Realities that are Already Quite Beautiful and Existent
‘I’m interested in the seemingly small people’
Writer Kritika Pandey won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize earlier this year for her story The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. Excerpts from an interview with the 29 year old Pushcart Prize nominee:
What is your understanding of the term intersectionality, and how do you see it play out in your work?
I don’t like to weigh in on these academic questions or like using these academic terms. I try not to get too academic about whatever it is that I’m doing. Academic talk is inherently limited and limiting and extremely hierarchical in the way it disseminates knowledge, and what it considers to be knowledge.
But I will say that intersectionality is an important idea. I know many academics don’t like that phrase, and you know –academics, they can have problems, they can critique everything until the end of time. For me, the only valid kind of feminism is intersectional feminism.
Intersectionality is essentially acknowledging that problems in the world are complicated, they’re not one dimensional –so there’s nothing where intersectionality doesn’t apply. In my story, you have religious identity, you have gender identity, you have class identity –and all of these come together at different points to create interpersonal tensions.
I don’t necessarily think of the word intersectionality when I’m writing the story, but I am necessarily invested in multiple forms of identity markers. Some of these make you a privileged person, and some of these make you a marginalized person –and how a combination of all those identity markers defines your existence in the world.
Does fiction try achieving an alternate universe which could’ve been our reality?
I’m not really trying to establish an alternate reality. The work that I’m doing, I think, is highlighting realities that are already quite beautiful and already existent and worthy of attention. And so, what I’m essentially trying to do is like draw attention away from a particular narrative of what it means for this conflict to exist in this country and apply it to a slightly different setting.
I mean it is still taking place in India, but the premise for The Great Indian Tee and Snakes is the Muslim conflict that is all over India but the central theme that ties this story together is the characters of the girl and the boy. It is their innocence and passion and curiosity for each other and the world.
So, what I tried to do is to take the attention away from the kinds of narratives that dominate both, mainstream media and popular imagination. Like there are these delicate beings who are at the heart of this conflict and they are getting hurt.
For example, Shaista Parveen, the wife of Tabrez Ansari, who was lynched in Jharkhand in 2019. Shaista is a very young woman who miscarried her baby after she heard that her husband was lynched. The trauma was too much for her to take, so her baby died in her womb.
These are stories that we don’t get to hear, like how somebody who’s seemingly at the periphery of this mob is actually at the heart of it. How are they processing it and why it is important to pay attention to their way of coping with what they’ve witnessed.
In case of the girl with the black bindi, half the story is about the girl falling in love with the boy, while half the story is more about mourning his loss. I thought that it was a very powerful lens to humanise the boy, to get the audience, the reader to feel in their bones, what it means to lose a human being –an innocent human being to mob lynching.
How does the sociopolitical temper of India affect your writing? And what role does fiction play in this climate? How do reality and fiction interact?
As a writer I’m very politically invested in things that are happening around me, and I respond to those social political developments. I’m interested in participating in these contemporary conversations that are also related to historical occurrences, which I think is the Ashoka effect!
Ashoka [University] got me really interested in the world in interesting ways. I mean I can still write a story which is very insular and not really engaging with politics and it would still be a story, but I think that’s the kind of writer that I decided to be after going to Ashoka.
I am somebody who is interested in the politics and the serious things, the big things –as Arundhati Roy would say. So, I’m interested in those big things, but I’m not interested in exploring them through big people, as it were. I’m not interested in writing about ministers or even vigilante groups. I’m interested in the human beings who are allowing themselves to be filled with the entire spectrum of human emotions, by not necessarily being in the position of making decisions.
I’m interested in the seemingly small people –the people who don’t seem to matter but actually, their point of view is so important. It is their point of view that matters at the end of the day when you think how you are going to record this time in India’s history.
I mean of course you need the Quint and some other media platforms that have data and documentation, but that’s not enough. That’s statistics, stories are different from statistics because stories elicit emotions. Stories give us characters who stay with us, we develop a relationship with them. You can read as many news articles about Tabrez Ansari as you want, but it’s not possible to feel like you have a real connection with this man because that’s not the job of news.
The job of the writer is to turn that human being, into somebody who you can relate to. So, in a way, fiction and reality, are not binaries for me. I think fiction feeds off reality, and sometimes even highlights the realness of the reality.
What is the significance of the misspelling in your title ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ and what does it underscore?
Misspelling is essentially inspired from all the misspelt “signboards” that I’ve seen in my life in India, and how some people find it funny. And it’s not just India alone, it’s a very important aspect of post-colonial nations that were colonized by the British.
So, the English language undergoes a certain metamorphosis at the hands of the population that were once colonized. I think that's a very strong statement, because the English language must lend itself to different kinds of users, I think it was Chinua Achebe who said that.
And especially a language that has historically and continues to, to a large extent, be used for oppression or for perpetuating oppression and for destroying native cultures and gently complicating identities in ways that are not always welcome or good.
It was important to me to keep this misspelling intact, because this misspelling really spells out clearly, and correctly –India’s relationship with the English language.
I was privileged enough to go to a school where they taught me drama and they taught me spellings and now we belong to the 1% of India’s population that belong to the elite English-speaking crowd. But we don’t represent India, and this is the irony, this is the messed-up part. This is why I say change is slow and messy because it’s people like me who get to write these stories and get to win these awards and get to represent the girl with the black bindi. Of course, we think about the politics of representation, etc. but we still get to do it, because we have that privilege and it’s a lot of factors that are responsible for it.
