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A tender and tense love story between faiths written by 29-year-old Indian writer Kritika Pandey has won this year’s prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize, ‘the world’s most global literature prize’.
The Great Indian Tee and Snakes is set against the background of chai seller’s stall in modern India and tells the story of forbidden love across the religious divide. Pandey says: “I created a strong-willed character of a Hindu girl who chooses to love a Muslim boy, even though she knows that she is not ‘supposed to’.”
Chair of the judges British Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikiwei Parkes said: “The Great India Tee and Snakes is a gut-punch of a story, remarkable because, in spite of its fraught subject matter, it never neglects the beauty of the world in which the story unfolds. Kritika Pandey infuses the tale with empathy and balance, allowing the characters to inhabit themselves fully, while dragging the narrative to its inevitable end. It’s a story that asks important questions about identity, prejudice and nationhood, using metaphors with devastating effect, while still brimming with its author’s revelry in the possibilities of language. Its charged conclusion is all the more shocking given that most of it is set at a tea seller’s stall and its energy derives from a few looks between a boy and a girl. My fellow judges and I loved the story when we first read it, and love it more each time we read it.”
Pandey said: “I’ve experienced every possible emotion ever since I received the news. At times, I’m overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and a sense of fulfilment or reeling with disbelief. At other times, I’m devastated by the fate of my fictional characters who seem all too real to me, a feeling compounded by the tragedies presently unfolding around us. However, more than anything else, this prize strengthens my will to write. It tells me that all those days when I lock myself in my room to stare into a computer screen, unsettled and unsure, might just be a worthwhile way of engaging with the world. It reminds me that I must, therefore, continue to inquire into the human condition, to make sense of existence, to listen carefully, to resist, and to hope.”
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is free to enter and is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish. Five regional winners win £2,500 each, with the overall winner receiving an additional £5,000.
Pandey, who is from Ranchi, Jharkhand, was presented with the prize by Parkes during a video call in the online ceremony on 30 June. She is a final year candidate for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is 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. She is the second Indian national to win the overall prize after Parashar Kulkarni in 2016.
The literary magazine Granta publishes online all the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes, here https://granta.com/the-great-indian-tee-and-snakes/ The five stories are also available in a special print collection from UK independent Paper + Ink.