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Sanjana Thakur wins Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024

Sanjana Thakur’s short story Aishwarya Rai, set in Mumbai, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024 organised by the Commonwealth Foundation in late June. Her story beat over 7,000 entries to win the >> 5,000 prize. It follows a moment in the life of 23-year-old Avni, who works in an ad agency. She yearns for an ideal mother, living alone in the city and sharing a complicated relationship with her mother back home. To fill this gap, she takes the help of a shelter that engages in “reverse adoption”, a process through which children can adopt mothers.

Thakur’s story explores the idea of a mother-daughter relationship. Its originality is in the premise it sets out for the reader. She tests the extent to which one can go to create an ideal life for themselves. Thakur also probes into the norms that creep in due to a culture of celebrity worship and emulation in search of beauty and perfection. The actress Aishwarya Rai represents this standard: a woman who could toss her “gorgeous, bouncy hair over her shoulder” in a commercial, and tell the women watching her that they could look like that too because they were worth it. The 26-year-old writer tells us, “I was looking at a toy store, and I imagined a mom’s store, where you could buy mothers off the shelves — based on their features and characteristics. That’s where the idea of the story began.”

Thakur grew up in Mumbai but left the country at the age of 15. She admits, “Every time I write, I write with this sense of belonging and the desire to make sense of home. Mumbai feels like home to me and I find myself missing it when I’m here [in the US].”  At several moments, it feels like a story about a home in our neighbourhood — the roadside vada pav stalls, the smell from a bakery, the khau gully nearby, and a calico cat nibbling at a few crumbs. “I think location is really crucial to me in my life and I think that informs the way I write. It ends up being very crucial to a lot of my characters as well.”

She recalls that each time she returns home, the city changes. “Things are a little bit different from what I’d imagined. So, there’s always this feeling of longing for it when I’m not there, but also longing for it when I am there. I search for Mumbai in my memories, and, of course, I can’t find that.” In the story, we observe the protagonist, like Thakur, looking for an anchor too. The writer concludes, “A lot of my stories have characters who are coming of age. I think a big part of this age is understanding where you’re from and where you are.” 

My reading reccos

>> Her Body and Other Parts 
by Carmen Maria Machado 

>> White Dancing Elephants 
by Chaya Bhuvaneswar 

>> The Inheritance of Loss 
by Kiran Desai

>> Girl in White Cotton 
by Avni Doshi

>> Wild Milk
by Sabrina Orah Mark

>> Gods of Want
by K-Ming Chang

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