When the shortlist for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize was announced in London, one of the first responses from the crowd of publishers, literary agents, critics and journalists gathered was: "Why are there so many Indians on the list?"
The question was asked in December by a journalist from Hong Kong and while her bluntness raised some laughs, she did have a point.
Of the seven writers on the shortlist, four are from the subcontinent (three from India, one from Pakistan) while three are from the Far East, which has traditionally dominated what is considered to be one of the most prestigious literary awards in Asia.
Since the Man Asian Literary Prize was established in 2007, Chinese writers have won three times out of four (the exception being Filipino author Miguel Syjuco, whose novel Illustrado, about a young man investigating the mysterious death of a writer, scooped the prize in 2008). So, why are there so many south Asian authors on the Man Asian Literary prize shortlist this year?
Adrienne Loftus Parkins directs the annual Festival of Asian Literature in London and curates literary events for The Asian Word. She says she's noticed an increased appetite for south Asian literature from readers in the past two years: "It's because south Asian fiction is so compelling. There is a lot happening over there, culturally, economically and politically. In the West, we're only aware of this through the media, so we don't get to see the real effect it has on society. Contemporary literature from the region gives us an opportunity to see behind the news and into the lives of the people experiencing these momentous social changes."
Eighty-year-old Jamil Ahmad made his debut as a published novelist last year and is the first Pakistani writer to be shortlisted for the Man Asian prize. His book about nomadic tribes in Pakistan, The Wandering Falcon, lay untouched for 40 years, but since being published last summer, it has won huge critical acclaim and is now one of the strongest contenders to win the US$19,000 (Dh70,000) prize.
"The Chinese have done really well in the past four years and there have been some very good books coming out of China, which I have enjoyed reading," he says, speaking from his home in Islamabad. "But maybe the western world is getting more interested in us in Pakistan and the East. Maybe they feel that they have not done enough to understand us, and so the mood is changing now."
Stories that help understand and portray another way of life were what the chair of the judges, the journalist Razia Iqbal, said she was looking for when compiling the shortlist together with her fellow judges, novelist Vikas Swarup and Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae Lee.
"There is no particular reason why there are four south Asian writers on the shortlist, other than their books are all very, very well written," says Iqbal. "As judges, we are looking for books that work as novels - that make you feel compelled to keep turning the pages and feel ever so slightly transformed by the end of it. Ultimately, every one of these books on the shortlist deals with what it is to live in the world today, even if they are set in the past."