being disappointed by the promises of contemporary India.

The judging panel described Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction as ‘an experiment with language.’ Could you expand on that?

Well, Roshan is very interested in the big experiments in language that are out there. He workshopped the book by reading texts like Ulysses, and his conception of the novel changed each time he discovered a writer who offered him a new conception of language. I was at dinner with him the other night, and he was telling me about his love for Saul Bellow and we were bonding over the fact that reading The Adventures of Augie March was a definitive moment in both of our reading lives. That book helped him to imagine how he might find a language for what he was doing, and it has something to do with his very jagged, strange, expressive sentences.

That sounds very impressive. Let’s move on to the next title on the shortlist for the best new Indian novel: My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Tell me about it.

I really love this book. It’s written in three parts which together speak to the emotional, chronological, and sexual maturation of a gay man from the community that Sowvendra himself is from—a tribal community called the Santhals from the state of Jharkhand.

An important fact about Sowvendra is that his previous book was banned. In fact, two of the writers on our shortlist have previously had books banned. In a country as multi-religious and multi-ethnic as India, there are constant sensitivities about how different groups are represented, and the pretext for banning books is usually that they might otherwise inflame sectarian sensibilities.

Hansda’s banned book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, was a book of short stories about his own community, which included one about a poor woman who was forced to sell herself into prostitution in return for bread. He’s a very fine writer and the book did well. But members of the Santhal community started protesting on the streets against their women being represented as “whores”, in this pornographic way. It became very dramatic. Effigies of Sowvendra were burned in the streets. The book was banned by the government. He was removed from his employment as a medical officer in a government hospital. It was terrifying.

“Effigies of Sowvendra were burned in the streets. The book was banned by the government. It was terrifying”

The book that he’s just written comes out of that context. He wrote it very fast, and I think it was, for him, a very angry gesture, a gesture of defiance towards everyone who had tried to suppress his previous book. (The ban was eventually removed, and he was reinstated in his position.)

This book is intensely personal. It is divided into three acts: ‘Lover,’ ‘Friend’ and ‘Father.’ He refuses to comment on precisely how autobiographical it is, but the first section, which contains very explicit sex scenes, describes an extremely moving love story between two men. The protagonist is eventually rejected by his lover, however, and he’s devastated. He realises that this kind of love is very difficult to sustain in this social context, and he progressively abandons his own desires.

There is a resolution of sorts at the end, but it’s a sad one. He resolves much of his conflict with his father and comes home. Father and son find peace working together in a garden. It is a kind of refuge.

Coming to the next title on the shortlist, I note that the judges have made a very interesting decision: they have shortlisted two books released within the same year, by the same author, as a single entry. This is Trial by Silence and Lonely Harvest, both translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. Can you talk us through this decision?

Yes, it’s a very unusual literary moment. Perumal Murugan published a novel recently called One Part Woman.

That was another very controversial book; it was burned in the streets, the author fled his home town in Tamil Nadu. There were calls for it to be banned too . . .

Yes. It was a fantastic novel, and did very well despite that. But it ended with a couple facing a dilemma. He then made a very unusual decision as a novelist to write two sequels to his own novel: twin novels, both of which start from this situation and take it in two very different directions.

I should make clear that I’m not on the prize jury. I don’t choose the books for the shortlist, but I do listen in on the discussion. It was fascinating because the jury, which this year includes three novelists, simply couldn’t believe it was possible to write two equally convincing books about the same situation. Most of them didn’t even want to read both of them because they felt there would be too much duplication. But in fact, these two novels are very, very different, and they’re both extraordinary. So eventually, when everyone on the jury had read both books, they all agreed unanimously that it was impossible to choose between them. They really had to stand together as a single entry.

Perumal was on last year’s shortlist, which shows just how fast and prolific a writer he is. He’s produced three novels in the past two years. They’re very powerful. He has an incredible voice, deeply inspired by the life he sees in rural Tamil Nadu. The translations from Tamil are also very beautiful.

Is there a tradition of the pastoral, or other writing about rural life in Indian fiction?

There is, if you go back quite a long way. For Gandhi, for instance, the village was the essence of India. The cities were a Westernized distortion where people came into contact with capitalism, technology and so on. It was in the villages where we had ‘the real India.’ That tradition is very apparent in the modernist Indian novel.

The Independence generation of writers was quite preoccupied by rural dramas. It was a turbulent time in the countryside, and Indian peasants were central for writers such as Mulk Raj Anand: the sufferings of harvests and famines, the violence of caste, the oppression of landowners. In English-language writing, certainly, these themes had become much less prominent by the 1980s, and indeed the novel had become a distinctively urban form. If we think of Salman Rushdie’s great writing about Mumbai, for instance, that set the tone.

“Increasingly we’re seeing novels where human dramas are a footnote to greater, inhuman ones”

But I think the countryside is coming back for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s always been more present in languages other than English, and now we’re seeing more translations, so the literature broadens accordingly.

The second is that ecological themes are becoming very prominent in contemporary Indian literature, just as themes of gender and gender violence are. The landscape is making a return through a new, ecological lens. Ecological devastation, drought—all these sorts of themes are very present. In Perumal Murugan’s novels—especially Poonachi, the novel shortlisted last year, in which the protagonist is a goat and water scarcity is a central dramatic issue. But increasingly, we’re also seeing novels where forests, oceans, coastlines, lakes, rivers, and mountains become principal characters, where human dramas are a footnote to greater, inhuman ones. That was the case with another novel from last year’s shortlist, Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup.

