Kritika Pandey, winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, talks about transgressing cultural norms, protesting, and Hinglish.
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Firstly, congratulations on winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ – which is an extraordinary story. I know you’ve spoken elsewhere about why you entered the prize, but I want to start by asking what winning it means.
It’s the biggest accomplishment of my career so far. My trajectory has been a little unusual; I feel like many people come to writing after having studied literature, or at least the humanities, but I was an engineer. It’s the reality for so many people in smaller cities in India: if you can write tests and pass examinations, then you should become an engineer. It’s the thing to do. You should go to Silicon Valley, earn a lot of money, and send it back home. So that’s what I did.
And then I realised how miserable I was. So I gave it all up, took a risk, and became a writer – whatever that means. I read – contemporary writers and old writers. I read all sorts of different ‘literature’, creative and scientific. I think that’s meant my writing has been informed by many different disciplines. Eventually, I took an MFA.
These decisions arose problems. For the longest time, I was ostracised – and still am in my community – because I refused to get married at the age at which I was supposed to get married. My parents also got a lot of flak for it, because they weren’t keeping me in check. This prize tells me that this was all worth it; that the unusual things that we all do, in our own capacities, lead us to places that are worth exploring.
Are MFAs ‘worth it’?
My immediate follow-up question is ‘For whom?’ It is for some, not for others. At the time I applied, I was in Delhi, having left my hometown, Ranchi. My parents kept showing up in Delhi and taking me to the mall to meet guys they wanted me to marry. I was sick of it. I just wanted to run away. I had the privilege of a decent education in the English language, and had always wanted to be a writer, so I put together a short story and sent it to MFA programmes. I thought: this way, I can leave home for three years, and not have to meet some Brahmin guy who wants me to cook for him.
And so, in that sense, I got what I needed from an MFA: I tricked my parents into postponing the whole marriage conversation until I was safely out of the marriageable age-bracket.
But anytime I found myself in a workshop, I was miserable. People either didn’t know the socio-political or historical context of what I was writing about, or they were too terrified to offer constructive criticism because I am a person of colour – which is such a lazy approach.
What’s interesting about that response is that, so often in an interview, you brace for profound answers, and then there’s instead something ostensibly pragmatic in a response. But those pragmatic answers are underpinned – as in this case – by nuanced and complex experience, which in turn manifest as profundity in writing.
I’ve been fortunate to read a few of your stories, and something that unifies them is an interest in transgressing cultural, religious and repressive gender norms. That speaks to this idea that profundity lies underneath practical decisions. Could you talk a little about your thematic interests, and in what ways they catalyse your writing?
These frameworks – the frameworks of religion, gender, cultural norms, orthodoxy – are frameworks that have influenced my whole life.
Jharkhand, of which Ranchi is the capital, is one of the poorest parts of India, where value is seen only in terms of what can be extracted. It’s one of those places where men dig up bauxite and coal, and men set up steel factories, and men build big dams that drown entire villages where indigenous people live. On one side of my house was a lawyer. On the other side were the slums. So I was conscious of the divide – the class divide – between these worlds.
My parents are very believing Hindus, and I learned to pray very early on – without questioning the idea of God. Then – obviously – I became a disillusioned teenager. And so grappling with religion and its complicated truths is something I continue to do.
The same is true of cultural norms. I was hyperactive as a little girl, always bumping into furniture and covering myself in bruises. My parents would tell me act like a lady. And I hated this idea that I had to be a certain way, because I was a certain gender, in order to be loved. I was told that, if ever I went out, I should never, ever make eye contact; I should always stare at my feet, and always make way for men and boys to walk past me. Despite this, my mother was a feminist through-and-through. She would stand up for me, telling my father to let me pursue what I wanted, study what I wanted. I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts, had to wear sleeves – but my mother would secretly stitch me relatively revealing clothes, so that I could look cool. These are the things that I grew up with. So these are the things that shape my writing.
When you talk about those things shaping your life, a lot is about shaping your young life – your childhood and teenage years. Your writing is very much about that, too. And I wonder if that is a conscious decision?
I’ve never really thought about this. But, because the most charged experiences of my life happened when I was a teenager, I think it is a decision that’s conscious, at least in part. I’m interested in how young people make sense of the world. It’s a very fragile state of existence, being young. And some of the inferences that we make about the world as young people are quite profound, and worth thinking about.
Are young people your ideal readers?
I think that my ideal reader is the person who is open to thinking like a young person.
Turning to your story, now: the murder of Tabrez Ansari is a touchstone for ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ – a terrible touchstone. Do you think stories like yours can change the conditions from which those sorts of horrors emerge?
That is a question I think about every day. I’m still trying to make sense of my grief for this young man, who died in my own backyard when I was visiting my parents. How can my writing prevent such things from happening?
When I first read Arundhati Roy, I learned – as an upper-caste person – something I needed to learn about caste. Thereafter, I moved through the world with a new sensitivity to privilege. Maybe a reader learns something from a story, and then maybe they work in a grassroots organisation, and then maybe there is a chain reaction (that we can’t necessarily put our finger on) that leads to change. I can hope that my story might, in that way, contribute to change.
