Writing, reading perfect escape from being locked up at home: Kritika Pandey

Growing up in a traditional middle-class family in Ranchi, writing was “one of those things” that 29-year-old Kritika Pandey — the Asian regional winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and one of the five contenders for the top award — did to keep herself occupied. The other was reading and these two activities proved to be the “perfect escape from being locked up at home” because they helped her travel through the entire world, albeit virtually.

“Growing up in a traditional middle-class family in Jharkhand, I spent most of my time inside the house. It was impossible for me to not be doing something because I was a very restless child. Writing happened to be one of those things I did to keep myself occupied,” Pandey, who pocketed 2,500 pounds (Rs 2,33,344) as the regional winner, told IANS in an email interview from Amherst in the US, where she is a final year candidate in the Masters in Fine Arts (MFS) programme at the University of Massachusetts.

Pandey was cited for “The Great Indian Tee and Snakes”, praised as a “gut-punch of a story” of two young people trying to solve the age-old riddle of human existence: How does one love in the era of hatred and prejudice? The final winner of the 5,000 pounds prize will be announced at 5.30 p.m. (IST) on Tuesday. The five regional winners’ stories have been published online by the literary magazine Granta.

The other thing Pandey did was read. “And the more I read the more I wanted to write. Both these activities proved to be the perfect escape from being locked up at home because, in some way, they helped me travel through the entire world or at least pretend to do so,” she explained.

Confessing to the being “thrilled, honored, and overwhelmed” at being declared the Asian regional winner, Pandey, who also has an engineering degree from BIT Masera, said she was also reminded of her responsibilities as a writer.

“I was anyway going to keep writing for the rest of my life but getting this award means that now more people would pay attention to my work. I want to utilise whatever visibility I have in order to highlight the struggles of those who have been historically invisibilised,” said Pandey, a recipient of a 2020 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation.

Her works are forthcoming or have appeared in Guernica, The Common, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Raleigh Review and UCity Review, among others. She has won the Harvey Swados Fiction Prize, the Cara Parravani Memorial Award, and the Charles Wallace Scholarship for Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.

What prompted her to enter the competition?

“The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is a unique competition in that it manages to bring together a judging panel of writers from around the world. These judges are aware of the socio-political developments in their respective contexts and are willing to engage with those in other parts of the globe.

“This shouldn’t be a radical and/or a rare occurrence in the literary scene in 2020, but it is. So after writing eThe Great Indian Tee and Snakes’, if there was one competition that I knew I had to submit to, it was the CSSP,” Pandey said.

The power of Pandey’s story, said William Phuan, Executive Director of the Singapore Books Council and Asia judge, “lies in its bracingly lucid yet restrained prose, which captures the topical urgency of religious discrimination and tension in India. The amusing title seems to take you in a different direction initially, but as the story begins to unravel, it hits you until you are as breathless as the protagonist, unhinged by all the mindless and heartbreaking cruelty of such strife”.

This saw her fight off competition from a strong field of shortlisted Asian entrants, including fellow Indian Dinesh Devarajan, as well as Nafisa A. Iqbal (Bangladesh), Sharmini Aphrodite (Malaysia) and Maham Javaid (Pakistan).

It was selected from a regional shortlist of 20 by an international judging panel chaired by Ghanaian writer NiiAyikwei Parkes, who described it as a “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”.

The other four regional winners are: Africa — “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood” by Innocent ChizaramIlo (Nigeria); Canada and Europe — “Wherever Mister Jensen Went” by Reyah Martin (United Kingdom); Caribbean — “Mafootoo” by Brian S. Heap (Jamaica); and Pacific — “The Art of Waving” by Andrea E. Macleod (Australia).

Speaking about her years in college, Pandey said that BIT Mesra was located between her parents’ house “and parts of Jharkhand that don’t make it to what we believe is the popular imagination”.

“I may not have learned enough about microprocessors in college but I learned a lot about the people of Jharkhand. My (present) course essentially gave me the time and financial stability to focus being so far away from home for almost four years. It also helped me gain a whole new perspective on things back in India,” she said.

What of the future?

“I hope to publish my debut novel soon. It is also based in Jharkhand. I’ve never written a novel before, so I am learning how to write one as I am writing it. But I have the feeling that this is how it’s going to be for every other book that I write. In other words, I will always be learning how to be a writer,” Pandey concluded.