Meet the four Indian writers in the running for 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize


Published on 24 April, 2016 in Scroll.in

Over 4000 entries from across the world were narrowed down to just 26 stories from 11 countries.

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An Indian may have a serious chance of winning, first, the regional 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and then the overall prize. After all, four of the seven entries shortlisted for the Asia region are from India (two are from Pakistan and one, from Bangladesh).

If an Indian does win the regional prize, their story will be one of the five competing for the grand prize. The last Indian winners were Siddhartha Gigoo, who won one of the regional prizes in 2015, and, before him, Anushka Jasraj, who won in 2012.

While the regional winners (£2,500 each) will be announced on May 4, the overall winner (£5,000) of the prize will be announced in June 2016.

The jury this year is chaired by South Africa-born and London-based Gillian Slovo, who has authored 13 books, including five detective novels, a family memoir, and a thriller. The other judges: Helon Habila, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, USA; Pierre J Mejlak, a writer from Malta, who has been living in Belgium since 2004; Olive Senior, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first short-story collection, Summer Lightning; Patrick Holland, an Australian writer who grew up working cattle and horses on the western plains of Queensland; and Firdous Azim, a Professor of English at BRAC University and a member of Naripokkho, the woman’s activist group in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Who then are the four new writers from India who have been shortlisted?

Dirty White Strings, Kritika Pandey
Growing up in a traditional middle-class family in Ranchi, Pandey ended up studying engineering even though she had a keen interest in books. Since Ranchi did not have big bookstores for a long time, this was a hindrance to her penchant for reading and writing.

Her first tryst with writing was in the seventh grade, when she wrote a poem on Naxalism. Life changed after she attended the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, where her training in liberal arts contributed greatly to her work.

Dirty White Strings is Pandey’s attempt to grapple with the idea of love. Having grown up in a family of conservative elders who dismiss the very idea of love marriages, she tries to dissect the word “love” for ordinary, middle-class people. And it’s not just any love. Her story is based in the Kathputli Colony of Delhi, where a 45-year-old puppeteer, who lives from hand to mouth, ends up falling in love with his only daughter.

The reader, Pandey says, may not be entirely comfortable with the protagonist’s situation, but will still find it hard to judge him for the choices he makes.

Pandey finds her inspiration in the works of contemporary writers like Rohinton Mistry, Zadie Smith, Jerry Pinto, Aatish Taser, and Anjum Hasan. She is currently working on a sequence of interconnected short stories.

Girdhar’s Mansion, Sumit Ray
Ray’s parents were in the civil services, and he spent his growing up years in Kolkata, Mumbai, and, most prominently, in Delhi, attending as many as six schools along the way! He studied English at Hindu College, Delhi University and wrote prolifically in spurts – a guide book on Delhi, comics, artist interviews, essays, a short play, and every other form in between.

Girdhar’s Mansion flows out of Ray’s love for South Asian writers till the 1950s, who wrote stories that are social in intent but universal in communication. In this story, Girdhar is a farmer who has come into adulthood after India’s independence, and is trying to keep his family’s dignity intact when a calamity robs them of their means.

South Asian writing, Ray feels, has an incredible impact on readers. There is something very real and yet very provocative about them – the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand, Banaphool, Ismat Chughtai, UR Ananthamurthy, and Rabindranath Tagore being cases in point. In building his story around a farmer facing personal tragedy, witnessing India’s Independence and the Partition from a distance, and trying to make sense of a world gone haywire, Ray feels his work is not just part of South Asian literature but also a story about South Asia.

Cow and Company, Parashar Kulkarni
From keeping scores on Star Yaar Kalakaar (the TV game show hosted by Farida Jalal) to hanging out on the sets of Movers and Shakers, Kulkarni went on to study commerce at RA Podar College in Matunga. After meandering through a few economics related programmes in New Delhi and Germany, and working at some financial firms and NGOs, he went on to a doctoral programme in politics at New York University.

Cow and Company is about four men in search of a cow. Eventually, they do find one and take her to their office. Kulkarni spends a lot of time in the archives or with archival documents, and his interest in fiction is related to his research. The cow issue in the early twentieth century could have been a go-to for an entrepreneurial politician. Things haven’t changed much over the past 100 years.

Kulkarni likes reading GK Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, F Scott Fitzgerald, PL Deshpande (a short portion of whose work he’s translating), Arundhati Roy, and Premchand.

Instant Karma, Vinayak Varma
Varma moved to Bangalore from Chennai in 2000 to study art, design and filmmaking. Some of his earliest memories of writing are horror/sci-fi stories, which he wrote as a child. After that there were several adolescent years when he would begin and immediately stop work on several series of science-fiction novels. Somewhere in between were a few poems and also some comedy sketches. He took to writing seriously only after having worked a few years as an editor.

Instant Karma is fluffy spiritual comedy told in three parts and a few interludes. While the story, avers Varma, won’t heighten the reader’s sensitivity to the human condition, or reveal deep existential truths about old age and death, it will teach them to temper expectations.

Varma, who is currently working on a novel, has a reading list that includes American comic book writer and cartoonist Ed Brubaker’s entire oeuvre. He admits to having discovered the writings of Dorothy Parker, Robert MacFarlane, Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh a little late in life, and plans to re-read Rafi Zabor, GV Desani, Saul Bellow and OV Vijayan.

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