I shared the story on Facebook, and with my family members. There are people in my family with aggressively Islamophobic ideas; I shared the story with them, particularly. The last line in the story is the question ‘Are you happy?’ That question is for them. You know – don’t ask the girl with the black bhindi if she is happy; she is asking you. Hundreds of people have died from this violence since 2015. Are you at peace with that?
The chain reaction point is an interesting one: it’s true that it doesn’t matter that one person is writing a story; it matters that many people are reading it. I suppose that, to be a bit trite, you need 1) a writer, 2) an activist and 3) a lawmaker in order to effect change. But it is so often the writer at the start of that chain. And that is why I think the question that ends your story is so invaluably powerful.
You’ve touched on something I wanted to ask you about. In sharing your story – with your family, and the world – have you received backlash?
Not from family members. But, after I was announced as the Asia region winner, I was almost immediately attacked online by right-wing groups in India. They said: Why could the girl not be Muslim, and the boy be Hindu? And the context of that is this Indian right-wing narrative that Muslim men are enticing Hindu women in order to convert the entire population. They call this phenomenon ‘love jihad’.
In 2017, when I was in the United States, my political sensibilities were becoming more and more nuanced, and I was being more and more vocal in family WhatsApp groups. As a result, one of my aunts asked my mother if she thought I was a ‘victim of love Jihad’. So the right-wing response to the story – the blanket dehumanisation of Muslim men – really stuck with me.
There is that old platitude that, when you solicit such responses, you know you’re doing something right. But that doesn’t make them any less awful.
I want to ask two related questions about imagery in your story. The first is about the image of the ‘broken-unbroken’ ceramic cups – which is immensely powerful. Was that a seed for the story? I’m always interested, particularly with the short story form, about such images, and whether the story grows from them or they from the story.
The second is about the ‘new prime minister’s face’ – which looms large but silent and, whilst mentioned repeatedly, fades with the second half of the story, when things become horrific and its mark has been left. Could you talk a little about that image, too?
I think that my most of my writing stems from of an image – that the story is shaped around it. In the case of ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’, it was indeed about the cups: it was the image of the girl putting together the broken pieces, and cutting herself doing so.
The broken cup is a very lived reality in small towns in India. We have seen our mothers and fathers make sure there’s a different set of cups in the in the kitchen for Muslims. It is an image of how we are made to feel alienated from our friends – how we are prevented from forming profound relationships with them. We might not be involved in incidents like the murder of Tabrez Ansari, but we must ask ourselves how these practices make us complicit.
The new prime minister’s face is there in the background in the same way that political upheavals happen around us whilst life just goes on. I wanted to write a political story without evidently political actors; that is why the face disappears: people are affected by politics, but they are not necessarily engaged in conversations around electoral politics whilst committing atrocities.
Growing up, I saw my father sitting in living rooms, surrounded by other men, talking about who will win the election, who the candidates are, what their promises are, etc., etc., Meanwhile, my mother was always in a bedroom or in the kitchen, very much not talking about politics. But that doesn’t mean that politics weren’t influencing their lives equally.
I want to turn to language. There is of course a long history of Indian literature in englishes – with a lower-case ‘e’. You write in Hinglish, to use your own term. Could you talk to me about linguistic communities and literary communities, and how they interrelate?
I have a very long relationship with English. At school, I was taught in English. If you spoke a word of Hindi outside Hindi class, you had to pay a 20-rupee fine. So I didn’t question it. We knew it would help us get ahead in life, so we learnt our gerunds and infinitives. We accepted that Shakespeare compared a women’s beauty to a summer’s day, even though summers in India are scorchingly unbearable.
And then, after school, I realised that I couldn’t communicate something substantial – something profound and literary – in this language we were taught. Not in the form in which we were taught it. When I first wrote a story entirely in Hinglish, it was met with shock by those who read it – either because they had never encountered the language in this way, or because they had: because it was their language, which was so intimate, but which they had never encountered outside those intimate parts of their lives. I think the literary world is of course accepting this experimentation with English more. But there is still some way to go.
I want to ask a question that relates to that idea of ‘acceptance’. In another interview, you’ve said that ‘Our characters can finally live and die within the geopolitical borders of the subcontinent and be trusted to have interesting lives’. I want to ask about not the geopolitical borders of writing, but the geopolitical borders of reading. Is it important to reach readers outside this context?
It’s hugely important to me that my stories are read by others in the Global South. What I really want is to be part of the ‘global desi story’; I am a part of a postcolonial English writing culture, and whilst there is a discourse in South Asia about not writing ‘for the West’, I don’t think that should come at the cost of making ourselves inaccessible to people outside South Asia who happen to be, for one reason or other, in the Anglophone West. I think that would be a foolish, foolish thing to do. I have gained so much from reading literature from other contexts, and would not want to debar myself from being read elsewhere.
