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Indian writer wins prize

Preti Taneja

London: Preti Taneja confirmed her status as a new star in Britain's literary firmament by winning the Desmond Elliott Prize for her first novel, We That Are Young, a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear set in modern day India.

Taneja, born in the UK of parents from India, accepted the award at a ceremony at Fortnum and Mason store in London's Piccadilly on Wednesday evening, which was also attended by fellow shortlisted authors Gail Honeyman and Paula Cocozza, respectively in the running for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins) and How to Be Human (Windmill).

It is worth noting that "Indian-origin British authors" - as opposed to the likes of desi-cooked Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy - are beating indigenous English authors on home turf half a century on from the star of serious immigration from India to the UK.

Not everyone will be pleased.

The £10,000 prize was set up by David Elliott, a publisher and literary agent who died in 2003 and who stipulated his legacy should be invested in a literature award for emerging talent.

The novel was selected by a judging panel comprised of author Sarah Perry, BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed and Chris White, head of fiction at Waterstone's book chain.

At the award ceremony, Perry said: "Samira, Chris and myself were absolutely unanimous in our love and admiration for this novel, whose scope, ambition, skill and wisdom was, quite simply, awe-inspiring... all three of us sat together, shaking our heads, saying, 'If this is her first novel, what extraordinary work will come next?'"

Preti sets her version of Shakespeare's play in Delhi, where Devraj, the founder of a vast Indian corporation, has resigned.

His older daughters Radha and Gargi are handed the company, while his youngest has run away to avoid marriage.

It is a "commemorative portrait of a destroyed dynasty, a triptych dedicated to three departed sisters", according to the judges, containing "prose as sensual, perfumed and parti-coloured as a wedding basket of ladoo, inset with gems of pure poetry".

Preti, a human rights activist, had been working in New Delhi and Kashmir at the time she wrote the novel, researching the book "by speaking to people from different castes, class backgrounds and religions".

It has been called "a novel about the human heart, and its breaking point" and is said to chronicle the downfall of a family dynasty against a backdrop of the anti-corruption protests that swept across India in 2011-2012.

When it was snapped up by a small Norwich publisher Galley Beggar in 2016, having been turned down by the bigger names in the trade, co-founder Eloise Millar said the manuscript had come with "a history of ecstatic rejections" from editors who had concluded it was "extraordinary but too 'tricksy' to be a commercial success".

By contrast, Millar found it "so good" she had been left "baffled" as to why there had not been a bidding war for the rights.

Hinting at the book's rocky road to publication, the chairman of the prize's trustees, Dallas Manderson, said: "It is with great pride and privilege that my fellow trustees and I present our judges' choice of winner this year.

"We That Are Young is exactly the kind of novel that the Desmond Elliott Prize exists to discover and promote; this extraordinarily accomplished debut has flown somewhat under the radar thus far, not having received the attention and wide-spread acclaim that it so rightly deserves. Our hope is that winning the prize will help guarantee Preti's long-term future as an author, as we're sure it will be bright."

He added: "It is particularly gratifying, too, to witness the on-going success of Galley Beggar Press. I know Desmond (Elliott), who ... dedicated his career to promoting new writers, would be delighted to see that a prize in his name is championing similarly small-but-mighty institutions."

In 2014, Preti, who read theology at Jesus College, Cambridge, wrote a novella, Kumkum Malhotra, which won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize, where entries are restricted to between 10,000 and 13,000 words.

Her literary agent in London is David Godwin, started out by taking on The God of Small Things over 20 years ago and has been looking ever since for another Arundhati Roy (whom Preti interviewed recently).

Godwin put out a press release in August last year announcing Preti's novel had been greeted with "rave reviews".

He quoted from Alexander Nurnberg's review in The Sunday Times: "Taneja's prose, whose free indirect style alights in turn on each character, ingeniously betrays their self-possession and shame, and her immersive present tense takes a story we know and makes it urgent and irresistible. This is a new voice, vivid, full of imagery and pace, and with a richness to match the vibrancy of its world."

The novel is being published in the US and Canada by A A Knopf and Penguin Random House in India, with various translations around the world in the pipeline.

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