Kritika Pandey wins 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize; discusses writing, language and her craft with Firstpost
2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Kritika Pandey on her relationship with writing, and the role of fiction in a world divided by hate.
Writer Kritika Pandey was announced as the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner on Tuesday, 30 June. Previously, the 29-year-old had won the prize for the Asia region. Pandey, who has recently completed her MFA for Poets and Writers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, received the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story The Great Indian Tee and Snakes, about a Hindu girl falling in love with a Muslim man, navigating the idea of love in an increasingly divisive time.
In an interview with Firstpost, Pandey talks about her relationship with writing, the role of fiction in a world divided by hate, her developing understanding of the English language in the Indian context, and more.
Edited excerpts below:
Growing up in Ranchi, you’ve spoken about your childhood in a conservative household. Can you please share a few anecdotes of how you felt and processed the stifling feeling of gendered restraint as a child? What role did books and writing play in this setting?
I was a very restless child, both in mind and body. I was covered in scabs and bruises all year round. There was also the not-so-occasional fracture or burn or dislodged tooth that took us to the hospital. My parents and teachers could hardly stop telling me to “act like a lady”. And I was curious about everything from the physics of rolling rotis, to the icy particles that make up Saturn’s rings, to why my mother covered her head before my father’s elder brother, to what would happen if I disobeyed my elders and touched the man who cleaned our toilets every Sunday. So, for the longest time, I was boggled by people’s extremely low expectations of me: recite the Hanuman Chalisa every morning, don’t wear sleeveless [clothes] or shorts, and don’t talk to boys.
Fortunately, I was a textual learner.
I realised how thrilling and comforting it was for me to re-read every story and poem in my literature textbooks. Come to think of it, I needed an obsession because I am an essentially obsessive person. But I couldn’t possibly get consumed by playing cricket, for instance, even though I was not bad at it the few times I tried it. Reading and writing were permitted because they kept me from loitering on the streets.
Reading is sheer discovery. And writing, too, as the unique cognitive activity that it is. Oftentimes, we don’t know what we are going to write until we actually do. Therefore, when a girl writes from an orthodox context, she is inviting all kinds of strangers into her life to engage with in the most intimate possible ways. In a way, she is refusing to stay locked up at home. Not that I could articulate any of this when I first began to write. All I knew was that it made me feel less dead and more alive.
Could you tell us about your evolving relationship with writing over the years? You’ve said in a previous interview that you studied engineering before deciding to pursue writing formally. What then led to this decision and what was your MFA like?
When people ask me how I ‘transitioned’ from being an engineer to being a writer, I tell them that, if anything, I failed to transition from being a writer to being an engineer even after spending four years trying to be one. I was lost in college even though I am absolutely fascinated with science.
The existential writer in me cannot help but appreciate the poignance of attempting to understand the world through equations that are based on a limited set of assumptions.
And the sheer hopefulness of going on to live in spite of sometimes failing to understand it. I mean, turbulence is still one of the greatest mysteries in Physics, which means that we don’t know everything about the air flow around a moving airplane. But that doesn’t prevent us from flying several thousands of those every day. How cool is that! This drive to swing it, if you will, this desperation to look for meaning in meaninglessness is actually one of the foundations of literature as well. So my relationship with writing underwent an exciting transformation during my time in an engineering college and I am deeply grateful for that.
As crazy as it sounds, I applied for MFAs to escape an arranged marriage. Although I moved from Ranchi to Delhi immediately after college, my parents would show up in Delhi every other month and take me to Select City Walk to meet a prospective husband over kesar-pista ice creams. I was so sick of it that I came up with a plan to run away. I had the privilege of a good education and an indisputable love for writing. So I figured that I could put together a short story that could get me a fully funded three-year-long gig at a university 8,000 miles away from home. That is how, once again, writing helped me escape a miserable situation, this time more literally than not.