And, apart from anything, it is a fundamental truth that culture moves across contexts. So I have Beyoncé in my story, because in small towns in India young people dress up like Beyoncé, and want to be like Beyoncé, and are fascinated by Beyoncé – so why not incorporate that? Saying ‘no’ to those sorts of cultural exchanges only upholds a West-centric view.
You used the phrase ‘postcolonial’. Do you put stock in that word?
As a writer, it’s a convenient phrase. But I also believe that there is no ‘post’ – in that we are still very much in a repackaged, 21st Century colonialism. It’s a useful term in reminding us that there are ongoing tensions. I can understand why an academic would want to give up on it, but I’m not an academic – so it works for me.
And as that relates to language, what are your thoughts on postcolonialism and the English language. Is writing in English a sort of radical linguistic occupation of the coloniser, or is it a colonial hangover? Is translating into English about access, or about imperial legacy?
I will be thinking about these questions for the rest of my life. As Chinua Achebe said, just because postcolonial nations were invented by the British, it doesn’t mean that the people in those nations were also created by the British. It also doesn’t mean that those people cannot write in English whilst inhabiting the language in a way that questions its context and legacy. The English language, decade-on-decade, has submitted to the language of the ‘colonised’ precisely because of these forms of writing. So this is not a question I can answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.
If I wrote in Hindi, my friend in Rwanda would not be able to read my story. In order for me to engage with Juan Pablo Villalobos, I have to read him in translation by Daniel Hahn. And I am so glad that I am able to read Juan Pablo Villalobos. I think we can exercise our respective agencies in our respective but relating contexts by using the English language; we can speak truth to power using the English language.
I agree. One of my self-critiques, when battling with the ethics of translation, is that a conception of into-English translation as necessarily problematic (in a postcolonial context) implies, almost inevitably, a problematic homogenisation of the different language communities within a postcolonial nation-state. We shouldn’t really be talking about the problematics of translating Hindi into English; we should be talking about supporting translation regionally and locally, between South Asian languages.
To return to ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ again, something I love about the story – and, when done well, about many short stories – is your use of the third-person present. Where did that stylistic choice come from?
A much as I say that I’m not an academic, I am moving in academic circles. And so I can’t help but think in terms of representation. The girl in the story is a working-class girl. What do I know about being a working-class girl? The third-person present gives me the right distance, I think; the narrator is not the girl.
But there are moments in which those perspectives come close to one another.
Yes, and it means that the final question isn’t just about speaking to a character; it’s also about speaking to my family.
As we’ve discussed, the story is deeply political. But it’s also deeply emotional. You treat very profoundly and seriously emotions and feelings and affect. Is that a part of why you write? To interrogate the truths, as far as they can be truths, of fundamental human emotions – like love, and how it is gendered?
I think that I became a writer – or that I started writing – because it seemed like the only outlet for the deluge of emotions that I feel every single day. My friends always seem happy, and, for that, I’m happy for them. But I’m not able to feel that way. I’m sad. And I don’t want to apologise for that anymore. In the context of my home, conversations about mental health are very new. I don’t only want to talk about my emotions in the therapist’s office, because the whole process of therapy – of sitting across from someone for exactly an hour, and paying them a certain amount of money – doesn’t make any sense to me.
In the days after Tabrez Ansari’s murder, I cried myself to sleep. We don’t talk about this; about the fact that politics do not end with politics, but that they instead end up in tragedy that makes us emotional. So, for me, the beginning and the end of writing is emotion.
On love: in the story, at first, it’s not really about love; it’s about physical attraction. The girl is physically attracted to the boy. And framing sexual attraction as love is, as you, say, a gendered thing. Men can feel attracted to women, but women must always feel love for men. Love is just a neat euphemism for lots of other things.
By the way, when I talk about writing to interrogate emotions, I should say that I don’t find writing therapeutic. It’s tough. It’s often deeply unhappy.
And to finish with, potentially, another unhappy question: What do you fear most as a writer?
I am always going to be political; for the time being, that means I’m going to be controversial, and targeted and attacked for my writing. So, what I fear most is that, in the worst possible turn of events, I will be killed for what I write.
If I was organised enough, I’d be an activist. I’m a very angry protester. Protesting George Floyd’s murder, I’ve of course been anxious about coronavirus, but that has been outweighed by my anger. I think my life as a writer will never be complete without stepping outside to protest. In February, before lockdown, I went to India for five days. I told my family I was visiting them – and I did visit them. But I really went to protest with the women of Shaheen Bagh. I could not sit in the US whilst the biggest democratic movement since 1947 was happening in India. I had to be on the streets, protesting with the students, sitting with the women, saying: I refuse to let Modi decide to whom this country does or doesn’t belong.
Kritika Pandey is a Pushcart-nominated writer from Jharkhand, India, and a graduate of the MFA for Poets and Writers, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a recipient of a 2020 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is the overall winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She is the winner of the 2020 James W. Foley Memorial Award, the 2018 Harvey Swados Fiction Prize, the 2018 Cara Parravani Memorial Award in Fiction, and a 2014 Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.