Meet the Jharkhand Girl Who Won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize This Year

Priyam Nayak
·5-min read
Kritika Pandey
Kritika Pandey

In June 2019, when Kritika Pandey heard the news about a 24-year-old man being lynched in Jharkhand, it left her shaken. An engineer-turned-writer, Kritika (29) hails from Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand, and the fact that the horrifying incident happened so close to home, pushed her to write a short story on it. She submitted the story – titled The Great Indian Tee and Snakes - as her entry into the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. On June 30, 2020, she was declared the winner of the competition.

Kritika, who holds Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree for Poets and Writers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently spoke to MAKERS India over a Zoom call from the US. According to her, the short story, which is centered around romance blossoming between a young Hindu girl and a Muslim man, is her response to the contemporary socio-political upheaval in the country.

Kritika who identifies herself as a ‘Hinglish’ writer explains why she chose to tell a tale revolving around communal hate against the backdrop of a love story.

“The girl with the black bindi in the story is a reflection of me. Ever since I realized that I identify as a feminist and want to be one for the rest of my life, I have encountered contradictory ideas about what a good feminist is supposed to be like and what makes you bad feminist. In an ‘over-woke’ environment, a woman who chooses to love a man deeply and wants relationship is not respected. I was responding to that by portraying a woman who is unabashedly in love. Just because you are a feminist doesn’t mean you cannot love.”

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The Conviction to be a Writer

Kritika, who is currently based in the US, is also an alumnus of Ashoka University’s Young India Fellowship programme. She had applied for the fellowship as she did not want to jump on to the MBA bandwagon after engineering. She says,

“I was really lonely during the four years I spent at engineering college. I could not find microprocessors interesting even though I was a bright student. I have always been an excellent student all my life primarily because I used to think that a ‘control-freakish’ way is the only way of approaching education. I was preparing for CAT and other MBA entrance examinations, and my teachers and parents had a lot of expectations that I would ace the exams.”

However, her dream of becoming a writer and the realization that getting into an MBA course could trigger another saga of misery, made her decide not to appear for CAT.

She recalls, “I knew that I would succumb to the peer pressure if I scored well in CAT. I have harboured dreams of becoming a writer since I was in seventh grade. I realized if I had to be lonely, I might as well be lonely doing something I like.”

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Kritika’s writing dreams stayed put even through the Young India Fellowship programme (in 2013). She says, “Even thoughwe were getting introduced to economics, philosophy, Gandhi and Marx at YIF, I knew I wanted to write literature. During my stint at Ashoka, I got selected for a creative writing summer programme at the University of Edinburgh. It was there that I came to know about the MFA degree offered by some schools in the US, and I was enamoured at the thought of getting three years to just write. When my parents started urging me to go for rishta meetings, I became doubly sure of my decision to get into MFA.”

Experiences as a woman of Colour

Kritika’s experience as an MFA student was a highly enlightening one; but it also made her aware of the narrow perceptions that white students have about communities of colour. She says, “White people should go orientation ceremonies to know how to interact with colleagues who don’t have privileges like them.”

Talking about the students’ common perceptions about India, she says, “There is a template story for every region, for every context. For India it is the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ narrative which revolves around poverty and the struggles of the working class. Any nuance or any lateral lead in the narrative unsettles them and they don’t know how to process it,” she says.

Adding that it becomes difficult for the writers of colour to make their white readers understand the narrative, Kritika explains, “There is this stereotype that black women only write angry black characters; but there is no willingness among students to engage with black writers to ascertain why they sketch angry characters. MFA programmes have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity. However, my professors would make an attempt – they would read stories from Jharkhand to understand my writings.”

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Stories on Jharkhand

Kritika is currently working on a book; the story is based in Jharkhand. Talking about her penchant for writing stories revolving around the state, she says, “When I went to college, I learnt that adivasis have been subjected to structural discrimination even before Independence, and there has been no effort from the dominant cultures which view them as primitive, backward and uncivilized, to engage with them.”

Kritika has earlier written a short story with a Naxalite woman as a protagonist (published in the Bombay Literary Review), which was based on her relationship with the indigenous people of Jharkhand.

“I have only interacted in a set power dynamic framework – they have been my babysitters or domestic helpers. Even though I had a deep relationship with them, I was looking at them through the lens of privilege. I realized the onus is on me to educate myself about their struggles and how their voices have been suppressed and it is a work in progress,” she signs off.

(Text Edited by Athira Nair, Videos Edited by Anjali V)

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