Kritika Pandey is an inspired activist. Yes, she also writes and happens to hold an engineering degree. And yes, her story “The great Indian tee and snakes” (link below) was the overall winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. While that’s got her in the limelight now, she has won many awards in the past and many of her stories have also appeared in prominent journals.
At 29, she is a Pushcart-nominated writer, holds an MFA degree, and has many other accomplishments and accolades to her name. You’ll find a list of her publications and accolades at the end of this post. She is also leading a short story writing workshop for us online. Details here.
I spoke to her about her craft, her choice of topics, and much more. People call her the new Jhumpa Lahiri / Arundhati Roy, but after this interview, I think we shouldn’t call her anything but the new Kritika Pandey.
Me: Where do your stories come from?
Kritika Pandey: From unacknowledged and/or unintelligible feelings. From the permanence of loneliness, the perils of companionship, and the inevitability of both.
Me: Although you live in the US, it finds little or no mention in your writing. How come?
Kritika Pandey: I haven’t lived here for even a decade. I need a very long time to process experiences before I engage with them in a manner that would make fiction possible. I am 29 and the only autobiographical references that I can loosely draw from at present are from the first 7-8 years of my life.
Me: Why do you write?
Kritika Pandey: I write to pretend that there is a pattern to our suffering. Or maybe to simply draw attention to it. Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Writing, for me, is that meaning. All occupations are intentional delusions. Their goal is to keep us from asking, “So, what’s the point of it all?” I write to forget that there is no point. It will do for now.
Me: You mostly seem to write in the first person (although “The great Indian Tee and Snakes” is in close third). What drives your choice of voice? What is your process to choose the correct voice for a story?
Kritika Pandey: I don’t think there is an omniscient voice out there. All 3rd person narrators are people with limited and specific world views. That is the only thing that informs my choice of voice. The narrator of The Great Indian Tee and Snakes is me. Because I couldn’t write from the first-person point of view of a working-class girl but I absolutely needed to write about her.
Me: So you’ve earned an MFA. I’ve read how it was something you enjoyed it but it was also a sort of escape for you. Do you think writing can really be taught? If yes, what can and what cannot be taught?
Kritika Pandey: No. The only thing that can be taught about writing is that you have to figure it all out on your own. You become a writer the day you stop waiting for your training/education to be complete.
Me: People (my students) often ask me where story ideas come from. Is there a place you can tell us about? (Some of them actually fear running out of ideas).
Kritika Pandey: Stories come from people who don’t find themselves boring. At least not all the time. Anyone who considers themselves to be an interesting person has a story to tell. I would even go so far as to say that you have to love yourself. All artists are somewhat narcissistic. Why else would they believe they have something to say/show that the world would care about?
Also, it is not about the ‘what’, it’s about the ‘how’. Thematically speaking, all stories have already been told. But when I read Home Fire, for instance, it doesn’t matter how many books I’ve read about sibling rivalry because Kamila Shamsie brings a whole new perspective to the interpersonal dynamics between brothers and sisters.
Me: I love the “Are you (happy now)?” at the end of “The great Indian Tee and Snakes”. Did you consider other endings for it? How did you arrive at that one?
Kritika Pandey: I wanted the story to end on the terms of the young people to whom it belongs. I imagined the middle-aged guy asking the girl if she was happy and, of all the responses, the one that stood out was “Are you?” I know it seems like she is simply mocking him but she is also genuinely curious, you know? She cannot wrap her head around the fact the world went on after her beloved passed away. She is perplexed and offended.
But she is also envious of those who are not mourning with her. She joins the laughter yoga group not just because the men insisted but because she did, in fact, want to try and be happy once again. The question–Are you?–tells us all of that and more. And it has been haunting me since the moment it first I wrote it down.
Me: The Commonwealth prize is more about Fame than money. And it isn’t the kind of fame that gets you modelling gigs with the now-not fair and lovelies of the world. You’re probably way too controversial for them. Plus, as a short story writer, your work is all available free online. So how does a short-story writer make money? What are your plans for the future?
Kritika Pandey: I couldn’t possibly survive by writing short stories or poems because those don’t sell for all kinds of complicated reasons. I am working on a novel. I hope that gives me enough money to last until my next one. It is a bit anxiety-inducing to live like this but I’d still rather be doing this than be stuck in an air-conditioned cubicle in Noida or Mumbai or Bangalore, writing software codes, and waiting for the clock to strike 5 so I can get the hell out of there.
Update: the above interview was taken in September 2020, when we had just asked Kritika to teach a Masterclass on Short Story Writing for the Himalayan Writing Retreat online. Now she has taught the same course multiple times, and each time the feedback from the participants is superlative.
“Kritika was great – an extraordinarily talented writer who has deeply studied and can explain craft very well; she was constructive and kind. The readings and exercises were great. The group was engaged and lively.” – and this feedback was from Aditi Banerjee, a published author herself. She is the author of “The curse of Gandhari”.
You can learn more about the ShortStory Masterclass led by Kritika Pandey at https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/short-story-writing-workshop/.
Kritika’s best introduction is her work. You can learn more about her publications and accolades at:
Awards and Recognition