Commonwealth Foundation has a cultural initiative called Commonwealth Writers which connects storytellers and writers across the planet. As a part of this, every year, a Commonwealth short story prize is awarded to the writers with the best piece of unpublished short fiction.
This year, Kritika Pandey who is 29 years old has won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her short story The Great Indian Tee and Snakes.
Following is an excerpt from her award-winning short story:-
The girl with the black bindi knows that she is not supposed to glance at the boy in the white skull cap but she does. The boy moves restlessly on a stool as he cradles a cup of chai in his hands. The girl has flavored it with cardamom for no extra cost before swallowing the leftover pod so her father won’t find out. He is the mustachioed owner who cleans his ears with Q-tips at the cash counter. The girl looks up from the boiling contents of the saucepan, pretending to notice new customers while examining the contours of the boy’s stubbly chin, the kite-shaped birthmark on his neck. He mostly watches the speeding vehicles on the road. Once in a while, he meets her gaze and his ears turn crimson. At such moments the girl and the boy realize that they must immediately look away but never stop noticing each other wherever they go.
It is September. Hawkers appear with baskets of tomatoes. They are overpriced but surprisingly red.
The girl’s father asks her to buy two kilos. They would keep tomato chutney on the menu until tomatoes become wholly unaffordable in the winter. She squats at the water pump outside the stall to wash the tomatoes, facing the boy, gazing at the stubbed toe sticking out of his sandals. He is one of the few customers who prefer eating keema samosas to aloo samosas but it is the least of the girl’s concerns. Their stuffings are somewhat different but the girl makes both types of samosas with the exact same batter. They are the same thing unless one absolutely wants to differentiate, which most people do, including the girl’s father who has strictly warned her against eating keema samosas.
A chilly breeze leaves the girl covered in goosebumps.
“Why does it have to get cold?” She says to no one in particular.
“Seasons change,” says one of the men sitting next to the boy. They are daily wage laborers who ask for aloo samosas with their chai, not keema samosas, never keema samosas. They carry grimy shovels and miss no opportunity to talk.
“Because this is how it is.”
“Because this is how it’s always been.”
“Because the earth moves around the sun,” says the boy.
The girl breathlessly punctures a tomato, then washes the red mush off her fingernails. She has never heard him speak before.
A man eyes the monogram on the boy’s shirt. “Go to school?”
He nods yes.
The girl’s father had pulled her out of school after a couple from Class 10 eloped to Bombay.
The man chuckles. “I went to school myself. Now I shovel cement and sand.”
Later that night, the girl can’t stop wondering if the earth really moves around the sun. Why had no one told her that? Who was making it move? She sits up in bed and thinks about endless fields of cauliflower and tries not to throw up like she has to do on the Giant Wheel at the funfair. Dreams take over when she falls asleep. She grabs the boy’s stubbed toe as they fly off the face of the earth.
The town is on a plateau formed by colliding landmasses when the dinosaurs were still around.
It is big enough to have a Domino’s but too small for traffic lights. The traffic policemen take breaks from signaling vehicles to rub lime and tobacco in the palms of their hands until drivers yell at them to regain control. The girl’s father had moved here when growing onions in the village farmlands stopped being profitable. It was raining less and less each year. For a while, he tried to find work at the department store with glass walls, live in a house with bedrooms. Then he gave up. He got bamboo sticks and tarpaulin and set up the stall outside their shack. It unsettled him to include keema samosas on the menu but he wanted to make whatever profit he could. A painter demanded rupees 500 for adorning the aluminum anterior of the table where the chai was prepared on a coal stove. “It better be a nice and important name,” the girl’s father had told the painter, who could hardly spell, and so the tea and snacks stall was christened The Great Indian Tee and Snakes. The painter had promised, “Anyone who loves this country will love this name.” Some passersby point out the sign to each other and have a good laugh. Others nod in admiration of what they take to be high literary nonsense. Many click pictures.
The girl is frying samosas. Today the boy is being questioned by the men with grimy shovels about what brings him to this part of town every weekend.
“I water an old man’s geraniums,” he says.
Thanks to the laborers’ interest in him, the girl can now hear the boy talk.
“Germium,” she says to a golden samosa floating in the oil, pleased that the boy knows such words. Her father glares at her. She sighs. If only she were allowed to talk to the boy, she wouldn’t have to talk to the samosas.
“Pays well?” A labourer asks.
“600 per month,” says the boy.
“For watering flowers!”
“Kya kismat hai.”
The boy says that his wealthy employer lives by himself and reads magazines with high-definition photographs of wild felines. When someone brings up the new prime minister’s yoga moves, the boy silently nibbles on his samosa. The girl mumbles things that she wishes to say aloud to him.
“Plants make their own food. I know because I used to go to school as well…I also know that we can’t see air but it’s there…Do you like summer or winter? I like summer for the mangoes. I don’t like winter because the cold makes me feel more feelings…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?…You have nice fingers, you know…Every morning, some men gather in the park with Gandhi’s statue and force themselves to laugh. If you look at them, they’ll make you laugh too. They say it makes you happy… You have really nice fingers…Do you like me?”
The girl’s father wants the boy to be served chai in stainless steel cups only.
If the girl mistakenly serves him in ceramic, her father waits for the customers to leave, then smashes the cup. “Steel can be washed with soap and water,” he says, “But you can’t wash a keema-eater’s saliva off of clay.” The girl used to follow her father’s orders and throw away the ceramic pieces. But now she collects them as if they are artifacts. When her father is snoring at night, she steps out of the house, glues back the broken cups under the streetlight, and hides them among the tangled roots of a Banyan tree.
To read the full story, click here.