Kritika Pandey from India is the regional winner for Asia of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The 29-year old author from Ranchi, Jharkhand, beat out fellow Indian Dinesh Devarajan, Nafisa A Iqbal from Bangladesh, Sharmini Aphrodite from Malaysia, and Maham Javaid from Pakistan to become the Asia winner.
Willam Phuan, Executive Director of the Singapore Books Council and Asia judge, said, “The power of ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ lies in its bracingly lucid yet restrained prose, which captures the topical urgency of religious discrimination and tension in India.”
Pandey now goes into the final round for the overall winner of this year’s competition, where here contenders are the regional winners for Africa, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The winner will be announced on June 30, and will receive £5000, while each of the regional winners receive £2500.
Pandey spoke to Scroll.in about her story, her writing and her inspirations. Excerpts from the interview.
Tell us about the origins of your story, “The Great Indian Tee and Snakes”. Particularly how a real-life incident turns into fiction for you. And about what fiction hopes to accomplish with such a project.
I once saw a map that had been documenting cases of mob lynching in India since 2015 and Jharkhand, where I grew up, was one of the most densely marked up areas on it. In July 2019, I was visiting my parents when Tabrez Ansari was murdered by a lynch mob not so far from our house. Ansari and his wife, Shahista Parveen, were a newly wedded couple who were expecting a child that was miscarried by Shahista due to the trauma of her husband’s death.
I wrote the story in an attempt to empathise with this young woman who had undergone multiple losses. For me, the loss of her child was symbolic of how nations are forced to rid themselves of their collective griefs and memories in the aftermath of tragedies like these. Because to keep our hearts broken is to remember, and to remember is to resist. It tells the people in power, no, we will not be rendered indifferent by your incessant hatred. We will not forget and we will not forgive and we will document every single detail of all your crimes on the fault lines of our souls.
I wanted one of my protagonists to be female because, thanks to the predominance of Western-centric literature, so much of what we read and write has the implication of hyper-masculinity in its refusal to genuinely engage with sentiments. You cannot submit to most literary magazines in the United States without the editor trying to turn your emotional moments into humorous ones. But those sensibilities can coexist in powerful ways. And even if they sometimes can’t, why can we not grieve without being apologetic for our sorrows?
I mean, Greta Thunberg got so much flack for breaking down on stage while talking about climate change. If you are not even going to weep for catastrophic devastation then what are you going to weep for? Therefore, my female protagonist acknowledges her feelings in almost physiological ways.
And I needed her to be a Hindu because that way I could also tell the story of Hindu women’s oppression at the hands of Hindu men. Endogamy is essential to preserving caste, racial, and religious “purity”, but it is impossible to execute without controlling women’s bodies and their sexualities. So every Hindu woman who refuses to conform, even a fictional one at this point, like “the girl with the black bindi”, ends up destabilising the system to some extent.
Without giving anything away, I have to say your story is all the more powerful because it’s told in what is almost a serene tone, quite at odds with the violence it contains. Talk to us about this.
The tone of the story takes after the relationship between the girl with the black bindi and the boy in the white skull cap. Despite the sociopolitical upheavals in their world that want them to focus on their mutual differences, these two young people are untroubled in their commitment towards forging something bigger than the type of samosas that they eat, something bigger than themselves.
Let’s go back to your beginnings as a writer. How, where and when did it all start?
I was born in a house with no books unless you take the Hanuman Chalisa into consideration. But my parents realised early on that I was attracted to all things textual because I’d read and re-read literally anything I could get my hands on: the back of cornflakes cartons, boxes of talcum powders, the refrigerator’s instruction manual and, of course, my school books. So my father began to buy me books that were not necessarily course books.
Not much of a reader himself, he couldn’t care less if I wanted to read Anna Karenina at the age of 11. I wrote a very bad poem about war when I was in 7th grade. It was in Hinglish and I was not even conscious about it because that is, in a way, my first language. In 10th grade, I wrote a novel about 8th grade (obviously) before dragging my father to the nearest cyber cafe to get it printed out and spiral-bound.
During those years, my younger sister read everything I wrote, and said, “It’s nice.” Maybe that simple, constant form of validation is exactly what I needed at the time. As a student of engineering, I wrote pretentious blog posts that were read and discussed all over the college, and it gave me the courage to ditch the first job I got during campus placements to follow my dreams of becoming a writer.
