Jaipur, October 21, 2023: In its sixth year, the JCB Prize for Literature announced its 2023 Shortlist at the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur. The intimate event, prior to the Award Ceremony in November, was attended by authors, translators, and the community of book lovers in the city. Jury members Srinath Perur, Somak Ghoshal and Kavery Nambisan announced the Shortlist of five books including three translations from Bengali, Hindi and Tamil.
The JCB Prize for Literature is a Rs 25-lakh award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. Each year, the Literary Director appoints a jury of prominent individuals from various areas of Indian social and intellectual life. Every member of the jury reads every novel entered for the Prize and is alone responsible for selecting the Longlist (of ten), the Shortlist (of five), and the winner.
The announcement was followed by actor Divya Seth Shah, and poet and researcher, Wamiq Saifi reading from the shortlisted books. The dramatized readings were interspersed with a musical performance by Dayam Ali on sarangi and Pt Harihar Sharan Bhatt on sitar, giving the audience a taste of a truly diverse Shortlist spanning across geographies and time.
The 2023 shortlist includes:
The Secret of More by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm (Aleph Book Company, 2022)
The Nemesis by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by V. Ramaswamy (Westland Books, 2023)
Fire Bird by Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan (Penguin Random House India, 2023)
Mansur by Vikramajit Ram (Pan Macmillan India, 2022)
I Named my Sister Silence by Manoj Rupda, translated from the Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Westland Books, 2023)
Commenting on the shortlist, the chair of the 2023 jury, Srinath Perur said, “In our shortlist meeting we reluctantly set out to eliminate five books from the longlist of ten. It turned out that every book on the longlist was a serious shortlist candidate for at least one jury member. But in the end there were exactly five books that all five of us wanted on the shortlist. None of the books was easy to let go of, and those that made the cut did so by the jury’s unanimous decision.”
As the winner announcement approaches, Mita Kapur, Literary Director, stated, The 2023 Shortlist of five books for the JCB Prize for Literature beautifully captures the kaleidoscope of India’s literary landscape. Each tale is a captivating dance of words—a testament to our rich literary pulse. The contribution of our publishers, bookstores, and the online community in amplifying these voices has been invaluable. As you delve into these books, you’ll discover reflections of our shared human journey, and find myriad emotions and tales that resonate.”
The winner, set to be announced on 18 November, will be granted a cash prize of Rs 25 lakh. If the winning entry is a translation, the translator will be presented with an additional cash prize of Rs 10 lakh. Moreover, each of the five authors on the shortlist are awarded Rs 1 lakh, and if the shortlisted piece is a translation, the translator receives Rs 50,000.
Shortlisted books: Jury comments, synopses and author and translator bios:
The Secret of More by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm (Aleph Book Company)
The Jury says
A family saga that offers a social history of Bombay and its merchants rarely described in such imaginative yet accurate detail. The Mulji Jetha textile market at the turn of the century, the intrepid journey of the protagonist into producing the first films before the advent of sound, the playing of the Oriental organ in the theatre, and the unrealized relationship between the protagonist and his movie star – all stay with us like a heady fragrance of jasmine for a long time after the turning of the last page, leaving you with the secret of more.
Into the beating heart of Bombay, a city that spins cotton into gold, a young man, Tatya, arrives to make a living. Ambitious and hard-working, he begins to make a name for himself in the city’s famed textile market. Meanwhile, his new bride, Radha, navigates the joys and the challenges of raising a family in a city that is a curious and often bewildering mix of the traditional and the rapidly modernizing.
Having tasted success in the world of textiles, Tatya chances upon an opportunity in an emerging industry-motion pictures- and is swept up in it despite his initial hesitation about this strange world of make-believe. His success seems unstoppable-the silent films he produces draw in the crowds and his new theatre is a marvel, but his friendship with and attraction to an actress, Kamal, threatens to shake his world and causes him to question his integrity.
Set against the backdrop of bustling colonial Bombay, The Secret of More is a journey of relentless ambition, steadfast love, and grim betrayal, as Tatya strives to unlock the secret of more-of having more and being more. In a story that travels from the clatter of textile mills to the glamour of the silent film industry, from the crowded chawls of Girgaon to the luxury of sea-facing mansions, one man and his family learn that in the city of Bombay you can fly-but if you fall, it is a long way down.
Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is a writer from Mumbai. She is the author of the short story collection – These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape, and co-author of The Poop Book! -an environmental education book for children. Tejaswini has worked as a journalist and environmental researcher and has written for Screen, Hindustan Times, the Times of India, and The Asian Age.
The Nemesis by Manoranjan Byapari, translated by V Ramaswamy (Westland Books)
The Jury says
Nemesis is a powerfully told story of young Jibon who migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to land up in a refugee camp in Calcutta along with hundreds of his compatriots. Unrelenting poverty, the oppressive caste system and an insensitive society shower humiliations on young Jibon. He leaves home to join the Naxal movement, suffers more indignities but ploughs on, despite them. It is a personal, gut-wrenching story of courage and resilience in the face of grim adversity and it ends on a note of hope.
The second part of this extraordinary trilogy takes us into the late 1960s and early 1970s when the rumblings of liberation grew louder in East Pakistan and refugees came pouring into India, seeking asylum in the camps of West Bengal. The Naxalite movement too was gathering momentum; the Communist Party split into CPI (M) and CPI (ML), and a bitter power tussle ensued between them and the ruling Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi. Amidst this bloody battle, we find a twenty-something Jibon in Calcutta, driven to rage by hunger, inequity and a naïve, contagious nationalistic fervour. This burning torch of a novel is a compelling portrait of a youth negotiating the streets of Calcutta, looking to seize a life that is constantly denied to him.
Manoranjan Byapari writes in Bengali. Some of his important works include Chhera Chhera Jibon, Ittibrite Chandal Jibon and the Chandal Jibon trilogy. He taught himself to read and write at the age of twenty-four when he was in prison. He has worked as a rickshaw-puller, a sweeper and a porter. Until 2018, he was working as a cook at the Hellen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind in West Bengal. In 2018, the English translation of his memoir, Ittibrite Chandal Jibon (Interrogating My Chandal Life), received the Hindu Prize for non-fiction. In 2019, he was awarded the Gateway Lit Fest Writer of the Year Prize. Also, the English translation of his novel Batashe Baruder Gandha (There’s Gunpowder in the Air) was shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2019, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019, the Crossword Prize 2019 and the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Prize 2020. The English translation of his novel Chhera Chhera Jibon (Imaan) was shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2022. He also received the Shakti Bhatt Prize this year for his body of work. In 2021, Byapari became a member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly.
V. Ramaswamy is a literary translator of voices from the margins. His previous translations include The Golden Gandhi Statue from America: Early Stories, Wild Animals Prohibited: Stories, Anti-stories and This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels (shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award, 2019), all by the anti-establishment Bengali writer, Subimal Misra. He was awarded the inaugural Literature Across Frontiers-Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship at Aberystwyth University to translate the Chandal Jibon novels.
Fire Bird by Perumal Murugan, translated by Janani Krishnan (Penguin Random House India)
The Jury Says
For at least a few thousand years now, humans have longed for a patch of the earth to call home, a place in which to lay down roots. The protagonist of Fire Bird, Muthu, comes from a farming family. An unfair division of land and worsening relations at home make him set out in a bullock-cart with an older, knowledgeable servant to look for land that he can purchase and call his own. Perumal Murugan tells the story of this search in astonishingly fine-grained detail: he knows every plant and tree, bird and animal, the soil and seasons. And how they shape the culture and proclivities of people who have settled there. Janani Kannan’s translation brings the rhythms of the Tamil into English with suppleness and sensitivity. Fire Bird takes an age-old, universal story and makes it profoundly local. It is a deceptively simple book that asks probing questions about some of our deepest impulses.
Fire Bird is a masterfully crafted tale of one man’s search for the elusive concept of permanence.
Muthu has his world turned upside down when his father divides the family land, leaving him with practically nothing and causing irreparable damage to his family’s bonds. Through the unscrupulous actions of his once-revered eldest brother, Muthu is forced to leave his once-perfect world behind and seek out a new life for himself, his wife and his children.
In this transcendental novel, Perumal Murugan draws from his own life experiences of displacement and movement and explores the fragility of our fundamental attraction to permanence and our ultimately futile efforts to attain it. Translated from the nearly untranslatable Aalandapatchi, which alludes to a mystical bird in Tamil, the titular fire bird perfectly encapsulates the illusory and migratory nature of this pursuit. Fire Bird is a thought-provoking and beautifully written exploration of the human desire for stability in an ever-changing world.