In that sense, I got what I needed from an MFA. But if you are a person of colour and/or not an American or a Westerner, you have to manage your expectations accordingly. Most of my classmates didn’t know the sociopolitical and historical contexts of my work. They would also be too terrified to offer constructive criticism because of political correctness (also known as ‘the lazy approach to engaging with people unlike you’). That said, I was able to cultivate a few meaningful relationships with fellow students and professors, and I am a fairly independent worker, so it all worked out in the end.
From the works available on your website, your writing seems to cover a range of topics, from the more domestic Goddess Who Wants Out which talks about two friends and their drifting relationship, to Dirty White Strings which tackles bigger topics like the potential erasure of a traditional Indian art form and a family story amidst that. How do you come upon topics for your stories?
When I decided to write Dirty White Strings, I wanted to venture as far away from my mind as I possibly could. I’d been writing too many stories from the perspective of young women so I thought it would be refreshing to write from a middle-aged man’s point of view. And I had recently seen a puppet show somewhere in Delhi. It was the first time I wrote about the working-class experience, too. I went into Kathputli Colony and spent some time with the puppeteers to make sure I knew what I was doing. Except I didn’t. I mean, ‘research’, as we like to call it, is a very fraught and lopsided process. It takes years of experience to get it even close to right. But that laid the foundation for my education in the politics of representation.
As for Goddess Who Wants Out, it came out of the exact opposite form of desire, the need to immerse myself in my mind. I didn't need to go anywhere to learn anything about anyone else in order to write this story. I mostly wanted to see to what extent firsthand experiences can be fictionalised and what, if anything, is accomplished from such an attempt.
You’ve said that The Great Indian Tee and Snakes was inspired by the Tabrez Ansari lynching. Elsewhere, you’ve also written about India’s disregard for its diversity, and its growing homogeneity and saffronisation. How can, and does, fiction contribute to this climate?
I think about this question every other day because it is related to my sense of self. It is important for me to stand up for those around me, in any way, shape or form. I am an angry and avid protestor. If I had any organisational abilities, I’d probably be an activist but all I can manage to do is shout slogans until my vocal cords are gone. So, as a concerned citizen of a world rapidly spinning out of control, I wonder what it means for me to give my best. And the answer is always: write. It’s one of my only strengths. I don’t know how to fix a broken system or how to heal wounded bodies. But I do an okay job of paying attention to my feelings through my works which, hopefully, would encourage readers to pay attention to theirs.
At tragic times like these, if we are not actively grieving, then they have managed to render us indifferent to their incessant bigotry.
We need academics, intellectuals, journalists, and activists, to help us make sense of things. But we also need artists who don’t shy away from a genuine engagement with their emotions. When innocent people are being murdered then we should not settle for anything less than that. I am sad a lot. But my sadness is not a condition that I am looking to overcome. I am more interested in taking note of it. Around a year before Tabrez Ansari was lynched, 16-year-old Junaid Khan was stabbed to death on a train. I cried myself to sleep; many people across the country mourned Junaid’s death in their own ways.
Why not turn our sorrows into modes of resistance? After all, broken hearts that refuse to be glued back together can be powerful things.
Writing stories helps me memorialise my griefs as well as [be] a part of someone else’s struggle — someone who was let down by the system that serves only a few of us. All the statistics and documentaries and papers about the Partition of India in 1947 cannot manage to tell us what Manto’s short stories can.
So the tyrants can keep trying to get us used to this hatred while we, by telling and listening to stories, will get used to refusing to get used to it.
What’s your process of readying a piece of writing that’s appropriate for the short story format? How do you, for instance, show well-defined characters and say a lot of things in a few thousand words? How easy or challenging is the writing process for you?
It was my professor, Ocean Vuong, who alerted me to the language (workshop, end product, polished draft, etc.) that we use to describe writing, which are symptoms of our misplaced desire to industrialise art. I don’t think any writer can really know how they write because they almost never end up writing what they want to. As Zadie Smith says, “Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” However, what I am sure of is that writing is the most difficult thing in the world, which I never want to stop doing.