But when someone says I’m an Indian author, it leads to the sense that I represent this country –but I don’t. I have experienced such a specific aspect of living in India and there’s so many other ways of being there that it’s a privilege to write stories to communicate something to the larger world about my country.
As a writer, I will continue to make mistakes, because these things are very fraught, but the potential for making those mistakes should not be the reason why you don’t try to reach out across boundaries. It’s also very embroiled in a Western individualistic society where you’re so concerned about your image, and how people view you, but you don’t think that even the mistakes that you make might contribute to the collective conversation. And so, I'm not.
This approach gives me a lot of confidence to continue to write in an honest fashion.
Dirty White Strings is written from a middle-aged man’s perspective. How does the process of writing and the story itself morph, when you shift this vantage point?
Dirty White strings came because I was really sick of writing stories from my own perspective and from essentially women’s perspective or young women’s perspective or young people’s perspective. And so, I changed the gender and the age to something that was very different from my immediate context, in order to not feel bored. I don't know if I was able to do a very good job of it.
There’s a certain alienation that you feel as a woman, when you find yourself in a group of primarily men. You feel that you’re not necessarily being invited to participate in constructive ways, and that you’re essentially disposable to the conversation.
Just because women are not invited to have these conversations doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions. And so, what happens when I write from a man's perspective, is that I’m able to finally engage with men on my own terms. This is not something that happens in the real world, for the most part, but I can do it in the fictional context when I can create this character.
He is a figment of my imagination. And I can make him do things and see things and feel feelings, as I please. And that really feels liberating. It feels empowering. And it also in a way, for me, humanises men because I’m able to create characters who are in touch with their femininities, even if they are men.
Most men have a feminine side, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it or, engage with it. So, I think, writing from a man’s perspective does that and I enjoy it. But what I enjoyed most is the tension points between the different kinds of gender identities in any setting.
I’m not currently working on a project which has a straight male’s perspective. But, I mean, that is something I’m down to explore more, because I think there is so much commentary to be made on gender. Just by sort of portraying a man with all his hang-ups and all his inhibitions about himself and the world, and his gender identity.
How do you (as a writer) come about taking literary decisions such as using global symbols like Beyoncé; or keeping intact local terminology like bindi or aloo? How do you balance on the tightrope of preserving local authenticity while bearing a global appeal?
Now that I think about it, the phrase ‘global desi’ is kind of redundant because desi is global already, and global is desi. But I really like doing things like bringing Beyonce with bindi and aloo, because this is the kind of setting that I grew up with. It wasn’t Delhi or Mumbai or Calcutta. So, there’s a certain rawness to living in Jharkhand that I was fortunate enough to witness.
But, at the same time, there were these global influences that were constantly in my life. I remember being such a huge fan of Enrique Iglesias when I was in school; and then this Latino singer called Ricky Martin, and obviously Shakira. I think it makes the world bigger –any world, there’s so many different kinds of words that exist in this one world.
The Great Indian Tea and Snakes is set in a context which I thought I could make bigger by including Beyonce, because then there is relatability. Most of global literature is dominated by readers and writers who are Western centric, if not necessarily because they are brought up in the West, then because their sensibilities are so Western due to the education that they receive.
I don’t think I’m free of that blame, I’m probably also brought up with a lot of Western ideology as part of my education. And so, what then happens when you put Beyonce together with bindi and aloo, is that you acknowledge both of these influences –the local, and the global as equally significant parts of the world that you’re trying to get. Because a girl who has a black bindi and paints women’s hands with henna and wakes up at five in the morning to make tea, can and does, find something in Beyonce that excites her, that attracts her. that inspires her.
And it doesn’t go both ways. Beyonce is never going to hear about the girl with the black bindi.
But that’s precisely why I do this, because the power dynamics are such that the influential people don’t really get to see the people who are unlike them. But I’m interested in creating stories and characters where they are engaging with the powerful people on their terms, and in very interesting ways and they are exercising a certain sense of authority.
This influence is not just that Beyonce exists and the girl with a black bindi is the passive recipient of whatever it is that Beyonce has to offer. She’s also engaging, she’s cutting out her pictures, and she’s keeping them safe, she’s actively going out to the newspaper stand so she can do so. There are so many ways that the girl could have engaged with Beyonce but there’s just one way that I've shown in the story. And the goal is –I want to grow up and become Beyonce; which is a very lofty dream for a girl like her.
But that’s the beauty of dreams. I mean, it’s very poignant if you think about it because you get the sense that most likely she’s never going to grow up and become Beyonce. So, you already as a reader know that this girl is dreaming a dream that is going to be broken. That is going to be unfulfilled and that's really sad, when the fact that she’s dreaming is so beautiful. And I wanted to capture that.
I’d just like to say that probably the girl with the black bindi also knows that she’s not going to grow up and become Beyonce, and yet she dares to dream that big. That is very characteristic of the girl because we think that people in small towns or people who are marginalised are always miserable or they’re always suffering and struggling. But, they can have very ambitious approaches to the world.
And if it’s sad, then it’s not on her. If it’s sad that this girl wants to become a Beyonce, and we all know she’s never going to become one, it’s not on her it’s on the world. We should be living in a world where it's okay for anybody to dream to be anybody, but obviously that’s not the case.
And so, what I was trying to do with that is just highlighting it –the injustices of the world that we live in.