Perumal Murugan is an Indian author, scholar, and literary chronicler who writes in Tamil. He has written twelve novels, six collections of short stories, six anthologies of poetry, and many non-fiction books. Ten of his novels have been translated into English: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in 2005, Current Show, One Part Woman, A Lonely Harvest, Trail by Silence, Poonachi or the Story of a Goat, Resolve, Estuary, Rising Heat, and Pyre. He was a professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Salem Attur and Namakkal.
Janani Kannan is a US-based architect, translator, singer and marathon runner. She enjoys translating Tamil novels and short stories and most recently translated Rising Heat, Perumal Murugan’s very first novel. Her interests also include collecting and chronicling anecdotes, recipes and architectural nuggets from Tamil culture.
Mansur by Vikramajit Ram (Pan Macmillan India)
The Jury says
Vikramajit Ram’s slender, yet profound, novel takes us inside the 17th-century Mughal atelier, where the eponymous master artist Mansur is finishing an exquisite, illuminated book, just in time for it to reach the royal summer retreat in Kashmir. But its long journey North is riddled with intrigues brewing in the women’s quarters, fueled by the twisted ambitions of Mansur’s rivals. Like a beautiful miniature painting, Ram’s novel forces us to pay close attention to the details, especially to the wispy characters lurking in the fringes. Mansur is a triumph of minimalist storytelling, every sentence shining with a gem-like clarity.
Saturday, the 27th of February, 1627. The master artist Mansur, who works under the patronage of Mughal emperor Jahangir, must finish his painting of a dodo and prepare for an imminent journey to Kashmir when he is interrupted by a younger colleague, Bichitr. An innocuous remark from this visitor – first to Mansur and a little later to the portraitist Abu’l Hasan – has dire consequences as more characters at the imperial atelier, the library and the Women’s Quarter are drawn into a web of secrets, half-truths and petty rivalries.
At the heart of the story is a jewel-like verse book whose pages Mansur has illuminated and filled with lifelike butterflies. On reaching Verinag, the royal summer retreat in Kashmir, the painter must present the book to its author, the empress Nur Jahan, who had commissioned it as a keepsake for her husband, the emperor Jahangir.
A delay in the book reaching Mansur from the bindery adds to his apprehensions that its very existence is no longer a secret, coupled with dread that so precious an artefact might fall into the wrong hands. What must the painter confront before his masterwork is conveyed safely to Verinag?
Vikaramajit Ram is a novelist and non-fiction writer based in Bangalore. A graduate of the National Institute of design, he formerly practiced as a graphic designer. He is the author of a cultural history of the Indian elephant, ‘Elephant Kingdom: Sculptures from Indian Architecture’; two travelogues, ‘Dreaming Vishnus: A Journey through Central India’ and ‘Tso and La: A Journey in Ladakh; and a novel, ‘The Sun and Two Seas’.
I Named My Sister Silence by Manoj Rupda, translated from the Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Westland Books)
The Jury Says
A novel of epic stature told with great beauty and brevity, it’s power is felt viscerally in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s translation. The writing offers rich imagery that does the storytelling using soundscapes and landscapes with equal felicity. Manoj Rupda plays on the theme that everything grand is eventually destroyed, be it a majestic elephant, a ship, or an entire tribal civilization eaten away by a corrupt society. The complex and emotionally wrenching relationship between the protagonist and his sister is at the heart of it, making this perhaps the most layered among many novels about sibling relationships.
It is indeed about the black chapters of our history, about places and people we may or may not briefly sympathise with when we read a short news report or an opinion piece.
The places may have no resonance at all for us, except as forested lands with no facilities, not even worth tourism. As for the people, we believe that they are misled by activists who do not want them to access modernity.
While the novel has a seemingly different focus, fitting into the genre of the bildungsroman, detailing the narrator’s life as he grows up and leaves his village (at the insistence of his sister, who ensures he gets an education), and becomes an engineer, and then sails the high seas till his big cargo ship is scrapped (at Alang port, Gujarat) during the global recession. But the novel accompanies him back to the village and his search for his sister who had brought him up in the hostile environment. The return to the village is significant as he attempts to unravel what his sister was up to, trying to understand why she joined the dada log (Naxalites), where she was, and finally just trying to connect with her.
