Bollywood meets literature: Sanjana Thakur’s ‘Aishwarya Rai’ charms the Commonwealth

Anusha Signh Wednesday 10th July 2024 09:00 EDT

Indian writer Sanjana Thakur has been announced as the overall winner of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a prestigious global literature award. The 26-year-old from Mumbai triumphed over 7,359 entrants worldwide to claim the £5,000 prize.

Her winning story, “Aishwarya Rai,” named after the Bollywood actor, reimagines the traditional adoption narrative. It follows a young woman, Avni, who must choose between possible mothers housed in a local shelter. The story was noted for its unrestrained candour and dark humour, extracting wry, absurd observations from contemporary life and imbuing every scene with grit and compassion.

In an interview with Asian Voice, Sanjana discussed the inspiration behind her story, the intricacies of its creation, and her feelings on winning the prestigious prize.

What was your initial reaction when you found out you had won the Commonwealth Foundation’s literature prize?

I was thrilled, shocked, and overwhelmingly grateful. I’ve read the regional winners’ stories and found them to be brilliant, full of heart, offering readers a rich window into various lives and voices, from Trinidad to New Zealand. I feel lucky to be in such good company. I feel particularly lucky to have won this prize at this moment in my life––fresh out of my MFA program and looking to find a place in the world for the work I have done over the last three years. It’s just a dream.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to start writing? How has growing up in Mumbai influenced your writing style and the themes you explore in your stories?

I grew up in Mumbai, but moved away when I was fifteen––first, to Dubai, then Boston, and now Austin. I haven’t truly lived in the city as an adult. In living elsewhere, I create a version of Mumbai in my mind and that’s the Mumbai that shows up in my work. Textured, I hope, with the specificity and details that come from lived experience, yet evoking a feeling of near misses and constant longing. When I return home, the city is never as I had constructed it. My stories try to bridge the gap between the city of my imagination and the city I come back to every few months.

Your story "Aishwarya Rai" reimagines the traditional adoption narrative in a unique way. What inspired this twist?

The idea was different at its inception––a store full of mothers you could buy off the shelf, based on their features, their characters, their looks. That idea evolved into what it is now. A shelter, where you can try out and adopt mothers as you search for the right fit. I wanted to offer a sense of the inherent complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. How the expectations mothers and daughters have for each other are complicated by the expectations society has for them, in terms of beauty, docility, homemaking, life-making, loving, caretaking, and so on. There is no way to not fall short. And yet, we see the characters in “Aishwarya Rai” try––try to love each other, try to be enough for each other.

Can you tell us more about the symbolism behind the mothers Avni chooses from the shelter? How do you think your story reflects or challenges traditional narratives about family and adoption in Indian society?

The mothers Avni chooses from the shelter are, like Avni herself, flawed women. The first and second mothers are both damaged by the constant messaging women receive around beauty, in different ways. The third mother wants to mother Avni by taking care of everything and making her life easier. Nazneen wants to mother Avni by teaching her things. Avni’s real mother has failed her daughter in numerous ways but is there for her when she’s in crisis. None of the mothers are perfect. They are all shaped, likely by a combination of societal expectations and their own mothers. They aim for a kind of ideal and cannot achieve it, and that informs their attempts at mothering. I hope readers come away with a sense of each of these women as nuanced and flawed and, again, trying.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are trying to make their mark in the literary world?

My first piece of advice is to read widely, in such a way that you surprise yourself with what fiction can be. We’re lucky now to have access to such varied work from across the world. Read the classics, read the literary canon, but also read non-Western voices, books in translation, experimental work, hybrid work, etc. You have to see the breadth of what’s out there to imagine what your work could be. 

My second piece of advice is to know that different people will have different levels of access to your work, especially if you are a writer from an ethnic minority background. If your work is specific and textured and grounded in place, there will certainly be people who don’t understand elements of it. Get comfortable with knowing that not all your readers will get the same things from your work. Some might get less, and others more. Be okay with that. You cannot write for everyone. Write for yourself, and you’ll find your readers. 

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