India’s biggest literary prize The JCB Prize for Literature, backed by JCB, the construction manufacturing group JCB is all of three years old in existence this year but in the short time since its inception in 2018, it has created a buzz in the literary circle, the publishing industry and readers alike. The prize, which is eligible for novels originally written in English and translations to English from other languages comes with a cash amount of Rs 25 lakh for the winning author while a Rs 5 lakh amount for the translator, if the winner is a translated work was changed to Rs 10 lakh from its second year. Notwithstanding the big cash amount that the prize has to offer, what has set this literary award apart from the many other literary awards in the country today is the kind of attention it has brought to the world of books and readers.
The inaugural JCB Prize for Literature was awarded to Benyamin, a Malyalam author for his ‘Jasmine Days’ set in an unnamed West Asian country in the throes of a revolution. As a translated work, the book’s translator Shahnaz Habib got a cash award of 5 lakhs. The submission of books for the first edition of the literary prize the first year? 42 publishers who put in entries for works in English and translations from 8 languages! In the second edition, the entries came in from books set in 14 states across the country and books translated from 6 different languages. This time, it was a debut woman writer, Madhuri Vijay whose ‘A Far Field’ set for the most part in the backdrop of the unrest in Kashmir that got her the prize.
Over the three years, a panel of distinguished Jury members from the literary, social arts and culture sectors take on the task of reading submissions and then selecting a Longlist of ten books. Once the Longlisted books are announced, there is a sustained media outreach in terms of author interviews, book reviews etc that has pushed book sales. In an age of social media publicity and tie-ins, it is this literary prize that has caught the attention of readers who use various online platforms to be kept in the loop of books that are to be read by generating constant interest. In the first year of the JCB Prize, readers following the developments from The Longlist of ten books to the Shortlist of 5 books could get to attend the award ceremony, all expenses paid if he/she could guess the 5 books in the Shortlist. In the Second edition, the all expenses paid invitation to the JCB Literature Prize award ceremony was decided on the basis of readers who read and reviewed all ten books in the Longlist before the Shortlist was announced. This author got to attend the glittering award ceremony held at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur last year.
But with most other public events across the world that has had to be restructured, if not entirely cancelled in the midst of the ongoing Covid pandemic, the JCB Prize this year will be held online. And yet, the buzz over the Prize is palpable already with this year’s Jury making a pitch for new forms of writing: from myth to dystopia, to writing on technology, to family. This year’s pick of books in the Longlist announced on September 1 features two translated works and four debut authors. Of the ten authors, six are women. Already, the ten books in the Longlist are seeing interest peaking amongst readers on popular reading sites with book sales registering a demand for the said books.
It isn’t difficult to ascertain why the JCB Prize for Literature has stood out: apart from the huge prize amount, it is in the way it has acknowledged translators and it is in the way the publicity and outreach makes an attempt readers that has made a difference. Most literary prizes are far removed from involving readers as a stakeholder, often relegating them as consumers of books as a product. In contrast, the JCB Prize for Literature involves readers in an interactive manner bringing the books and the authors behind them a bit more closer to them using various social media tools and platforms. With the announcement of the Shortlist of five books from the ten on the Longlist slated to take place on September 25, it will be interesting to see what the Jury this year will decide on. As for readers watching the proceedings this year, there are a host of book giveaways and discussions as well as author discussions that are underway.
Do readers in Manipur know about any of the interactive activities being planned around the JCB Literary Award? More importantly, are authors from the state taking note of the scope of this literary event and what value it has added to the Indian publishing scene? One can only hope that readers and authors in Manipur will make the effort of exploring what is happening in the bigger world, keep themselves informed, take opportunity of the platforms that exist for readers and authors both.