2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winning Entry: A Review by Damilola Oladeji and Michael Emmanuel

Kritika Pandey has emerged the overall winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story, ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes.’ The announcement was made in a first ever online award ceremony. Presenting the award was the Chair of the judging panel, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, in a video available to watch now.

The 2020 prize received over 5000 entries from 49 countries. The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2,000–5,000 words) in English. Regional winners each receive £2,500 and the overall winner receives £5,000. Translated entries are also eligible, as are stories written in the original Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil and Turkish. The competition is free to enter.

The 2020 judging panel chaired by Parkes, also included South African writer and musician Mohale Mashigo (Africa), Executive Director of the Singapore Books Council William Phuan (Asia), Canadian author Heather O’Neill (Canada and Europe), Trinidadian scholar and writer Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (Caribbean), and Australian writer and arts organiser Nic Low (Pacific).

Kritika Pandey is a final year candidate for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a Pushcart-nominated Indian writer with works appearing or forthcoming in Guernica, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Raleigh Review and others. She is a recipient of a 2020 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and has won the Charles Wallace Scholarship for Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.

Of the winning story, Nii Ayikwei 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. Congratulations to Kritika!”

Pandey’s story tells of the unlikely friendship that treads the familiar theme of love bridging religious divides, overcoming the forces of culture and prejudice. 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”.’ An excerpt of the story was read by Bollywood actress Swara Bhasker.

In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, the literary magazine Granta publishes all winning stories, including the overall entry, The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. The 2020 regional winners are: Africa winner Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Nigeria), Canada and Europe winner Reyah Martin (United Kingdom), Caribbean winner Brian S. Heap (Jamaica), and Pacific winner Andrea E. Macleod (Australia).

The 2021 Prize will be open for entries from September 1 – November 1, 2020. You can find the submission guidelines here.

Recently, we reviewed Kritika’s story, The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. Find our thoughts below, and let us know what you think of the story.

“The story of the girl in a black binda and the boy in a white skull cap starts off in a stall where the difference between keema samosas and aloo samosas is strong enough to end such sweet romance in a jarringly nonchalant way. The stall is named The Great Indian Tee and Snakes by a cheap painter hired by her father after he gives up his dream of working at the departmental store and living in a house with bedrooms.

The nameless characters “the girl, the boy, and her father” would typically make the story a bit impersonal. Instead as the story progresses, you find that you have found a face for the girl, and you know how the boy smiles. Even, you think you can form an opinion about how conflicted the father is about why he chooses to be unkind to a Keema eater. This story gets personal and progressively so.

The dialogue is such that the characters answer questions you are asking without answering them directly.

When the girl asks, ‘Why does it have to get cold?’

Someone replies that the seasons change then the boy explains further:

‘Because this is how it is.’

‘Because this is how it’s always been.’

‘Because the earth moves around the sun,’ says the boy.

In a way, he seems to respond to their questions about why Keema samosas are better than aloo, why the girl’s father says not to eat Keema and yet he must sell them for profit, why it’s forbidden to love the boy in the white skull cap.

Their love story, which never happens, is summarized in this:

“At such moments the girl and the boy realize that they must immediately look away but never stop noticing each other wherever they go.”

Then the girl starts to defy what is the norm. Her defiance is reflected in a few things. Like how she cuts out Beyoncé from newspapers and how she keeps shards of the clay cups used by the Keema eater which her father breaks.

. . . I don’t care if you eat this samosa or that samosa. Just saying. People should eat whatever they want to. Why is it a big deal? . . .

The girl thinks these thoughts but never gets a chance to say them.

She finds herself almost giving up on their love but then the story offers a glimmer of hope when the two meet at the grocery store. They exchange a few words and the girl chews the gum he shared all day until she swallows it.

The story carries on to a sudden climax where the reader is thrown into perplexity at how in a blink, an unprecedented twist darkens the young lovebirds’ hopes.

The girl begs the men to let the boy go. ‘All he does is water flowers!’ she screams. Nobody listens. A couple of laborers join in after some time, calling the boy names, thrusting their shovels into his stomach. ‘But he is going to become a doctor and treat you!’ The girl pleads. ‘How could you forget?’ Her father yells at her to go into the house. The boy looks like a punctured tomato and dies.”

One is tempted to consider the boy’s murder – in a brawl that wasn’t about him – unplanned, an accident. But a critical observing of the story’s richness, conveyed in words and glances, in subtle remarks, suggests that the outcome was totally fated. All of this because Aloo eaters cannot stomach the thought of someone else, a foreigner, who eats differently.

The story closes with the girl realizing that she can not find love in a world where Keema is forbidden and a boy is killed for something as trivial as this but yet for his murderers the death is essential to sustain the cultural status quo. The need for preserving culture and boundaries and the inhumanity that it has created is a significant conversation that must be had in 2020.

Worthy of note is Kritika’s unitalicized use of indigenous words – chai, keema, Banyan – , a trend gaining more acceptance on a global writing landscape. It’s a brilliant tactic that encourages and challenges the learning of diverse cultures and traditions, strengthening the opinion that there are endless possibilities through storytelling.

There’s no wondering why Kritika takes the Commonwealth Short Story prize this year.”

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