So at Mudita Book Club, of which I am a member, we decided to read all the 10 longlisted titles for the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature 2020. We had a book allotted to each one of us which we had to read and write a short review of. It was to be followed by a group poll for our very own shortlist 🙂

Women writers, debuts dominate the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 longlist

The group readathon became, quickly, a confluence of thoughts and musings, exchanges and discoveries. And I felt truly excited to compile them all on one page, resembling a heavy pouring of observations, smothering the supine soul with possibilities of art and life. So, without much ado, here we go.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar – Reviewed by Anjana

Three main characters run this book which begins with the burning of a train by terrorists in an Indian city (which later turns out to be Kolkata). Jivan, a Muslim girl from a slum, shares a post on Facebook stating the inaction of police while being present at the location, ergo the government being complicit in the attack as well. As a result of her post, Jivan is arrested on sedition charges. She depends on Lovely’s (her student and an aspiring actor) statement to prove her innocence. PT Sir was Jivan’s physical training teacher in school who stumbles successfully into nationalist politics. The three narratives run in parallel but intersect very loosely. For a short novel about such an incendiary topic, the story lacks momentum. The tension finally builds up again in the last couple of chapters and the book ends with a bang. We don’t root for Jivan because we don’t get to know her well. Finally, the biggest problem for me was Lovely’s voice; it was jarring. She is a fully grown adult and a hijra, and it sounded patronising and infantilising to assign inanities to her like “he is blowing phoo phoo [to cool tea]”. All in all, not a terrible read but it is probably more fascinating to someone who hasn’t read too much about contemporary India. Some aspects especially about the Indian legal system and the media rang chillingly true.

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Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu – Reviewed by Devi

The story is set in India sometime in 2030s – the country is ravaged by climate change , water wars, a doomed economy and there’s simmering discontent among citizens. It is an established Hindu rashtra which holds promise only for “access brahmins”, where the government watches all citizens through implants called Smartatts, an overall dystopia. The heroine Joey is a Reality controller who curates the “FLOW” of a highly successful social media influencer. The FLOW is a stream which integrates all other streaming platforms into one. She steps in to save a family friend Rudra from the devious plans that his family has for him. The story starts from there ( or so I think ). It’s a badly written book replete with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. The writer has attempted to imagine the future of social media and his idea of a FLOW is engaging. But he fails abjectly at his clear and basic mandate as a writer. The prose is immature and the plot goes absolutely nowhere. That this book made it to the long list of India’s richest literary award is proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Dystopia is already here.

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Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – Reviewed by Divya

Every 8 minutes a child goes missing in India, over 67,000 children in a year. These shocking numbers, like most statistics, get quickly forgotten. However, stories endure. I suspect that it is this belief that inspired the author to chronicle the life of Jai, Pari and Faiz. Children go missing in a basti and as expected, the police couldn’t care less. Jai, a rambunctious 9 year old slum dweller, who binge-watches detective shows, decides to take matters into his own hands. Obviously, as no self-respecting detective works without sidekick(s), in come Pari and Faiz, his best friends. Their investigations expose the seedy underbelly of our cities, be it child trafficking, minors in the sex trade or ‘tamer’ issues like child labour and the ever-growing economic divide. As more children go missing, people panic and a politician steps in to sow discontent and stoke fear by blaming the Muslim residents of the basti. An incident become the turning point and what happens next forms final chapters of the book. Jai’s narrates the story which is captured brilliantly by Anappara; a child’s infectious sense of humour, curiosity and innocence are all there. The main characters had depth and I, especially, liked Pari who came up with some zingers. The adventurous tone of the book doesn’t dilute the focus on the issues it addresses. I would have, however, preferred a closure which was missing. Well, this book is a commentary of our times – children aren’t safe and the monsters we should be afraid of probably look a lot like us.

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Moustache by S Hareesh – Reviewed by Mahesh

“Moustache” by S. Hareesh and translated by Jayashree Kalathil is a book that falls in a strange territory. It can be considered as magical realism or an allegory for the caste divides and conflicts that still remain prevalent in India. The story is set in Kerala’s Kuttanad region and follows the story of a lower caste man named Vavaachan who has converted to become a Christian who never visits the church. He gets to play a policeman with a swirling moustache in a drama/play. The moustache becomes a character of its own and Vaavachan refuses to shave away the moustache. Why does this happen? What happens to Vaacachan? Why do the police come in search of him? One has to read the book to find answers. A word of warning – this book will not appeal to everyone and some may even find it pretentious and seeking to imitate the works of Marquez and other masters of literary fiction and magical realism. If you can read with patience and get drawn into the fascinating world of Kuttanad and the characters there, you may find the book rewarding. Going by what other friends have said about some of the other books in the list of nominees, this book could turn out to be the darkhorse winner that no one expected to win.

