Fresh voices in the subcontinent that dare to be audacious, unrestricted and courageous are redefining how stories are told, with able recognition from the new crop of literature prizes
By Suvanshkriti Singh
Since it was first awarded in 1901, there have been 116 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Two have been of Indian origin or descent. The Booker Prize for Fiction — that other giant in the international literary awards space — has a marginally better record in terms of representation, having recognised three Indian authors in its 60 years of existence. There are other examples of coveted awards for fiction writing being limited, largely, to the Anglophone West: there’s the Pulitzer and the National Book Award in USA, the Nibbies in Britain, and the Costa Book Awards in the UK and Ireland. Seen in this context of the historical dearth of awards that recognise subcontinental fiction writing in English, the proliferation, in the last decade or two, of literary prizes in India is easily understandable as demand and supply coming to a long overdue balance.
While the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national body of letters, has been awarding the best work in English since 1960, it doesn’t have separate categories for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; and, although a work of fiction has won the award on no less than 25 occasions, the shortlisting process significantly limits space to specifically celebrate fiction writing. The new crop of literary prizes — the Hindu Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (both established in 2010), the Crossword Book Awards, which has aimed since its inception in 1998 to be India’s answer to the Booker, and the JCB Prize for Literature that started last year and announced its winner a fortnight ago — have contributed to spurring greater conversation among Indian readers about literary fiction by the likes of Janice Pariat, Jerry Pinto, Neel Mukherjee, Meena Kandasamy and Shubhangi Swarup.
With new awards, especially ones carrying as alluring a prize amount as the JCB and DSC prizes do—the former confers its winner with `2,500,000, and the latter with $25,000, making them the two richest literary awards in south Asia — come new trends, both powerful and empowering. For one, it has led to a spate of debut authors vigorously making their presence felt. Of the 90 entries that the 2019 edition of the DSC prize received, 37 — that’s 41% — were penned by first-time authors; the longlist and shortlist improved on this percentage, with half of both comprising titles by debutant(e)s. This is especially true of female writers publishing their first works: 46% of the debut authors nominated for the DSC prize were women. That Madhuri Vijay won the JCB prize this year, and made it to the DSC prize’s shortlist for her first novel The Far Field, speaks volumes about the impetus these awards are giving to literary fiction writing in, from, and — most significantly — about the subcontinent.
Yet, the development is, if you think about it, unsurprising. Writers are, foremost, readers, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the experience of authors writing their first novels. Devi S Laskar, an Indian-American author whose The Atlas of Reds and Blues has received much critical acclaim, vocalises how personal preferences as a reader, shaped by one’s political experiences, mediate the politics of one’s writing. “As a reader, I’m delighted when I see literature that reflects my personal life experiences or those of someone in my diverse community. As a writer, I try to communicate with the people who are in the same marginalised spaces as I am,” she says. Nor is Laskar alone in using the space opening up to new authors to essay the universal reverberations of individual struggles. Both Vijay’s debut, whose plot hinges crucially on ‘searching’, and Roshan Ali’s Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction — the title, a 2019 JCB prize shortlist, is self-explanatory — explore fiction’s timeless preoccupation with love, loss, identity, and longing through the prism of modern politics and its discontents.
Making literature popular
For another, the proliferation in literary prizes, and the increased monetary incentives associated with them, has mainstreamed literary fiction in a way previously unimaginable. That’s not to say that distinctions between commercial fiction (think Chetan Bhagat, Amish and Durjoy Datta) and the literary kind have disappeared.
The Crossword award, for instance, has always had a separate category for popular fiction, and added in its 2017 edition a ‘popular’ award for non-fiction and children’s literature to supplement the jury-judged one. Nor do literary circles harbour delusions about the two categories merging. Anjum Hasan, a jury member of the JCB prize’s 2019 edition, finds that “the difference between literary and popular writing already exists in the way publishers and publicists package writers”, which, in turn, “encourages writers to try and fit one or another category”. Harish Trivedi, jury chair for the DSC prize 2019, is largely in agreement: “I don’t think Chetan and Amish are hankering for any jury-judged awards, nor are Amitava (Ghosh) or Arundhati (Roy) seriously aiming at selling millions of copies.” And, while he does not deny that a Dickens, or a Premchand could bridge the gulf between the literary and the popular, he also believes that readership for the two types of writing rarely overlaps.
That, however, might be changing. Case in point, the popularisation of literary fiction, driven by these awards, gave us Sacred Games, and Leila. The consumption of visual content has always been outsized compared to that of the printed word, and this expansion of the space and audiences that engage with intensely contemporary politics is a heartening development. The lines may never blur — it is just as well, too, since the distinction between the literary and commercial categories may itself be argued to have functional value — but the iron curtain is certainly falling.
The risk takers
A related third impact of the new voices writing about the region has been the globalisation of subcontinental writing in English. The 2019 DSC prize saw entries on south Asian themes, and set in the region, written by persons with no ethnic or genealogical connection to it; Tova Reich’s Mother India, which made it till the longlist, is a good example. In large part, this is a function of an award’s eligibility criteria — the DSC prize is open to writers of all nationalities, and works published in any country, as opposed to a JCB or a Crossword, to which only Indian authors and publishers are eligible. This catapulting of the region into literary prominence, in addition to the global economic and political significance it already enjoyed, exposes it to scrutiny both from the outside and the inside — the DSC prize’s shortlist consists of four authors of Indian origin, and one each of Pakistani and Afghani origin. And, in the process, it highlights the political significance of not only the literature with which these awards engage, but of the fallout of this engagement itself.