As a writer, are there dark and difficult days when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing comes, or you don’t see the point of it all, etc.? What are some challenging times you’ve faced? And what do you do or tell yourself to get out of these spells?
Every day has a little bit of that struggle. I have completely resigned myself to this fate.
Joy Williams writes, “It's become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process... Writers when they’re writing live in a spooky, clamorous silence, a state somewhat like the advanced stages of prayer but without prayer’s calming benefits. A writer turns his back on the day and the night and its large and little beauties, and tries, like some half-witted demiurge, to fashion other days and nights with words. It’s absurd. Oh, it’s silly, dangerous work indeed.”
A wise person once told me that there’s no such things as writer’s block. There is only the fear of bad writing. I try to remember this always. And I ask myself, bad according to who? One of the things I do to get out of those spells is reading something I’ve long admired. Another trick that almost always works is putting your work in a drawer and forgetting about it. Work on something else or take a few days off and clean the house. Then return to it.
You’ve said in the Commonwealth video that you write stories as a way of undertaking a serious examination of emotions, and to study our “infinite ways of being intelligent without being intellectual”. Would you please elaborate on this? What led to you seeing stories this way?
I have a love-hate relationship with that kind of intellectualism that relies on academic jargon. Academicians have so much to offer us but most of them do a poor job of making their works accessible. Who cares if you came up with this nuanced understanding of the limitations of Western secular feminism in the context of the Global South when most people cannot get anywhere close to engaging with it? When I do manage to toil over a jargon-heavy paper and learn a few important things, it makes me mad that there’s this treasure-trove of knowledge that is reserved for only those who are fluent in academese/have the time and the education that people like me do. It’s like being refused entry into a nightclub because you have chappals on! Yet, this doesn’t keep those who wear chappals from forging complex and discerning relationships with the world. Which is why I make a distinction between intelligence and intellect. It’s an invented one and the nomenclature is nowhere near perfect but it will do for now. I learnt this from my characters such as the puppeteer at Kathputli Colony or the protagonist of The Great Indian Tee and Snakes who works at a chai-samosa stall and is a part-time mehndi artist. They prove that it is not only possible to be intelligent without being inaccessible (intellectual) but it’s actually a much more imaginative way of being so. Thus, it is my characters who introduce me to alternate systems of knowledge.
While there’s a lot of gatekeepers and expectations around English, the language itself seems quite malleable and welcoming of personalisation. Tell us about your relationship with the language.
My father spent entire nights standing in queues outside the few English medium schools that existed in Ranchi when I was growing up. These schools had a limited number of application forms for admissions. And my mother wouldn’t settle for anything less than an English medium education for me. Years later, I’d feel ashamed of my parents' limited English during the parents-teachers meetings. It took me decades to realise that I owe it to my parents, and my fraught postcolonial context, to engage with the English language (and culture) on my own terms.
At school, I was taught Wordsworth’s poem admiring “a host of golden daffodils” even though none of us had any idea what daffodils looked like. And because Shakespeare compared a woman’s beauty to a summer’s day, we were supposed to think of summers as beautiful, even as we sat in our sweltering classrooms, sweating all over, because Indian summers are scorching tropical conditions. It is only recently that I’ve begun to pay attention to the unique version of the English language in India.
Chinua Achebe wrote, “The price a world language must be willing to pay is submission to many different kinds of use”. Consider the lyrics of this song from Gangs of Wasseypur: ‘Jo Bhi Wrongwa Hai Usey/ Set Right-Wa Karo Ji/ Naahin Looj Ye Ji Hope/ Thoda Fightwa Karo Ji.’ The words here are not only a combination of Hindi and English, but also have elements of Bhojpuri and Nagpuri in them. Macaulay wished to “invent” a new kind of Indian. But we have invented a whole new language instead. May he turn in his grave.
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