Established in 1969, the Booker Prize is one of the closely watched events for the global literary community every year. The prize is awarded annually by the Booker Prize Foundation for fiction writing in English, including both novels and collections of short stories, and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Apart from the £50,000-prize, the award is a prestigious recognition of literary talent and the winners are carefully chosen by a panel of judges which includes professors, novelists, historians, and writers. The first Booker Prize was awarded to PH Newby for his novel Something to Answer For and has over the years been awarded to some of the brightest minds in the field including the likes of Margaret Atwood, Jim Coetzee, Hillary Mantel, Anna Burns, Yann Martel, Kiran Desai, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Michael Ondaatje, just to name a few.
The list of the Booker Prize winners also features several Indians who with their writings have introduced the world to different facets of India and its culture. Be it Salman Rushdie’s portrayal of Emergency-era India in Midnight Children, Kiran Desai’s depiction of the struggles of the post-colonial northeast region, or Aravind Adiga’s take on the rampant corruption in the country – as unpopular as these opinions might be, they have managed to hit a nerve and make the world sit up with awe. Let’s have a look at the Indians who have won the Booker Prize:
If you have been a literature student in India, chances are that you might have read a short story or a novel by Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul or VS Naipaul as part of your syllabus. Born in Trinidad, the Indian-origin author won the Booker Prize in 1971 for his book In a Free State – a collection of three short stories that interweave the aspirations, complexes, and hopes of characters struggling with the post-colonial mindset.
Naipaul’s grandfather migrated to Trinidad as an indentured labourer back in the 1880s and worked in sugar plantations. The family’s colonial past is a recurrent theme across Naipaul’s repertoire – which comprises over 30 books. Even as critics compared him to the likes of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, Naipaul has written about the impact of colonialism on those colonized with deep empathy that could stem only from someone who has seen it fester in a community from close quarters.
His first book The Mystic Masseur was published in 1957 and is based on the life of a struggling schoolteacher who goes on to become a masseur and later a politician. He followed up the success of the book with classics like A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, The Mimic Men, and Miguel Street. Naipaul was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. It is not uncommon for writers to rebel against establishments and prove a point with their words, but for Salman Rushdie rebellion is a way of life. The Indian-born author won the Booker Prize in 1981 for his book Midnight’s Children which features Saleem Sinai who was born on the midnight of August 15, 1947 – when India won its freedom – as a protagonist. The book shows India’s identity through a prism of politics, religion, and culture.
Midnight’s Children is an example of Rushdie’s deftness at combining complex themes like magic realism, contemporary politics, and historical fiction. The book went on to win the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of Booker 2008 awards that were conferred on the prize’s 25th and 40th anniversaries, respectively. The book was also adapted into a film by Deepa Mehta in 2012 and featured an ensemble cast of Satya Bhabha and Shriya Saran.
Rushdie is no stranger to controversies and has courted them quite a few times with his books. His 1988 Satanic Verses drew global outrage for its blasphemous undertones and even evoked a fatwa against him in Iran. The book is currently banned in several nations including India. In August this year, the author was attacked during a lecture by a man in New York.
Activist, filmmaker, and writer – Arundhati Roy wears many hats and is yet to retire from these roles any time soon. Roy’s debut novel God of Small Things fetched her a Booker and global acclaim in 1997. The book follows the lives of fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, and their lives in a Syrian Christian family settled in a rural Kerala town. Set amidst a background of left-wing politics, the God of Small Things makes for a complex yet telling tale of a family’s tryst with infamy, tragedy, and loss. The story touches also upon issues with casteism, love, child sexual abuse and childhood trauma with nuanced sensitivity. The book has a poignant take on how people get different cards in life and how circumstances shape realities. Roy came out with her second book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017.
When it comes to unravelling political realities in the world of fiction, Kiran Desai could be credited for being the voice of the northeast region. Her book – The Inheritance of Loss, is set in the 1980s when northeastern cities like Darjeeling and Kalimpong were grappling with the Gorkhaland movement. The story revolves around a retired judge Jemubhai Patel and his orphaned granddaughter Sai. Wary of Indians and the country’s customs, Patel’s disdain also extends to his mother, wife and daughter. In an effort to make amends with his granddaughter, he hires a local Nepali youth Gyan to tutor Sai. Between Patel’s rejection of his own blood, Gyan’s struggle to embrace his ethnicity and Sai’s love for him, Desai pens a heart-wrenching tale of love, loss and belonging. The book won the Booker in 2006.
The Booker winner for 2008, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is a testament to how rampant corruption has been fuelling a systemic rot in the country while leaving those affected helpless. The story is narrated over a letter that the protagonist Balram Halwai writes to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. A native of Bihar’s Gaya district, Balram works as a driver for a wealthy businessman and his wife in Delhi. Through his job, he gets a front-row seat to the extent of corruption that ails the country. A recurring theme in the book is that of the oppression of the poor that Balram equates to a rooster coop. The book is a reflection of the constant conflict between the oppressor and oppressed where class divides, capitalism and corruption divide the society. The book was also adapted into a movie and featured Rajkumar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Adarsh Gourav in 2021.
In 2022, the International Booker Prize was awarded to Indian author Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell for the ‘Tomb of Sand’. The book is the English translation of Shree’s book ‘Ret Samadhi’ which was translated by Rockwell. The International Booker Prize is conferred to honour literary works in fiction from around the world which have been published and translated in Ireland and the UK.
Published by the Tilted Axis Press, the book revolves around the life of 80-year-old ‘Ma’ and how the Partition altered the course of her life. The novel had another distinction – that of being the first book in Hindi or any Indian language to bag the prize. Incidentally, Tilted Axis Press was set up by Deborah Smith, who won the International Booker Prize in 2016 for the English translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
India’s tryst with the Booker Prize is not limited to these authors. In the past, stories based on India and the country’s history have also been awarded the Booker too. In 1973, JG Farrell entered the Booker hall of fame for his novel The Siege of Krishnapur. Written against the backdrop of the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, the book is based on a group of Muslim soldiers who took over a fictional town in an act of defiance against the British. Another example is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust which won the Booker in 1975. The story details a scandal that ensued after an English colonial wife eloped with an Indian Prince in the 1920s. Fifty years later, her step-granddaughter sets out to unravel the enigma that shrouds the scandal after reading the letters left behind by her grandmother.