March 13, 2018
A new literary prize appears in India
by Michael Barron
India, the enormous country that gave rise to yoga, Buddhism, and the late-career experimentation of the Beatles, has a lot going on — like its thriving book culture. India pumps out novelists with such stamina that, according to the Press Trust of India, it has the sixth-largest book industry on the planet. And while India no doubt has many literary awards to give to its many novelists, none is as lucrative as the one announced last week.
Announced by the Press Trust of India, and funded by J.C. Bamford Excavators Limited, a multinational manufacturing corporation, the JCB Prize for Literature will carry a monetary award of 2.5 million rupees, or about US$38,500. Poonam Ganglani writes for the Indian culture magazine Scroll that the prize will be “a game-changer…. Recognizing a distinguished work of fiction—written in English or translated into English—by an Indian author, the prize is a long-term commitment to energizing the Indian literary scene, the place of writers in cultural life, and access to regional language literature.”
Ganglani interviewed novelist and essayist Rana Dasgupta, who echoed the sentiment:
“In India writers are almost invisible in the cultural conversation. The most prominent writers are those who have been made famous in other countries, like Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, and who have then become celebrities in India. But Vivek Shanbhag is not a celebrity — because writers are not an easy subject for the Indian media to treat. Whereas in the US, for instance, Philip Roth would be a major celebrity, and in Britain, Martin Amis. People understand that what writers have to contribute to the social conversation is different from what actors or politicians have to say. They are quiet, reflective people who bring a different sensibility.
“So JCB is a much more profound project to get India to pay attention once again to writing and literature. I say ‘once again’ because India is a very literary country with established literary foundations. It’s not about creating something that doesn’t exist, it’s about bringing to light something that does. That said, of course we’ll be making sure that people across the world pay attention to authors who are shortlisted and win the prize. But the primary reach of the prize is to people in this country. We want to make sure that the greatest work of literature to come out of our country in one year doesn’t sell 3,000 copies and then disappear into oblivion. It should sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and still be in print and celebrated in twenty years’ time.”
Dasgupta also offered his insights into the responsibilities of winning any book prize:
“If you look at the Booker Prize, a majority of their budget is spent on marketing. One of the main responsibilities of a prize is to tell people about the great book it has selected. By giving somebody a cheque, nothing in the outside world has changed in any way. So yes, we have put together a marketing campaign to make sure that not just people who always follow books know about it, but everybody else too.”
You can read the full interview here, and learn more about the JCB, which is open for entries, right over here.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.