Published in Scroll.in on 11 April, 2015
Going by the numbers, this year is India’s best chance at winning the prize.
It isn’t often that thee Indian writers feature in a shortlist for an international literary prize. This year, these three writers are competing with 19 others – from 11 different countries, including India – for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The 2015 edition of the prize attracted a record 4,000-and-off entries. The jury is chaired by Sri Lankan born British author Romesh Gunesekera, the other members being Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright Fred D’ Aguiar, Canadian novelist and short story writer Marina Endicott, the New Zealand-based Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, and Pakistani writer Bina Shah.
Established in 1996, the prize goes to five regional winners, each of whom wins £2,500 and competes for the overall prize, which carries a £5,000 tag. The last Indian winner was Anushka Jasraj, who won one of the regional prizes in 2012 for her short story Radio Story, set in 1939 in Bombay. Meet the three writers who’re in the running this year.
The Death of a Valley, Meenakshi Gautam Chaturvedi
Mumbai-based Meenakshi Gautam Chaturvedi is a copywriter by profession and a writer by passion. Her short-story, The Death of a Valley, is an allegory about the problem of terrorism engulfing Kashmir for many years now. “Religions are man-made, highly subjective and open to interpretation,” she said. “Diverse religions are practised in India and these have led to conflicts in society for over decades. But wars and acts of terrorism cannot change basic human values. That’s what I try to highlight in my story.”
Chaturvedi writes across genres. She is also the author of two children’s books – Tales from Bushland, and Tales of Phoolpur. A grudate in zoology from the Institute of Science, Nagpur, she won a UGC Junior Research Fellowship and took up research for two years, but dissecting bats wasn’t really her thing. While in college, she wrote her first piece of fiction, which was published in a local newspaper. She relocated to Mumbai and began her copywriting career with Lintas.
Having written across varied media – from 30-second television commercials and radio spots to 80,000-word novels, Chaturvedi considers the short story a means to drive a message home directly, unaided by visuals or verbosity.
This is How the Ecosystem Works, Shahnaz Habib
“I remember composing a very long poem in my head when I was seven and forgetting it all the next day and realising that things have to be written down. So that’s probably when I began writing,” said Shahnaz Habid, who grew up in Kochi and studied English literature at the Delhi University. Her story, This How the Ecosystem Works, is about a girl who wins a writing competition and how she navigates people’s responses to her. She learns of the loneliness that writing brings and what it’s like to give your stories to the world.
This How the Ecosystem Works is part of a collection of interlinked short stories, set in a village in Kerala, that Habib is currently working on. Each story has its own protagonist and plot, but the collection is about the place – what happens as it turns into a tourist destination. “This is very much the story of many places in Kerala and the rest of India, where tourism is triggering a certain kind of transformation,” she added.
Habib writes both fiction and creative nonfiction, and has mostly been published in literary journals. But the short story holds a special meaning for her. “Short stories are perfectly suited to capture the mini-epiphanies of daily living, the small reversals and renewals here and there that might otherwise go unmarked,” she said.
Besides writing book reviews for the Briefly Noted column of The New Yorker, Habib has also begun translating the a Malayalam novel into English. At present she is a 2015 New York Foundation of Arts Fellow and lives in New York. She is also the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion, and freelances for the United Nations and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
The Umbrella Man, Siddhartha Gigoo
Born and raised in Downtown Srinagar, Kashmir, Siddhartha Gigoo was 15 when militancy struck the valley in 1990, forcing his family to migrate to Udhampur, a small town near Jammu. His story,The Umbrella Man, is about a man living in an asylum chancing upon an umbrella and making it his prized possession.
“All he yearns for is rain,” said Gigoo, reluctant to reveal the ending of his story. Short stories, he says, are difficult to write because, unlike a novel, one can’t go on and on. “One has to make the story do everything (and create a wondrous impact for the reader) in not more than three or four pages. But then, writing a novel has its own challenges,” he added.
As a student, Gigoo wrote numerous poems between 1991 and 1994, which were published in two books – Fall and Other Poems and Reflections – by Writers Workshop, Calcutta in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Later, he joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi for a masters degree in English literature, and, ironically, lost touch with writing.
“I resumed writing essays, stories, and poems in 2009 and it was then that I wrote my first novel,The Garden of Solitude ,” said Gigoo. “It was set against the backdrop of the militancy in Kashmir and the exodus and exile of the Kashmiri Pandits.” His second book, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, a collection of short stories, was released in March.