Despite her degrees in Biology and Dalit and Tribal Studies, she’s a writer at heart… Varsha Naik chats with Pragya Bhagat, poet and storyteller
Across the world, in a setting very different from when we first met, I reconnected with a university friend after 14 years a couple of weeks ago at the Goa Art and Literature Festival. That first time we met we were both freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), a fire in our bellies, ready to embrace the school slogan ‘What starts here changes the world’. Today, Pragya Bhagat is a writer and poet living in Kumaon who made quite an impression at her first literature festival, with her honest and autobiographical poems from her self-published collection More Than a Memory.
Writing, the experience
Pragya has been writing poems since the age of seven, and later on fiction as well. She’s has written The Open Road Review and The Bombay Review, freelanced with The Better India, and blogs with The Huffington Post. The magazine Helter Skelter has her writing a series of short stories based on her experiences living in a Kumaoni village and her poetry has been featured on Muse India and The Hans India.
Her greatest learning has been the importance of exploring, of listening to the stories of those around her, of understanding what brings people together and what tears them apart. “In interacting with a diverse set of people, I observed that regardless of where we come from and who we are, there are things that connect us: social stigma, insecurities, beauty around us, beauty within us, relationships with friends and family. We care about these things and we tell stories about things we care about,”she says. Through this first collection of poems, Pragya talks about mental health, sexual abuse, menstruation, learning to love herself, and other issues she’s faced. “Poetry is my way of dealing with these issues head on and unlayering their complexity. Each poem is a story about experiences that have hit me in some powerful way.”
She believes being vulnerable creates spaces for connection, she hopes that through her honesty readers can connect to her work.Though her poems have mostly garnered reactions from women, there are some male reactions that surprised Pragya. “An American photographer told me he connected to Red. It’s a poem about menstruation, but also about my relationship to my body, and he could relate to the uncertainty and self-criticism that comes in adolescence.” A book reviewer reading Are You Listening, a poem about the unwanted male gaze told her reading the poem made him wonder what I looked like. “I had never thought about that before, that consent is a factor of how one looks. I just assumed that unwanted attention was something most women faced at some point in their life, regardless of appearance.”
Pragya’s performance at the recent Spoken Word Festival in Mumbai was her first time in front an audience of thousands. “It was extremely gratifying to hear their snaps when they connected to something I was saying and humbling to watch masters like Piyush Mishra, Kalki Koechin and Raghu Dixit on stage as well,” she says.
Paving the way
Pragya describes herself as a born nomad, every three years her father’s posting led them to a new country, and soon they immigrated to America, for the better life that has become synonymous with the land. “We were fed this idea that you have to be one thing when you grow up. I loved a lot of things while growing up: writing, dancing, performing, but I didn’t know I could make those a profession. So I decided to be a doctor, because I also loved science,” she explains. After attending Science Academy in high school and studying Biology in college, she was well on her way to being this one thing, a doctor.
“Then, Bhopal happened. Learning about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy burst the bubble of my privileged existence. ‘Burst’ isn’t the right word… it ruptured my mental models, it made me feel angry and sad and frustrated at the blatant injustice of more than two decades of suffering. The tragedy so clearly highlighted the difference between rich and poor, first world and third world, local livelihoods and corporate corruption,” Pragya says. After she graduated from UT with a biology and teaching degree, she took a year off and went to Bhopal to volunteer with the gas survivors. “That experience was a turning point in my life. I knew I wanted to move back to India.”
Pragya came back to Austin for about two and half years to teach science to students mostly from inner city neighbourhoods who faced gang violence, children out of wedlock, siblings who were in jail or had been killed on the streets. “I no longer wanted to ‘be’ something; I wanted to do something about issues I cared about. I cared about science, so I taught them that. I cared about Bhopal, so many of my students started a No More Bhopal campaign at their school and at college campuses,” she adds. By the end of 2009 she had saved up some money and moved back to India without a plan. “Since I had spent most of my life outside India, I simply wanted to understand the country and its people. I lived in a Rajasthani village for six months and I decided to study Social Work,” she says, before she joined TISS in Mumbai and then worked with Teach for India in Hyderabad for three years.
Her world of words
Pragya decided to give writing a chance while in Hyderabad –“This seemed like a good time to do and a village in the mountains seemed like a cheaper, distraction-free, environmentally more sustainable option for living. One of the hardest things has been being accountable to herself as a writer. In Hyderabad and Mumbai, she was able to outsource domestic work like cooking and cleaning. “In this village, I do everything on my own. For the first time in my life, I am responsible for myself in the truest sense of the word. I’m cooking my own food, washing my own clothes, and writing my on issues I care about.”
She tries to maintain a daily routine; “I wake up early and sleep early. I walk a great deal, because most of the local roads are only accessible by foot. As a woman, it is important for me to feel physically strong, I farm and work with my hands. I write everyday. I tell my stories and hear those of others. I spend most of my day outside instead of inside a room. I feel grateful that I am able to lead this sort of lifestyle by choice, which does have its challenges. I face much more rejection than acceptance, and writing hasn’t become a financially sustainable venture just yet. But I love it. These experiences push me out of my comfort zone, and though I learn a great deal about my new surroundings, I learn the most about myself.”
Yarn-An Interwoven Memoir expected out in 2018, is also autobiographical in nature, the story of her grandmother, her nani.