When the news of her Commonwealth Short Story Prize win reached her, Kritika Pandey says she was rather taken aback. This was the third year that she’d entered the contest, open to unpublished writers from Commonwealth nations, and she’d not gone beyond the shortlist in previous years. “This time, I did not even have butterflies in my stomach,” she says, during a long-distance conversation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US, where she has just completed an MFA course. Pandey’s short story, ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’, on a short-lived friendship between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy in a communally-charged India, not only emerged as the Asia winner but also the overall winner of the competition. In this interview, Pandey, 29, speaks about what set her off on the story and how reading changed her world.
Was there anything in particular that triggered ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’?
I have only lived in the United States for four years, so I’m homesick all the time. I keep going to India. In the summer of 2019, when I was home, a young man called Tabrez Ansari was lynched very close to our house. It shook me up. I had heard of such cases of mob lynchings from around the country and had reached a tipping point. How much can you really take in before you feel compelled to respond? I thought I should write about it. I knew that a short story is not going to change the world but I could still make my small contribution to the collective struggle.
You grew up in Ranchi (Jharkhand) and studied for an engineering degree. How did writing happen?
I did not grow up in a literary family. The only books that were available to us were Hindu scriptures. My father works in real estate, my mother’s a homemaker. For my parents, there is no distinction between a Chetan Bhagat (book) and an Anton Chekhov (book) because they are both books. So, I discovered everything on my own. In school, I was good at literature and I was discovering new books in the school library. They took me to all kinds of places. When you are a teenager, you need a personality that represents you, a set of ideas that speak of who you want to be. In my mind, I thought that I could be the person who reads. Before I knew it, I was also writing. My mom and dad wanted to make sure I have financial stability and so I went to an engineering college but I was miserable for four years. That is when I decided to switch to liberal arts.
The thing is, because my parents don’t read, the sensationalism around writing or creativity was absent in my household. Even now, they are very happy that I have won the prize but there is no engagement with my writing. It keeps me grounded and lets me write freely.
How hard is it for someone from outside the metros to break into the literary circuit?
I think it’s very hard. It takes a certain strength of personality and character to end up in south Delhi or south Bombay from Ranchi and then fit in. I remember when I moved to Delhi to study, people would be like, ‘Are you really from Ranchi? You don’t have an accent.’ Am I supposed to take that as a compliment? Or is that an insult? Because it’s both. Our parents worked hard to put us through the education system. Why do we need to prove that we also grew up listening to Pink Floyd? When I speak in English, I don’t give away where I come from and it really helped me but it’s unfair that that is the standard.
Does that compel you anyhow to represent a certain kind of politics in your writing?
My engagement with gender and caste comes from my experience of being a woman in an upper-caste household, always under the pressure to get married, aware of my community’s many anxieties around controlling my body and sexuality. (BR) Ambedkar made it clear long ago that endogamy is caste and caste is endogamy. There is no way that caste, one of the cruellest systems of social segregation in human society, can possibly exist without this level of patriarchal dominance over upper-caste women. I was expected to marry a Mercedes-driving Brahmin guy from Silicon Valley. This led me to inquire into the social repercussions of entering an arranged marriage. The more I questioned it, the more I understood the relationship between the curtailment of my freedom and the continuation of caste hierarchies. I understood that I had limited but not entirely inconsequential power to destabilise this system of social segregation. That’s when I put my foot down. Then I read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (1936) and Marx’s works and discovered that there is a particular articulation of my struggle that exists in the world.
A turning point at the time were the events in Jawaharlal Nehru University, involving Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid (sedition row in 2016). I was around the same age as these young men and I understood that we are a deeply polarised society. I thought if I had to pick a side, then this had to be it (that of the students).
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