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Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi – Reviewed by Prem

The novel is exactly what the title says it is, it examines the violence that takes place before the actual violence that happens in a riot and how the forces of Caste, Class, Gender and Religious Intolerance cause the violence to happen. The story is set in an unnamed town in Southern India and revolves around two families of different creed. The author intelligently uses a series of soliloquies by different residents of the town to examine the variables that transforms some of them into proponents of violence. Annie Zaidi earnestly attempts to portray how the coexistence of different communities has become increasingly fragile and tries to capture all the ills that plague our society. She largely succeeds in delivering a fearless and courageous work that acts a cautionary message for the troubled times we live in. I, not only foresee this book in the shortlists of literary awards but also capable of even springing a surprise by going ahead and winning them.

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The Machine is Learning by Tanuj Solanki – Reviewed by me

The book addresses that one question most organisations, and more importantly, individuals, face in today’s cut-throat world – Should I rely on man or machine to get ahead? Solanki provides an engaging insight into this dilemma from the eyes of Saransh – a corporate honcho at an insurance firm and a lead member of the team pursuing the induction of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into the various operations/ departments of the firm. This secret project often entails interaction with people who might be ‘data points’ and eventual casualties and hence, is under wraps. But when the lid is slid off by our man during a particularly emotional moment, all the dirty hinges get exposed and the entire project bellows fumes that have questionable repercussions. The highpoint of the book is clearly the premise – AI and it’s role in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace is both a necessity and a nuisance. The narrative is well-paced and action-oriented, making one intrigued about the next moves. Saransh maneuvers his way, both owning and facing the music and at the closure, takes decisions that appear perfectly plausible, even if tad predictable. In short, it is a book worth reading once and has a good shot at the big prize.

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A Ballad of Remittent Fever by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay – Reviewed by Shreeya

I just finished this book – it was underwhelming to say the least. The author has followed a formulaic approach- a multigenerational saga offset with a barrage of details about medical progress as well as a plug for popular alternative medical systems in India. The characters are all caricatures, nothing feels authentic. The less said about the language, the better. They might have found a cure for cholera – but what will cure my lacerated soul?

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These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar – Reviewed by Shwetha

The story is a beautiful exploration of a Tamil family and encompasses the lives of three generations of women and their relationships – with men and each other. The five women – three daughters, their mother and grandmother are fierce in their own ways, yet broken. Like most family sagas, the heart of the story is betrayal. The story is told from the PoV of Deeya who is quite unreliable as there is part truth and part imagination to her narrative. The line between what’s known, unknown and imagined gets blurred and weighs down the book as it closes. Deeya’s quote “We’re doomed to spend our adult lives recovering from our childhoods” towards the end of the book is a gentle reminder that the seeds of the future are sown in the past. Dharini has woven an emotional tapestry which treads into the family’s history of love and relationships. Her words sing, the prose poetic. And as I closed the book, I’m left craving for more. A remarkable debut indeed!

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In Search of Heer by Manjul Bajaj – Reviewed by Solomon

Heer and Ranjha is our own Romeo and Juliet; I wasn’t aware of this folklore. Heer is a strong-minded, independent warrior (Thanks to her father). Ranjha is a gifted flautist who abandons his easy life in search of his destiny – which is to fall in love with Heer. Both feel their destinies is to fall in love with each other. But when they meet, Heer is betrothed to someone else, which happened at the time of her birth. Heer eventually marries him and the story culminates to provide an answer to this question – do the star-crossed lovers unite or meet a tragic end? The author reimagines the age-old fable with the lens of feminism and though the book is set in the 15th century, the narrative is quite contemporary. Heer questions the norms the society has laid for women, caste, class, love and marriage whereas Ranjha, about life and its purpose. The narrative is simple and has predictable characters (quite Bollywood-ish). We do come across poetic brilliance at places. We also have non-human narrators – a crow, a pigeon, a camel and a goat who travel throughout and the story unravels from their POV. I enjoyed this the most. Though I appreciate the author effort to take the story to the masses, the book didn’t strike a chord with me.

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Undertow by Jahnavi Barua – Reviewed by Suriya

The book is told through the story of a small family whose members are estranged from one another. Jahnavi Barua’s ‘Undertow’ is a gentle yet intense narrative that looks at family ties, roots and moorings, questioning notions of identity, of trying to forge connections while trudging uncertain grounds and how loneliness is a weight that is difficult to bear. It is about exile and late apologies traversing between time and place. This is one book, where I loved the journey from the beginning to the end MORE than the end. It has an open ending, for the reader to deciper.

Well then, you have the list here now. Go on, take your pick and settle in your little nook to enjoy the experience. We are happy to have shown you the trailers 🙂

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