As Eric Akoto, the magazine editor, reminds us in his introduction, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” In this story, the main character has to change himself to get what he wants.
Set in India, ‘The Prize’ deals with the main conflict between moral values and material success that much of the country’s rising middle class continues to deal with. A young architect and his wife meet with a powerful customer and his wife for a business dinner, where the architect hopes to close a big deal. As the evening progresses, in trying to gain the contract, something precious is also lost.
Of course, corruption exists in pretty much every field and almost at every class level in India. And, regardless of whether you have money or not, if you want to grab onto opportunities with one hand, you have to be prepared to give something up with the other. [Side-note: it always amazes me how, despite all that corruption, there is so much attachment to bureaucracy and due diligence processes in business and government — one of those many colonial hangovers.]
What has always fascinated me is that singular moment — that first time — when a person chooses to compromise his morality. Motivations can be varied and complex, can’t they? I wanted to explore how a deeply idealistic and intelligent up-and-comer deals with this conflict when it threatens something he wants desperately. How it can not only change such a person, but also his place in the world, and who he is in his most personal relationships.
The story is set in one of India’s Tier II cities: Ahmedabad. Though not a global business hub like Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi, it is, much like the two young metropolitan couples in the story, rather Westernized in outlook and aspirations.
The point of view character is the young architect, Nikhil Shah. However, every character in a story is also the protagonist of his/her own story too. So I have worked to show some of the layers with the other characters too. As in real life, when we’re too focused on our own point of view or preconceived notions about people/places, we tend to miss a lot of what’s really happening, as Nikhil does here. So, as readers, we need to look closer truly understand what is going on.
Also, I had an interesting conversation with a reader on Facebook about this story. You can check it out here. In particular, my stance has always been that a story has to raise questions for further exploration — for the writer as well as the reader. Pretty language/descriptions alone are not enough for me. A story has to have all that and more. It has to wake me up, make me think — as a writer as well as a reader. My key points are as follows:
It would be presumptuous of me to tell any reader how to read my work. But, if it helps at all, let me share one (of a few others) simple goal I have with all my fiction: it is to always, always, always question both my own and the popular biases/prejudices out there.
If a story of mine results in a confirmation of my own biases rather than an alteration in my thinking, I will not put it out into the world till I can fix that. If a story of mine results in a confirmation of a reader’s biases, rather than an alteration in their thinking, then it is not being read as I had intended it to be. Though the latter is out of my control, I only ask that, if you do read the story, please do not look for a confirmation of biases — rather, see if it will help explore/question/alter them. I believe this is what we should be doing with all our reading — fiction or otherwise.
No matter where we live or where we come from, we ALL have our biases — no human being exists without them. Among the many reasons we read/write stories, one of them is to understand/explore our own biases and those of others.
Fiction is simply another way to frame/reframe universal ideas/questions in a fresh, different way. It is a lens through which to see the world with a little closer attention than we do in our everyday lives.
Below are some questions a reader may want to consider. Or not — your choice as reader. I’m not looking for anyone’s answers. There are no single answers. We bring our individual interpretations, based on our experiences and beliefs, to what we read. I do not even try to provide neat/pat answers when I write — only raise questions to be explored. And, quite frankly, if a story is just pretty words/descriptions and does not make us think, it is a waste of time — in my book.
1/ In the restaurant scene, Nikhil, the protagonist and narrator, pays a great deal of attention to the architectural detail around him, to his wife’s sexuality, and to how he feels about getting this particular deal. Yet, he describes Ekta’s appearance rather dismissively as she sits right across from him. What does that tell us about Nikhil and, generally, men like him? It definitely doesn’t tell us anything much about Ekta, by the way, because we’re only seeing her through his eyes.
2/ In the flat scene, when Nikhil is unable to close the deal and the two women take charge, he’s shocked. Again, what does that tell us about him and about our own biases? All over India, men make “deals” like this nearly every single day — the stakes vary, of course. So that, in itself, is hardly notable. Yet, when two women do the exact same thing, it changes how we think of them, doesn’t it? What does that tell us about Indian society/culture and, by extension, ourselves?
3/ In the final scene, what is the “prize” that Nikhil is so desperate about? Hint — it is not a physical thing/person.
A story about two men striking an illegal deal is not worth writing about. It happens every day. A story about how two women striking the same deal are viewed and what that tells us about Indian society and our own perceptions — that is what I was exploring/questioning.
A brief excerpt:
“But, there are rules, na? Three companies must bid for such a big-big project. I have to do my…” he turns to Ekta, “What does Santosh always say about this?”
“Due diligency,” she replies, looking at a new message on her glittering pink phone.
“Haan. I have to do due diligency.” Manoj smiles and sits back, taking a slurp from his Pepsi. “You know about moksha, na? You only have to do the chaar-dhaam yatra. Pilgrimage of only four holy places will get you eternal peace. In our society, per the bye-laws, you will not get moksha until your file has been blessed at all twenty dhaams. Understood?” His laugh makes his belly jiggle so much this time, it jolts our table.