The book has many interesting characters and quite an engrossing trajectory for one that is so short and so focussed. It begins with the narrator saying that anything large that he is interested in — and he is fascinated by large things — comes to a violent, premature end, like the elephant he had followed when he was young.
Manoj Rupda is based in Nagpur (Maharashtra) and writes in Hindi. He is the author of the novels Kaale Adhyaay (of which I Named My Sister Silence is a translation) and Pratisansaar; the collections of stories, Dafan tatha Anya Kahaniyan, Saaz Naasaaz, Aamaazgaah, Tower of Silence, Dahan and Dus Kahaniyan; and a book of essays, Kalaa ka Aaswaad. He is a recipient of the Indu Sharma Katha Puraskar and the Vanmali Katha Samman.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes in English; and translates into English from Santali, Hindi, and Bengali. His novel, My Father’s Garden, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019. His collection of stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize; while his debut novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize and a Crossword Book Award, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His book for children, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire, was shortlisted for a Crossword Book Award. His writings have been published in Frontline, The Caravan, Mint Lounge, Reader’s Digest, The Indian Quarterly, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The New York Times, Fifty-two, and other places; while his translations have been published in Asymptote, Poetry at Sangam, The Dalhousie Review, and other places.
ABOUT THE JURY
Srinath Perur (Chair) is the author of the travelogue If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai. He has translated from Kannada the novel Ghachar Ghochar (by Vivek Shanbhag) and the memoir This Life at Play (by Girish Karnad). He writes on a variety of subjects including science, travel and books.
Mahesh Dattani is a playwright, stage director, and mentor. His works as a playwright have been translated and performed in many languages across India and abroad. For his anthology Final Solutions and Other Plays, Dattani received the Sahitya Akademi Award. His works as a director include an adaptation in English of Tagore’s story Chokher Bali for Barnard College, Columbia University, an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding for ICS Theatre, New Jersey, Snapshots of a Fervid Sunrise, written and directed by him. Recently he worked with This is Not a Theatre Company in New York to write and direct an audio piece, A Little Drape of Heaven, which was picked by The New York Times as among the top five things to catch in New York.His film work as a writer and director includes Mango Souffle (2000) and Morning Raga (2003). He is the Artistic Director of Playpen Performing Arts Trust, a group dedicated to mentoring and producing new works for the theatre. He lives in Mumbai, India.
Somak Ghoshal has worked in publishing and media with major Indian organizations for over 15 years, especially as a critic and book publisher. His work has appeared in Mint, HuffPost, The Telegraph, Open, The Hindu, The Voice of Fashion, Mekong Review, Index on Censorship, CNN Style, and other Indian and international publications. He is the author of two books for young readers, published by Penguin Random House and Pratham Books respectively. Currently, he works as a learning designer with an ed-tech organization.
Kavery Nambisan started her writing career with children’s books. Her adult novels include The Scent of Pepper, A Story that Must Not be Told and A Town Like Ours. Her non-fiction book A Luxury Called Health is her most recent work. She also contributes articles and essays to national newspapers and international anthologies. She went to Iowa University on an international writing fellowship; to Pakistan on a Fullbright and Iowa sponsored literary progamme; to Shanghai as a writer in residence with her late husband and poet Vijay Nambisan. Kavery graduated in medicine from St John’s Medical College, Bangalore, did her higher surgical training in the UK and obtained the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. She has since built her career working as a surgeon in rural India including parts of Bihar, UP and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Kavery Nambisan lives and works in Kodagu.
Swati Thiyagarajan is a multi-award-winning conservation journalist who pioneered conservation and wildlife reporting for television in India. She is the former Environment Editor of NDTV and helmed and created one of their flagship shows Born Wild. She authored the book Born Wild, Journeys into the wild hearts of India and Africa. She is also a documentary filmmaker, her film The Animal Communicator has racked up over 8 million views on YouTube since 2012 and is available on Amazon Prime in the US and UK. She was the Associate Producer on the Academy Award winning My Octopus Teacher and is at present working for the Sea Change Project in Cape Town.