New York: Stylish Indian author Siddhartha Deb scooped the prestigious PEN Open Book Award on Wednesday for “The Beautiful and the Damned,” which follows India’s journey on the bumpy road to stardom as globalisation impacts the lives of its ordinary people.
Deb was born in Meghalaya and grew up in Shillong in the north-eastern hills of India. He is the author of two novels, the first a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in that “town…few people can find on a map.” Deb made his way from Shillong to Calcutta, and then to Columbia University. He is now a professor in creative writing at the New School, in New York.
Deb’s “The Beautiful and the Damned” has the feel of a novel as the sweeping India story is told through dents made by modern India in his characters’ lives. Deb follows the lives of teeming call center workers, traders, businessmen, tycoons, debt-laden farmers and steel factory workers.
His book also has a riveting profile of a young Manipuri woman called Esther who works in Delhi, where her northeastern features inspire subtle forms of racism.
The book is not without controversy. The piercing first chapter titled “The Great Gatsby,” profiles management guru and Bollywood producer Arindam Chaudhuri, who is the director of IIPM Think Tank at Indian Institute of Planning and Management.
Chaudhuri was enraged by Deb’s less than flattering, nuanced profile of him. Predictably, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Deb and his publishers after the book’s first chapter was excerpted in Caravan. Thanks to a court injunction, the Indian edition of the book has been robbed of its first essay.
“It took years of research and reporting. While I took a lot of pains with the research and the reporting I didn’t want it to be a journalist’s book or a policy wonk’s book. I wanted it to be a non-fiction novel without making it up,” Deb told Bookbits radio.
The judges — Alexander Chee, Mat Johnson, and Natasha Trethewey — said they gave the US literary prize and $5,000 cash award to Deb for a “wildly original and enjoyable tour” of contemporary India in flux.
Indians who are pro-globalisation may squirm or have a bone to pick with Deb’s gripping analysis of what is happening in India. In his chapter “Red Sorghum: Farmers in the Free Market,” Deb implies that globalisation has devastated the lives of debt-laden farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Then there is the chapter with the self-explanatory title, “The Factory: The Permanent World of Temporary Workers” which exposes the soul-deadening world of unhappy, stressed-out, sleep-deprived call center workers.
The PEN Literary Awards are one of the highest honours in the field of letters and should boost Deb’s book sales. Deb’s first novel, “The Point of Return,” is partly autobiographical, set in a hill-station like Shillong. His second novel “Surface” also set in the north-east is about a Sikh journalist in Calcutta who is piqued by a disturbing photograph of a woman. He sets off to uncover the story behind the violent incident and finds himself in India’s north-east mired in militancy in a world sustained by timber, drugs and guns.
The PEN American Centre, founded in 1922, presented 18 awards this year that went to writers like Deb and Susan Nussbaum, the author of “Good Kings Bad Kings,” and Vanessa Veselka, author of “Zazen.”