Which writers do you think have moulded your vision as a writer? What kind of influence have they had on you?
I love the works of Toni Morrison, Namdeo Dhasal, Rohinton Mistry, Kamila Shamsie, Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, Kamala Das, and Clarice Lispector, to name a few. These writers and poets have not only taught me how to speak truth to power but also how to do so while prioritising human-ness above everything else, without letting the academic and theoretical frameworks overwhelm what it all comes down to: human beings.
Lispector wrote, “I am not an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is a moist fog.” This spirit counters the Cartesian notion of “I think, therefore I am”. I admire writers who strive to value the senses and sensuality as much as they value the mind because let’s admit it, this is a gendered binary.
Many women who write also struggle to grapple with the popularly accepted “logic” of the narrative, which has masculine implications because of the historical absence of female and feminine literary voices. Virginia Woolf said that the best mind is the androgynous mind and cognitive science shows us that psychological androgyny is essential for creativity. So, as ironic as it may sound coming from a woman, I am always looking to engage with writers who help me tap into my myriad stifled femininities.
You’re working on a novel now for your MFA. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?
Not much except that it is also set in Jharkhand.
Is it a hard choice today to be a creative writer? On the one hand it doesn’t hold out hope of a great deal of money. And on the other, writers often seem to be in doubt right now about the value of writing.
If I had to pay back an education loan or help pay for a sister’s wedding, I wouldn’t have been able to follow my dreams immediately after college, maybe even never. In that sense, I am immensely privileged. This is not to say that I haven’t had to borrow money from generous friends once or twice because my middle-class family can only help so much. You have to be a little uninhibited, in that sense.
Why feel ashamed that you are a broke writer? It’s not on you. It’s on the system that penalises us for refusing to be cogs in their capitalist machinery. The only people who should be truly ashamed of their financial situation are the millionaires and billionaires.
The other thing I do is save aggressively. I buy almost no new shoes, clothes, accessories, or electronics unless I absolutely want them. I guard all my material possessions with my life so I don’t break/ruin them for the fear of having to go to the supermarket and spending a bomb.
As for your second question, I doubt that humans would ever give up on stories. It’s what we are made up of. Research shows that people still read books. Maybe our patterns of engagement with literature are changing, (Kindle, audiobooks, etc.) but that only proves that written storytelling traditions are resilient to technological advancements.
You represent a small but growing group of writers in English in India whose roots don’t lie in the big metros. Do you feel yourself more a part of the tradition of writers in India who write in other languages rather than English? What is the relationship between the language you write in and your subject? Is there a tension between them?
Consider the title of the story, The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. If you are an Indian person who can read and write in English then you have probably come across many signboards with what seem to be misspellings. But who are these signboards for and what do they really signify?
Most people who go to chai-samosa stalls don’t need to read a board before figuring out what these places have to offer. Besides, these are working class people who have often been deprived of schooling and/or access to the English language. So these signboards are really for us English speaking elites to read and interpret.
What we take to be misspellings are actually words that effectively spell out the insistence of those who cannot speak our language to be included in our worlds. They who refuse to be invisibilised in this way represent the real India. It is my responsibility as a writer from Jharkhand, a state with extraordinarily high levels of poverty, starvation, illiteracy, and entrenched cultural racism against its native Adivasi population, to highlight these tensions.
I don’t feel like I am part of the strictly South-Delhi-South-Bombay group of writers who, when they meet a person from Jharkhand, cannot believe that some of us do in fact talk in English and listen to Pink Floyd. But I don’t necessarily feel like I belong with the Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu, and Hindi writers either, to name only a few literary traditions outside the English world.
Maybe it is because the language I am the most comfortable with is Hinglish. It is probably even the language I dream in. But like any other language, Hinglish is more than just a set of words, phrases, and sentences. It’s a sensibility, a culture, one that demands that I constantly acknowledge my pre-existing relationship with fellow Jharkhandis. And I am still learning how to do so.
But why does JD Salinger get to represent Holden Caulfield’s English as it is while us Indians must craft only the most grammatically perfect sentences and let autocorrect control our spellings? It doesn’t make any sense only!