Sanjana Thakur, a 26 year-old writer from Mumbai, India, has been named as the overall winner of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Chosen among 7,359 entrants worldwide, Sanjana’s entry, titled ‘Aishwarya Rai,’ is an adoption story told in reverse, in which a young woman seeks to hire an ideal mother.

Sanjana Thakur’s story Aishwarya Rai is about mothers and daughters.

In this exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, Sanjana talked about first encountering this idea, her admiration of the Bollywood actor whose name forms the title of the story, and more. (Also read: Read an exclusive excerpt from Amal Allana’s book on her father, Ebrahim Alkazi)

Congratulations on the win! How has the last couple of days been like for you? Tell me a little bit about this journey of being shortlisted, and then being selected over the last few months.

Thank you so much! Everything was a lovely blur. I had just finished a writing conference and was travelling—I watched the announcement at 8 AM and then a few hours later was on a train from Boston to New York. I spent the train ride responding to all the kind, lovely strangers who were reaching out to me on Twitter and Instagram, and of course to my wonderful friends and family who were so excited.

The journey from being shortlisted in April to now has been so unexpected and overwhelming. I’m so grateful to the judges for appreciating my work, and just as grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read my story on Granta. The other regional winners’ stories are on Granta too, and they are stunning. The shortlisted writers’ stories are starting to be published in Adda and they’re so beautiful too! I really feel lucky to be in such good company, to be part of this community of writers across the world.

Aishwarya Rai is a story about reverse adoption. How did you come across this as a concept and what interested you most about it?

The idea started out as a store for mothers, actually, where you could buy mothers off the shelf based on their features, characteristics, aesthetics. Then it evolved, of course, turning into a shelter from where you could adopt different mothers. I wanted this story to offer some sense of how variable mother-daughter relationships can be, and yet how inherently complex—because of the expectations mothers and daughters have of each other, but also because of the expectations society has of both roles. What happens when you fall short? Can you find the perfect mother? Does such a thing exist?

Avni, the protagonist in your story, instantly reminded me of writer Avni Doshi, who also wrote a novel on mothers and daughters, named Burnt Sugar. That, to me, is such a beautiful coincidence.

Oh, thank you for saying that! Burnt Sugar is actually one of my favourite novels! It’s so brilliant and beautiful.

The title of your story, Aishwarya Rai, instantly catches attention. Why did you choose her as a reference point as opposed to a different actor? Are you a fan of the actor? If yes, how has her work and image caught your attention?

I love Aishwarya Rai, of course I do! I re-watched Dhoom 2 recently and she’s just iconic. A big part of my story has to do with consumerism and societal beauty standards, and how those expectations of beauty shape the mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps I could have used any Bollywood actor, but in my mind, Aishwarya Rai exists as this ideal of womanhood and beauty in the public imagination, so she seemed like the perfect person to draw on in this story. Someone who is so beautiful she can tell other women, “Hey, you can look like me too—if you just buy this shampoo or that face cream.”

Were you always inclined towards the short story format? Who were your favorite writers growing up?

I’ve loved writing since I was a child, but in various forms. Poems, songs, and then, in the tenth grade, short stories. I love the form. To move and connect with your reader in such a limited amount of space feels like an exciting challenge each time I start a new story.

In high school, I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and that kickstarted my love for Indian literature, South Asian literature, post colonial literature. Some of my favourite books are Burnt Sugar, of course, by Avni Doshi, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark, White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Organ Meats by K-Ming Chang, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai… I could go on!

As a writer yourself, what do you think are the most important qualities that an aspiring writer must always keep in mind while writing?

I’d say curiosity and empathy! I try to take in as much as I can from the world around me, whether that’s through observation and conversation or reading widely, because I am always trying to tell real stories about complex people. And, in my opinion, the only way to do justice to the complexity of human beings, to write interesting characters, is to have depths of curiosity and empathy.

You can read Sanjana’s story, Aishwarya Rai, here.