A short story I recently read

‘The Great India Tee and Snakes’ by Kritika Pandey

Read it here in less than half an hour.

Thinking about moving away from realism…

I’ll read anything and everything, but I don’t like writing realism. I’m not sure why; I’m just never happy with what I write if it’s too close to realism. What I mean by realism is writing that attempts to capture reality, which would necessitate using first-person or third-person narration, named characters, a linear narrative, real-world events, real-world physics, and so on. Realism operates on a spectrum, and ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ is a fantastic example of how you can move away from realism by a few degrees without moving all the way into fantasy.

So, how does the author move away from realism?

Firstly, the main characters are not named, but are referred to in simple ways that signify their place in society – ‘The girl with the black bindi’ (young and unmarried, Hindu) and ‘the boy in the white skull cap’ (Muslim); after this, they become ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy’. Other characters are ‘The girl’s father’, ‘the men’, ‘the labourers’. Use of the definite article (‘the’) tells us that, although nameless, these are the same specific people each time they’re mentioned (‘a painter’ becomes ‘the painter’). The setting is also unnamed (‘The town’). These generic characters represent a certain way of thinking in India; they could be anyone, anywhere.

Secondly, most of the story takes place at the chai and samosa stall, and there’s a sense of time circling back around to the moments when the boy is present, rather than moving forward in a linear motion towards something in the future. The reader doesn’t know how much time has passed between sections of the story. Both these elements create narrative gaps (ellipsis) – the reader doesn’t know what else happens in the girl’s life, apart from one brief mention of going to the temple, and the occasional henna tattooing she undertakes, so she appears isolated and friendless, her life revolving around endless chai and samosa making.

Thirdly, the third-person narration is aligned to the girl’s point of view, but is detached; we’re told what she does, knows, and thinks, but it’s an unemotive outside view, rather than giving us access to her innermost feelings. So, when the boy is killed, we don’t look directly at the horror, but around it, at the man filming, the girl’s father, the labourers – there is not a detailed, graphic, or explicit description of the violence; the single sentence says it all: ‘The boy looks like a punctured tomato and dies.’

This is a beautifully written story, which makes a political point about tensions between different religious groups, and the place of women, in Indian society. I imagine the author chose to move away from realism due to these themes – too much realism might have made the story too preachy – and I think the elements that move the story away from realism are much more effective at making these points, because taking us slightly out of reality in some way is more unusual, so more striking.

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