Shivani Yadav sat down with the five shortlisted books for the 2023 JCB Awards and read them cover-to-cover. Here’s what she has to say about each book.
The JCB Prize for Literature released their shortlist featuring 5 titles a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been reading all these books to talk about the thematic nature of the selected novels in a more free-form way.
The 5 shortlisted books are ‘Mansur’ by Vikramajit Ram, ‘The Secret of More’ by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, ‘I Named My Sister Silence’ by Manoj Rupda (translated by Hasda Sowvendra Shekhar), ‘Fire Bird’ by Perumal Murugan (translated by Janani Kannan) and ‘The Nemesis’ by Manoranjan Byapari (translated by V. Ramaswamy). Now, I’m personally not big on awards in creative fields because art and literature are highly subjective and it’s not exactly possible to declare one piece of writing/art/performance as objectively better than others. Having said that, I do pay attention to nominations because they provide an equal platform, honoring some of the best creative works of the year. Additionally, it tends to show where a certain jury stands, and works at showcasing where society stands (according to that jury). Considering the JCB Prize looks at all of English-language Indian literature, it’s only fair to see what the pulse of India seems to be saying, according to them.
I have to say that all the longlisted 10 books were literary firebrands, but the shortlisted 5 are specifically unique in the way they have been written. Solely from a writing style point of view, Mansur stood out to me for the lyrical way the sentences have been crafted. Reading that short novel (it is bordering on being a novella) felt like listening to a ghazal or seeing the brush strokes of a painting in-progress. Ram takes us on a journey through 17th century Mughal atelier where we’re introduced to ambitious characters left, right and center. If this book is about anything, it’s about ambition and how it motivates people to make important decisions. Talking about the novel, the jury said, “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.”
One novel that is going down as a personal favorite is I Named My Sister Silence. Originally written in Hindi, this novel stays with you long after you’re done swimming through its musings about destruction and human nature. The translation by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is exquisite. “Manoj Rupda plays on the theme that everything grand is eventually destroyed, be it a majestic elephant, a ship, or an entire tribal civilisation eaten away by a corrupt society,” said the jury. I know the phrase “it compels you to think” has been overused, but it stands true in this case. You are compelled to think about the cyclical nature of life, about the strength of a sibling relationship and what Adivasi life is in like in India.
Reading The Secret of More was like savoring an exquisite dish. You’re curious to know more, but deliberately want to take it slow in order to enjoy the poetry of every sentence. The novel shows colonial Bombay in its true and honest beauty (or ugliness?) as it enters the 19th century. Following the ambitious Tatya, we are introduced to the complex world of textile mills and the nascent Bombay film industry. In short, it’s an all-consuming, intoxicating journey.
The Nemesis, originally written in Bengali, is a journey of disruption as young Jibon migrates from East Pakistan to the camps of West Bengal in search of asylum. We travel through the 60s and 70s India as we see the split of the Communist Party and find out about the Naxalite Movement. “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,” said the jury.
The last shortlisted novel, Fire Bird (which also happens to be the winner) was originally written in Tamil, about Muthu who journeys from village to village in search for belonging, home and permanence. “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…. 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,” said the jury.
One thematic similarity between all the 5 novels that can be seen is that of journey. Be it wading through life challenges or traveling from one place to another, or simply going through a spiritual journey, the characters in the shortlisted books, within the spans of the novels, go through life-altering changes. Why did this specific theme resonate so much with the jury? There could be many reasons, but one thing that is clear is that the theme does say a lot about the times we’re living in. Going through a pandemic, witnessing a genocide digitally, and generally living through a turbulent social and political climate which has turned some friends and family members into virtual strangers and strangers into close friends, changes a person. We, as a society, have been through a journey with all its highs and lows, altering our perspective on life and forever changing the way we understand our surroundings. Just like the characters in the shortlisted books.
It is also important to note that 3 of 5 novels are translated works. The slowly-becoming-mainstream acceptance of translated literature indicates that the public is eagerly looking to widen its horizons and consume stories from different cultures, which is always a plus.
To be honest, it didn’t matter which novel won the prize because at the end of the day, I got to live through 5 stories that spoke to me in different ways, introduced me to different facets of myself and helped me look at the world from a new perspective, just like I’m sure they did with other readers and the jury members. Give these novels a read and get ready to be transported into a different world that’ll feel familiar yet brand new.
Walk into your nearest bookstore to read them or Whatsapp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Shivani Yadav is a fashion, film and culture writer. She’s currently studying Psychology and working as a translator at Chambal Media and Khabar Lahariya, India’s only grassroots feminist news organization. You can find her on X and Instagram and read her weekly popculture newsletter.