Kritika Pandey has been awarded the 5,000 pound 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her short story “The Great Indian Tee and Snakes”, in a virtual ceremony. She has won from among 5000 entries from 49 countries.
The 29-year-old author from Jharkhand describes her short fiction work as the story of a young Hindu girl who chooses to love a young Muslim boy despite knowing that she is not “supposed to”. It is about the relationship between “the girl with the black bindi and the boy in the white skull cap”.
It is about “two people trying to solve the age old riddle of human existence – how does one love in the era of hatred”, according to Pandey.
The jury chair, Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes, described her short story as “gut-punch of a story, all the more shocking in its charged conclusion given that most of it is set at a tea seller’s, and its energy derives from a few looks between a boy and a girl.”
Pandey says that the reward “is so reassuring”. It has made her struggles as a writer worth it.
Pandey has won numerous prestigious awards prior to this, but especially values Commonwealth for being a platform that values the “unique context of a post-colonial writer”.
“It encourages voices that don’t, or won’t, take after an Orwell or a Hemingway, because we learnt to write by reading the work of Mahasweta Devi and Namdeo Dhasal,” says Pandey.
How Writing Became “Self-Care” For Pandey Amidst Gendered Suppression While Growing Up
Pandey says, in an interview with The Hindu, that she grew up in a deeply conservative setting. She was “an imaginative, restless, and curious girl”, forced to stay 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,” Pandey said.
Her parents were as conservative as the society she grew up in. They demanded she become an engineer – “so I became an engineer”, she says. However, when they subsequently wanted her to get married and have children, she drew the line. She needed to pursue her passion as a writer.
After winning the award, Pandey has expressed hope that her story will help “more people trust their daughters and their dreams.”
Why A Female Protagonist And Feminine Narrative Are Important
Pandey knew she wanted one of her protagonists to be female. She believes that a majority of what is written and read feels the need to be hyper-masculine in its refusal to truly engage with sentiments.
“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,” she says.
Gender plays as crucial a role in Pandey’s short story as religion does, and having a Hindu girl as the protagonist was important to her, for exploring the oppression Hindu women face at the hands of men from their own faith.
Pandey explains, “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.”
Pandey believes that a historical absence of female and “feminine” literary voices, has led to many female writers feeling like they cannot grasp what is widely accepted to be the “logic” of the narrative. Therefore, Pandey says, “I am always looking to engage with writers who help me tap into my myriad stifled femininities”.
Pandey Is Unapologetically Good At What She Does, And At Being True To Herself
She unapologetically writes in Hinglish, refusing to soften the “alien” words in italicisation – why must “Indians craft only the most grammatically perfect sentences and let autocorrect control our spellings?”
She is intensely grateful for the recognition the award brings. It will increase the visibility of her work exponentially, and she intends to use this visibility to represent as many unheard voices, and encourage as much progressive social change, as possible.
“This reminds me of my responsibility to the place and the culture and the people who define my sense of self. Stories can be powerful tools for change. And I am more determined than ever to use my storytelling abilities to draw attention to the struggles of those who have historically been invisibilised,” she asserts.
A simple but constant “It’s nice” from her sister in response to her writing, is the validation that kept Pandey going in the early days, and encouraged her to become the bold and hugely talented writer she is today.
Relentlessly encourage and uplift the women in your lives to follow their passion. Like Pandey, they could, down the line, become a Commonwealth award winner – or even better – unapologetically themselves.
You can read Kritika Pandey’s ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ here.
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