This year’s shortlist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize reminds us that the diaspora is writing hard and writing well. Four of our selected writers live and work outside the sub-continent. But their exceptional work is counter-balanced by equally noteworthy books written within India. All the books this year should make us reconsider what we think we know but have either forgotten or not acknowledged: the long (and often sinister) shadows of particular events and people, the individual lives nestled inside large histories, lives that shimmer on the margins of our vision and as always, the darkness hidden inside families.
Manu S Pillai’s The Ivory Throne literally mines the treasure troves of history. He finds the lonely women behind the dazzling jewels that stud the persons and temples of the erstwhile rulers of Travancore and reminds us that what we call history is the lived life of another, separated from us in time but not in temperament.
Madhu Gurung’s The Keeper of Memories stays true to its evocative title and through remembered lives, legends, rites and rituals, infuses the historical migration of the Gorkhas into north-eastern India with a keen though entirely unsentimental family intimacy.
Sophia Khan’s Yasmeen also searches the darker corners of loneliness within a family. Cradled in the routine of the quotidian, there are so many words unsaid, so many smiles that never reach the eyes, so many tears that splash into cups of coffee that seeking answers in the past does not always provide comfort.
Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies reveals the underbelly of India’s cataclysmic Partition through private letters, official communiques, personal relationships and bureaucratic inertia. Hajari shows that our understanding of the past must be periodically refreshed if we are to carry its lessons meaningfully into the present.
Akshay Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India masterfully details how a small regional press and a determined individual ideologue can influence the mind-set of a nation, reconstruct a religion and seed the politics of separatism that flowers nearly a century later.
The short stories in Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars are testament to the fact that for a new generation of internationalised writers, the world truly is their oyster. Story traditions, languages, histories and memories from every corner of the globe are the nacre that cover the grains of sand and smooth them into pearls.
All our books this year are pearls in that most marvelous of all oceans, the ocean of story.
The short list
Manu S Pillai for The Ivory Throne
Madhu Gurung for The Keeper of Memories
Sophia Khan for Yasmeen
Nisid Hajari for Midnight’s Furies
Akshay Mukul for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Kanishk Tharoor for Swimmer Among the Stars
The winner will be announced in November.