Let’s talk about Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field.

This is a wonderful debut. It’s a big novel: an old-fashioned, multigenerational novel, which feels neither like a debut nor a book written by somebody so young. This is the story of a young woman from Bangalore whose mother has recently died, who goes to Kashmir (where her mother spent a lot of time) to find out more about some of the hidden aspects of her life. Through that, the author tells a huge story about generations, class, religion—and about Kashmir itself, which as you probably know has a very contested history.

Coincidentally, just around the time the novel came out, Kashmir, which had something of a semi-autonomous status within the Indian union, was annexed or reclaimed (depending on your political perspective) by the central government. Kashmir has been plunged into a media and information blackout ever since, and it’s very difficult to know what is going on there. So it’s really topical, this novel.

“India’s relationship to Kashmir has always been strangely eroticized”

India’s relationship to Kashmir has always been strangely eroticized. Kashmir is an exquisite place, a Himalayan state with lakes, cool climates and extraordinary landscapes. According to a prevalent Indian ideal of beauty, the fair-skinned people of Kashmir are considered particularly attractive. In this novel, the young woman investigating her mother’s past uncovers an erotic history between her mother and a Kashmiri man. And through this relationship, subtly and knowingly, the author unpacks the very troubled political, military and sexual relationship between India and Kashmir—a region which is of course also divided with Pakistan.

Thank you. That brings us to the final Indian novel on the list: There’s Gunpowder in the Air, by Manoranjan Byapari. You touched on the author’s remarkable personal story earlier; perhaps now you might tell us about the book itself.

This is another incredibly powerful novel. It’s written with almost no decoration: it’s a fast and extremely economic novel about a man and his attempt to escape from jail. It’s set in the time when Manoranjan himself was in jail in 1970s Kolkata.

At that time, West Bengal—of which Kolkata is the capital—was gripped by revolutionary uprisings led by a movement of students, farmers and industrial workers known as the Naxals. In the early 1970s, there was a large-scale crackdown against the Naxals by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Hundreds were killed in military operations, and thousands jailed.

And Manoranjan was caught up in this.

Yes. He was poor and illiterate, and he joined the Naxals because they had been nice to him. They had saved his life. And he ended up in jail.

This book describes a character rather like himself who ends up in jail in Calcutta in the 1970s. It’s a story full of suspense: it’s about the planning and execution of a jail-break. But along the way, it describes the entire universe of the jail: not only the prisoners, but also the people who are guarding them—who are also, of course, very low down in the social hierarchy, and in many ways hardly more privileged than the prisoners themselves.

This is a powerful, angry, yet beautiful novel. It’s about terrifying desperation, but also relationships and hope.

I’ve also seen it described as “darkly comic.” Would you agree with that?

Yes. He’s a very, very funny individual, and the novel is full of hilarious insights. It’s very sardonic.

Manoranjan declares that he writes out of anger. He declares that his books should be considered as weapons against the great inequality and injustice of Indian society. There is a kind of force to them—a smoldering, angry force. But he is himself hilarious.

He takes for granted that the way that Indian society is organized is so unjust that it’s just something we can only ultimately laugh about. He talks about nearly everything, nearly every institution, as self-evidently illegitimate. It’s this perspective which makes his work so original. Some readers might find his assumption that the institutions of commerce or the law deserve so little respect surprising or shocking. But when you read the experiences of the characters in his novels, it seems like the only just conclusion.

That description makes me think of that knowing helplessness of Catch-22. But perhaps this book, translated into English from the original Bengali, leads me to a closing question: do you feel like there is a cohesive literary community in India? Given the multitude of languages that are spoken and written in, in India, does translation have an important role to play in building one?

It’s easier to think of India as like Europe, rather than as like an individual European country. When we think of ‘Indian literature,’ it has the range and scale of ‘European literature.’

Yes, I see. It would be very difficult for any one reader to get a feel for the whole field. I did a writing residency in Switzerland earlier this year, and it was humbling to realise how limited my cultural frame of reference was—is.

And if we are to make ‘Indian literature’ a reality, translation is fundamental. Without translation, there is no such thing as Indian literature, because no reader could ever approach it or see it.

The old socialist government, like many similar socialist governments, treated literature as a very high calling, and put a lot of effort into translation. So you had many truly national literary stars. Writers like Premchand (who wrote in Hindi), Mahasweta Devi (who wrote in Bengali), or Qurratulain Hyder (who wrote in Urdu) were well known across the country.

Translation has not done so well in recent decades. But it’s making a come-back now because the English-language publishers are fully aware that English is not necessarily the most exciting literary language in India today. If they want to reflect the range and quality of contemporary Indian writing, they really have to go into some of the other literatures.

With the prize, we’re trying to help this revival of translation. We are committed to the idea of ‘Indian literature,’ and that means multilingual literature: literature written in 22 official languages, plus English. So translation is key. Encouraging more translations of better quality is very important, and next year we’re launching a whole new translation initiative, which will focus on improving the status of translation as a career.

Interview by Cal Flyn

October 10, 2019

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Rana Dasgupta

Rana Dasgupta is an award-winning novelist and essayist, and the literary director of the JCB Prize for Literature. He is the author of Solo, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and Tokyo Cancelled, which was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His latest book, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, won the 2017 Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage. He lives in Delhi, India.