“Her father doesn’t need to tell her that girls with black bindis are not supposed to feel this way about boys in white skull caps. She knows.”
In many ways, these lines encapsulate all that Kritika Pandey’s award-winning short story ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’, is about. It is a story of forbidden, ill-fated love set in small-town India. It is also a bildungsroman of sorts; a young girl’s sudden moral awakening, when confronted with the reality of her country’s politics.
In either case, the story will take you through a roller-coaster of emotions. In an age where laws are being formulated against love jihad, ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ feels urgent, timely.
Pandey’s masterful prose is rich in imagery, enabling a reader to see the story. Consider, for instance, this description. The girl—we never know her name, only that she wears a black bindi—has woken up and is making a fire. “She gathers twigs, leaves, bits of paper, cloth, and empty Lipton cartons before setting them on fire,” writes Pandey. Other people join the girl, around the fire, she adds, “The girl, the boy, four of the laborers and the girl’s father sit around the fire with their chai, yawning. Sun rays are trapped in fog. The morning feels like evening.” The description catapults a reader straight into that bitter morning in small-town India, the blaze, chai, and companionship warming chilled bones and shrugging off sleep’s mantle.
While the central theme is that of politically powerful forces imposing their culture on minorities, there are various underlying political themes—the idea of othering, for example. The girl’s father, for instance, wants to serve the boy in stainless steel, not ceramic cups; he smashes the ceramic ones if the girl, by mistake, serves the boy in them.
“Steel can be washed with soap and water,’ he says, ‘But you can’t wash a keema-eater’s saliva off of clay”.
There is also a nod to gender inequality: the girl tells herself that her father is kind for not killing her for being born a girl. What strikes a reader isn’t just the extreme inequalities in our society but also the normalisation of them. The politics of gender is clearly something the writer thinks about. In an interview with the Indian Express, Pandey said that in a society like ours, social segregation is possible because of the patriarchal control over women. “My engagement with gender and caste comes from being a woman in an upper-caste household, always under pressure to get married, aware of my community’s many anxieties around controlling my body and sexuality,” she said.
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Though Pandey’s political ideology is apparent, nothing is explicit. Instead, she skilfully employs symbolism and metaphors to drive her point of view. A tomato, for instance, isn’t just a fruit. Its redness and ripeness seem to symbolise several things: passion, love, death. There are two instances in the story with a tomato. The first time when the girl accidentally punctures one while looking at the boy’s toe, and the second time, it becomes a metaphor for the boy and his experience.
Interestingly, while the story is that of the girl, the author does not employ a “first-person” narrative. The author told The Telegraph that she used a third-person narrative so as to not appropriate the girl’s story. She said, “I was writing about a working-class girl, about whom I don’t know almost anything at all, so it’s my understanding of what her world could possibly look like.”
However, even with all the political tension, humour is not lost in the story. Bits of the narrative found here and there, provide the much-needed comic relief. Be it the “scraps of newspapers with Beyonce shaped holes in them” or the fact that the antagonists look like carrots. However, the actual laughter, woven into the story leaves you cold. When the girl joins the laughter club in the park, “it feels insincere” at first. But she finally is drawn in, laughs along, forcing us to confront the idea of mob mentality, a key plot point in the story.
For those who have read Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ feels like a deja-vu. Just like the novel, this short story too is set in troubling times, where communal tension in society only grows as you read each line.
Towards the end of the narrative, “There’s a nationwide ban on keema samosas, keema naan, keema parathas, keema pakoras and, basically, keema everything.” Beyond being just a metaphor in the story, this ban also shows what we have been doing to the minorities in our country. We refute their culture and the lifestyle they chose for themselves, and then we condemn them for not living according to our traditions. We hound them for not respecting our beliefs when we have taken theirs for granted. As George Orwell wrote, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
Garima Sadhwani is a student journalist at the Asian College of Journalism, with a keen interest in politics and storytelling.
Featured image credit: Amazon/Editing: LiveWire