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September 6, 2019updated 12 Sep 2019 2:19pm

Rana Dasgupta Q&A: How Britain’s JCB launched the ‘Booker Prize for India’

By Arun Kakar

Arun Kakar talks to the novelist Rana Dasgupta on how he worked with the British multinational to set up the ‘Booker Prize for India’ 

The JCB Prize for literature champions Indian writers from across the country, selecting works either written in English or translated from a native language into English.

A project of British multinational JCB’s founder Lord Bamford, the inaugural prize was created last year and was launched to reflect his desire to create an enduring cultural legacy in the country (JCB employs around 5000 people in India). The construction firm also established the JCB Literature Foundation, which holds as its purpose to ‘promote the art of literature in India’.

Spear’s spoke with Rana Dasgupta, a British-Indian novelist who is the literary director of the prize, to discuss the roots of the competition and the state of literature in India.

Spear’s: How did you come to get involved with the prize? How was it set up?

Rana Dasgupta: The prize was instigated by Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB, who decided he wanted to set up a ‘Booker Prize for India’ as part of his legacy in the country. I grew up in the UK and have an Indian father and English mother. I moved to India back in 2000 to write my first novel and lived there for 18 years.

The three books I have published so far were written in India, so I became very involved with its literary scene. Before I left India to move back to the UK, I became involved in JCB’s discussions. There was no major award for Indian fiction, so I was excited to find the company so committed to the project.

Very soon I was appointed literary director, and we set about designing the prize. We all decided at the outset that translations would be a key preoccupation of the prize. To me, there is no ‘Indian literature’ without translation: the country has twenty-two official languages. This matched the values of JCB: the company employs 5,000 people in India and very few of them speak English.

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How did the first awards go?

Our first awards were made last year. The JCB Prize for Literature is valuable: it’s worth 2.5 million rupees – about £30,000. Publishers were excited from the beginning, not only because of the value, but because we were receptive to translation, we were planning extensive publicity for the shortlisted books, and we were clearly intending to administer the process with an extremely high level of integrity and professionalism.

Literary prizes have come and gone in the past, so of course, there was some scepticism. Some of these previous prizes have been damaged by corruption. The natural impulse in India is to assume everything is corrupt, and when there is money and publicity at stake, it’s assumed that sponsors choose winners to suit themselves.

To avoid all this, we made sure we exceeded international standards of integrity and transparency. All our processes were monitored by independent auditors. We had a complete public record of everything. We put on a very exciting award ceremony dinner last year. People could tell that this was a serious prize and that we were here to stay. Internally we plan for a 15-to-20-year timeframe. We entered year two with an enormous amount of goodwill.

How does the selection process work?

Like the Booker Prize, it is publishers that enter books. During the annual downtime, we spend a lot of our time visiting and speaking to publishers, making sure they know about us. It is a very big market. The international publishing houses – the Penguins, the Hachettes, etc – are all based in Delhi. But there are a lot of publishing houses in let’s say, Kolkata or Chennai, which are not so in touch with the whole prize system.

In order to be credible we need to include them too, and sometimes we have to actually go and tell them they are included.

What is the aim of the prize?

We have several objectives. The most important is simply to celebrate great writing. For us, that means delivering tangible improvements in the fortunes of individual books. In some ways, prizes can do things that publishers can’t do, which is why prizes are an important part of the ecosystem. Prizes bring an external, objective viewpoint.

We’re not here to celebrate our own products. We’re here simply to celebrate the greatest novels of the year, wherever they may come from. We want to make sure those books sell far more copies and receive their due place in the culture.

As the prize itself becomes more established, we can take the five books on our shortlist to vast audiences – including many people who hardly have any interest in books. We also want to give authors a more prominent place in India’s cultural and intellectual life, and to help them make a living from their writing.

For instance, we make sure foreign publishers know about all our shortlisted authors. One of the books on our shortlist last year was by a first-time novelist who was only published in India; after our shortlist came out, she got publishing deals in the US and all over Europe.

We also take the prize lists to Netflix and Amazon. They are an increasing source of income for novelists. They are deeply in need of stories, and there are some great novels coming out of India right now. We see one of our jobs as making all these connections.

How are novelists seen in India?

In the mainstream, English-language culture at least, novelists are not as prominent as they are in the UK. Certainly not as much as in the US or France, where there is a long tradition of seeing famous novelists on the covers of newspapers, interviewed about major political issues or whatever. That is not really the case in India. It’s primarily politicians, businesspeople, film stars, and possibly NGOs, who get interviewed about those things.

We feel that authors also have something to contribute to these debates. They have a different kind of perspective, and an important, thoughtful one. For instance, we have a partnership with Vogue where we get a great Indian photographer to shoot portraits of our writers on the shortlist every year. These beautiful images appear in the magazine – this is just one way we try to get more people used to looking at and thinking about writers.

What is the state of the Indian publishing industry more generally?

The story of the Indian publishing industry is that it's growing very fast. Much faster than in the UK and the US, which is why there’s been so much investment by international publishers in India over the last 20 years.

But literary fiction has suffered a little bit recently. Mainly because non-fiction and commercial fiction are doing so well. Especially non-fiction. But partly also because there hasn’t been a major prize to shine a spotlight on the achievements of Indian novelists. Think of the work that the Booker Prize does in making authors most people have never heard of into household names.

Without that, the general public has difficulty identifying what is truly great.

What accounts for the success of non-fiction?

There are far more bestselling documentary movies these days. Some of the really big books of recent years have been books about politics and economics. The world is in a particularly turbulent moment and a lot of people are trying to understand it. They feel that they need to get back to some of the basic facts about their world. In India, the issue is also to some extent, the absence of a complete infrastructure for informing the public about what is really going on in literary fiction. And that’s where we come in.

What excites you about the books in selection this year?

What we can say about them is the first of all, the entries from prize like this reflect the huge diversity of a country like India. We received entries, originally in six languages, from 14 different states. People aged between about 25 to about 75.

There’s a great diversity of themes. We saw a lot of novels that were very preoccupied with global turbulence. Most of these novels, but not all of them are set in India, but they reflect a lot of the turbulences in Indian politics, in the economy and society and indeed, in the global system. And so I think in that sense India, this year, has things in common with everywhere else in the world today.

Main image copyright Nina Subin

For more information about the prize, click here 

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