The most immediately noticeable effect of a growing band of new voices writing from diverse backgrounds for equally diverse audiences — apart from their shaping of reading/consumption behaviours — has been the development of a new literary sensibility more experimental, audacious, and courageous than before. In their role as launching pads, literary prizes possess great and terrible power to decide what kind of writing and writers must be encouraged, what politics and which identity to bolster — indeed, to mould the very notion of what constitutes the ‘literary’. This comes with proportionate responsibility. To have a single criterion for what constitutes literature is patently counterproductive, and to figure the politics of representation into the awarding of prizes patronising, at best.
For jurors, this means rooting their arguments for liking or disliking a particular entry on qualities that are, more often than not, ineffable. Hasan, for example, believes that fictions often err in overestimating the importance of plots, and that the best novels, given their complicated relationship with the world in which they are set, evade descriptions about their subject matter. For newer authors, this idea holds much sway. To Vijay, it is an unquantifiable “sense of wildness and risk in the writing, an urgency and vulnerability that cannot be faked” that makes a story worth reading. Voice, style, and interiority are fast gaining ground over complicated or dense plots. The stories we tell, the consensus seems to be, have always been more or less the same — neither people nor politics has transformed so fundamentally as to warrant an outsized mutation in the themes that are written about — it is in the way that they are told that change is afoot.
And, given the caveat that an excessive focus on tying literature to nationalistic or regionalistic identities is fraught with oversignification, it is aliveness to this evolution that sets subcontinental writing, both local and cosmopolitan, apart. Of course, as Rifat Munim, member of the 2019 DSC prize’s jury panel, puts it, no writer starts writing with “a premeditated stance that they will capture the idea of south Asia, or the region imagined under that rubric”. However, the diversity — or, the fragmentation, if you will — of cultures, identities, and experiences that mark the history and the present of the subcontinent inevitably demand that “new pathways to storytelling are carved to accommodate multiple voices”. In terms of style and technique, this translates to “non-linearity and fragmented stories to magic realist or classically conceived realist narratives”, and everything in between.
For the Indian writer — and I use the term here in all its nebulous, cosmopolitanised meaning — writing in Engish, experimentation with narrative styles has also meant the confidence to write a self that has historically been at the margins as the epicentre, to bring the centre toward oneself. The JCB prize’s jury chair, Pradip Kishen, reminisces a time in Indo-Anglian fiction when writers had to “explain” what they were writing about “with painful exposition, like a sociological primer, so that foreign readers could understand what they were talking about and navigate their way into an Indian setting”. No more. The subcontinental writer is free to be sensitive to the nuances of their regional, social, and political identity, and to assume that readers, globally, “ought to take trouble to stride into their context”. As ‘other’ Englishes find greater space, writers can increasingly use the same hyphenated identities — Indian-American, Bengali-British, etc — that were once used to invisibilise those on the margins as bridges of communication with those presumed to be far removed, geographically or experientially, from them.
Translators in the spotlight
A last major trend that literary prizes have prompted is to push translations from the isolated ivory tower of academia into wider public view. Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air, for instance, originally written in Bengali, found space on the shortlist of both the JCB and DSC prizes. Perumal Murugan’s A Lonely Harvest made it to the JCB prize’s shortlist, and the DSC prize’s longlist. The success, however, is slow. Most prizes reward the translator less handsomely than the author — the DSC prize is an exception to this. And, the disincentivising monetary structure is further complicated by the fact that translating is hard work; according to Kishen, one needs to be “absolutely bilingual and bicultural” to do the task justice. Yet, as per Arunava Sinha, who translated Byapari’s novel to English, the outlook is not all bleak: “Awards like DSC, JCB, and the Hindu Literary prize reward translators much more highly than even an author would be for original writing in a regional language by a prize that is specific to that language.” This, perhaps, may be read as a case of the absolute colonisation of the mind. After all, the existence of English translations of regional writing also means that readership of original works in that language becomes significantly thinner. But, Sinha believes that the gains from critical recognition, that of a wider audience, the opportunity to inhabit a world outside their immediate geography, and the addition of new dimensions to the writing, are worth the costs — at the very least, it is a beginning. And, the deal is in India than in many other places. Greater effort, of course, needs to be made by patrons of translations, and the literary community at large. Sinha has several suggestions: something along the lines of the ‘Name the Translator’ movement in the West, and the Murthy Library in the US; translating literature in local languages to regional languages other than English; building a community of writers of local languages. Kishen, too, shares the optimism.
Despite the hurdles, literary awards seem to be enjoying considerable success. Yet, the success is, perhaps of necessity, paradoxical. If the purpose of such awards is to incline the publishing industry to hunt for and encourage new voices from relatively unexplored or under-represented geographies, success would mean creating a self-sustaining ecosystem where this is standard practice; they provide an indispensable initial push, but awards are not — cannot — be the heart of the literary world. This is acknowledged even by those who benefit from them. Vijay, for instance, might not go as far as Sartre and reject the Nobel on principle, but she does believe that while critical success is gratifying and certainly beats being ignored or reviled, it is no indication of whether what one has produced is any good. The same, she adds, is true of commercial success. And, that, is the greatest confirmation of the dauntless spirit of the new subcontinental writer — they know that they die without knowing if what they wrote was any good, they know they can never be sure, and they know that if they had to be sure, they might as well not write.