Kritika Pandey, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize Asia, talks about her work

On June 2, Kritika Pandey was announced as the winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for her story, The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. According to the author, the story involves a young Hindu girl, “who chooses to love a Muslim young man even though she knows that she is not ‘supposed to’.”

The 29-year-old author from Ranchi was chosen over her compatriot Dinesh Devarajan, as well as Nafisa A Iqbal (Bangladesh) Sharmini Aphrodite (Malaysia) and Maham Javaid (Pakistan) to become the Asia winner.

The story was selected from a shortlist of 20 by the international judging panel, chaired by Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

Kritika will go through to the final round of judging and the overall winner will be announced on June 30. Before that, she spoke to MetroPlus from New York, where she currently resides.

When, how and why did you become a writer?

Growing up in Jharkhand, I was an imaginative, restless, and curious girl in a deeply conservative setting. This meant that I could not step out of the house even if it felt like torture to be locked indoors.I’d stand at the window and look at the boys running around in open fields, wandering on the streets, screaming and laughing and speaking their minds, but I was not allowed to do any of those things myself. So the only way I could nurture my free spirit was by creating fictional worlds of my own, where I was not trapped like a firefly inside a glass jar, before escaping into them, again and again and again. For me, writing has been an act of self-care, an act of survival. Fortunately, I had the privilege of a good education to do so.

Can you tell us how you got the idea for The Great Indian Tee and Snakes?

In June 2019, I was visiting my parents. One day I learned that, the previous afternoon, Tabrez Ansari had been lynched by a mob, less than three hours away from our house. My immediate instinct was to think about what we had been doing when this young man was being beaten to death. We were watching TV, eating mangoes, fussing over the temperature of the air-conditioner, and complaining about the warm weather. Suddenly, there was nothing normal about what had seemed to be a rather normal set of activities only a day ago. How is it normal to watch TV when a man is being murdered in your own backyard? And if it is normal in India of 2020 then why is it so? I wrote this story to un-normalise hatred in my own limited capacity as a writer.

When you set out to write a story, do you deliberately choose to address specific socio-political themes and construct a plot around it? Or, does the plot come first?

The emotional turmoil of a character comes first. It is only then that I am tempted to inquire into the sources of the turmoil and create a plot that would best facilitate that inquiry. Sometimes the socio-political underpinnings of a character’s emotional landscape are more seemingly urgent. The Great Indian Tee and Snakes, for instance, takes up issues that manage to find their way into news headlines. But sometimes a character is grappling with the politics of everyday life. After all, politics extends beyond what is in the news.

You said in a recent interview that “Hinglish” is your most comfortable language. With respect to language and subject, do you think the diversity of Indian English writers has increased over the last few years?

One of the most exciting developments in the works of young Indian English writers is the dispensability of the West. We no more need to have a character who writes letters to a distant relative who happens to be an undocumented immigrant in San Fransico in order for the publishing industry to take us seriously. Our characters can finally live and die within the geopolitical borders of the subcontinent and be trusted to have interesting lives. Yet, in the coming years, I wish all of us Indian English writers would take more risks with subject matter as well as language. Because we have not told nearly enough stories as yet considering that there is no other country in the world like India. It is one of the most daring political experiments in the history of humankind. So the possibilities of telling path-breaking stories are as endless as the need to do so.

Do you think it is important to have more storytellers in English from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities in India? If yes, why?

When I was eight years old, my family briefly migrated to Surat, and then to Mumbai, so my father could try his luck at the textile business. Those four years of living in western India as a Bihari/Jharkhandi taught me, for the first time, what it means to be otherised. I realised that the version of Hindi that we spoke back home was looked down upon everywhere else. So I can not even imagine what more than 65% of Indians, who live in rural areas, go through when they encounter what we consider to be Indian (pop) culture. Therefore, although we are still far from arriving at a coherent representation of India in our works of literature, the emergence of writers from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities is a step forward in that direction.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 7:03:29 AM |

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