JCB Prize for Literature:

India’s richest literary prize to celebrate and showcase Indian authors, break down language barriers

With recent announcement of the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature, there is a wave of excitement amongst Indian authors/writers and publishers. Publishers across India are invited to enter novels for the prize, giving authors a chance to win Rs 25 lakhs, the country’s richest literary award. Award-winning novelist and essayist Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director of the prize in conversation with Smita Dwivedi feels that this prize is going to rediscover Indian literature’s original essence by showcasing the full cosmopolitan breadth of contemporary Indian literature.

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Rana Dasgupta
Rana Dasgupta

The annual prize is designed to discover and celebrate distinguished works of fiction by Indian writers, and to break down the barriers separating literature into different Indian languages – So showcasing the full cosmopolitan breadth of contemporary Indian literature for readers everywhere. The prize is being funded by India’s leading manufacturer of earthmoving and construction equipment, JCB India Ltd. Publishers have entry quotas for works written in English, and separately, for works translated into English from any other language. If the winning book is translated, the translator will also be awarded Rs 5 lakhs. By recognizing the full range of India’s literary traditions, the JCB Prize for Literature hopes to encourage future translations (both into English and between Indian languages) and therefore further open Indian literature to readers.

On asking about the idea behind the inception of Prize, he shared, “In a multilingual country like India, where there are many distinct literary traditions, no one can say they know ‘Indian Literature’ if they read books only written in their own language. With this prize we hope to stimulate far more translations between Indian languages so to give people a deeper sense of what other people are talking and thinking about in the country. Right now, I think, there is no Indian prize for literature which tells readers in India and everywhere in the world about contemporary Indian writing. Moreover, other than Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize, no other awards actually impact the sales of books in the Indian market. Indian readers are not only interested in what sells in large numbers, but they are also interested in great literature. That is the reason why award-winning books sell in very large numbers in India. So, we think we need a great prize for just Indian writing and especially that includes translations,” he added.

Rana is responsible for holding the prize to the highest literary standards and each year, he will appoint a jury, whose job is to read all entries and select a longlist (in September), a shortlist (in October) and then a winner (in November). The jury will consist of distinguished individuals from a variety of fields, who bring to their deliberations the experience of many different aspects of contemporary life. This year’s jury Advisory consists of: award-winning film director Deepa Mehta (Chair), founder of the Murty Classical Library of India, Rohan Murty, Yale University astrophysicist and writer Priyamvada Natarajan, prominent novelist, Vivek Shanbhag, and author and translator, Arshia Sattar.

On sharing about the selection procedure, he informed, “This prize is for Fiction.We wanted to really create a great prize for literature like the Man Booker Prize. Also, it is only open to Indian citizens. Most people are upset that it’s not open to people like Jhumpa Lahiri, but our idea is to award those Indian writers, who do not have access to other foreign prizes. Authors like Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, have already been made famous in other countries and then became celebrities in India.”

Books selected by the jury will be promoted in a visionary publicity campaign aimed not only at gaining many more readers for these important works, but also at raising the prestige and visibility of great literature itself. All shortlisted authors win Rs 1 lakh each.

Like The Booker Prize, rewarding shortlisted authors is indeed a thoughtful step. Further elaborating this act, he explained, “It’s a signal that when you get down to the best five novels of the year, the choice amongst them is pretty subjective and we want to celebrate the whole short listers not just winners. We want to give a better representation of Indian writing, as it gives us the best idea of what’s happening in Indian literature than just a winner.”

The Literary Director is supported in his decisions by the Advisory Council of the JCB Literature Foundation. The Advisory Council is chaired by former Chief Mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Tarun Das, who is accompanied by author Amitav Ghosh, Delhi University Professor of English Literature Dr. Harish Trivedi, and art historian and environmentalist Pheroza Godrej.

On asking about the importance of translations in India, he shared, “People in the publishing industry are probably realizing that writing in English is just a tiny fraction of Indian writing. If we keep regional literature separate, I feel they all will starve; they all need to nourish each other. They all are a part of the country’s literary imagination. That doesn’t mean that we all should read all languages, we can only read in one or two or maximum five languages. To read in all is not possible, so translations are very crucial.”

“In Europe, if you go to a French book shop 25 % of the books are translated books, so French people know quite a lot what English, German, Spanish or Italian people are reading and writing. But if you go to any Indian book store, we have very little collection of translated books. So most English readers have no clue, what are other authors in Malayalam or Tamil etc. are thinking and writing,” he added.

On a concluding note, he said, “We want to bring a lot of attention to literary fiction authors and writers. While we give a lot of respect to sports and cinema figures, it is important to remember that literature in itself is a significant conversation for the country and society.”

(Rana Dasgupta is a British Indian novelist and essayist. In 2010, The Daily Telegraph called him one of Britain’s best novelists under 40. Afterwards, in 2014 Le Monde named him one of 70 people who are making the world of tomorrow. Among the prizes won by Dasgupta’s works are the Commonwealth Prize and the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award. Dasgupta’s first novel – Tokyo Cancelled was shortlisted for the 2005 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; his second novel – Solo was translated into twenty languages and he was awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; it won both the region and overall best book prize; and his third book – Capital won the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for literary reportage and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the Ondaatje Prize.)

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