Pragati Rai: Her Own Writer

Pragati Rai. All Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

As a child, Pragati Rai was called fattyauri, someone who would not stop talking. “I did not like that when a daughter was born in family, they would say, ‘Oh great, a bottle of whisky is born,’” she says to me when we meet in her home in Thecho. “I knew from very early on that these things didn’t sit right with me, that I had to speak about them somehow.”

Born in 1977, Pragati grew up in Khotang along with a younger sister and four brothers. Although she is widely known for her first novel, Lekhak Ki Swasni (The Writer’s Wife, 2014), Pragati burst into the Nepali literary scene with a slim collection of powerful poems called Badi Bigyapti (Baadi Press Release, 2009), written after she had witnessed naked Badi women protest outside Singha Durbar demanding their right to citizenship in 2007. In the titular poem, Pragati writes:

My name is naked

My people are naked

Where I stand, there

the ground is seen as naked, today

I have been made into a promiscuous woman, sir!

I cannot cover my shame with

the sari of democracy

Peering into the empty vessel that is your assurance, 

I cannot wait for the road to freedom

Listen to the word of someone who has been made naked for generations, or–

Listen to the dangerous decision of this disgusting name:

If you do not want to make me like you, sir

I most certainly will make you like me. 

Last year, she published her second novel, Birseko Mrityu (Forgotten Death, 2019), and Pragati has just completed writing her third novel, Thakra (Stake), which is forthcoming later this year.

In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Pragati and I talk about the process of building a novel, how to tell women’s stories to reluctant audiences, the importance of humour in writing, and why it is necessary for women to write their own stories and be their own writers.

Pragati Rai: It’s like making a child swallow medicine. The medicine is bitter, so you will have to put some sugar in it. You have to trick that child into consuming something they never wanted in the first place, but that we all know is very good for them. That is how I wrote Lekhak Ki Swasni. At first, I was writing this novel called Saya, and it was just a long stiff lecture on ‘women’s issues’, and how men and the state ought to behave. I guarantee you that no one wants to read a novel like that, least of all, men.

Muna Gurung: So you made it sugary.

Yes, with Lekhak Ki Swasni, readers think they are reading a story about a writer and his family drama, but what they do not realise is that they have gone through an entire book and in the process, they have actually read and closely experienced the pain of being the wife of a writer. Lekhak Ki Swasni was actually a short story I wrote while waiting for my husband to come home for dinner. He said he was on his way but hours went by and he never showed up.

He is also a writer? 

Yes, he is an established and award-winning writer. But we live separately now. He is with someone else. People keep thinking that the novel is about our life together but it is not.

How did you meet? 

I was fourteen and my friend took me to his house. His village was just over the hill from mine. He was in ninth grade and deeply heartbroken. The girl he had fallen in love with had just been married off to some lahure. My husband was inconsolable and spiraling into depression. His family thought this was the best time to find him a wife. My friend was his mother’s niece and she had apparently told my mother-in-law about me and how I like to write poems. My mother-in-law explained to me that theirs was a family of writers and if I ever wanted to get into writing, they had all the connections. She also said I could venture into music, education, art… I agreed to marry her son, and  so I stayed put.

You stayed there that night and never went back home?

Pretty much. I slept in my mother-in-law’s room for a long time and then after a while she sent me to sleep with my husband. He and I barely talked. I was enrolled in 8th grade then and a month into the academic year, I was pregnant, so I stopped going to school. My ama sent for me, but I did not go back home.

Did you know this big step you had just taken?

I had absolutely no clue. I just thought that I had secured my future of being a writer, or doing something in this one life I have. But nobody told me about children. Up until I had my first child, I didn’t fully understand what was going on with my body.

It must have been terrifying. 

It is hard to be afraid of what you don’t know. But you know, my aama, I guess was far-sighted. After my second son was born, she told me that a day will come when I will become very unattractive to my husband because he would be much more educated than me, an 8th grade drop-out. She told me to come home right away so that I could go back to school, I was 18 then. I took my sons and went home to my mother. After SLC, I went to Kathmandu where my husband was already beginning to establish himself as a writer.

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You said in an interview elsewhere that many people would not know who Pragati Rai is, but that they would know Lekhak Ki Swasni. It is ironic now knowing that your husband also writes.   

I was always known as my husband, the writer’s wife. Even when I wrote a good poem, my name hardly came forth. They all thought he wrote my poems for me. Or if I spoke at an event, he would receive a call at home from one of his ‘boys’, who would say to him: Oh,  Pragati spoke well today. You’ve done a good job schooling her. And the worst was this one time when I saw a short review of Badi Bigyapti in a national daily, and I was surprised to see they had quoted me when I did not remember being interviewed. Later, my husband tells me that the newspaper had called and he had spoken to them.

That is terrible. 

I was furious.

How else was it like to be one of the two writers in a marriage?

Maybe people think that writer couples spend their days writing together in some blissful reverie. None of that is true! (Laughs). If two people in a family are in the same field, there is bound to be some sort of competition, it is only natural. I would share an idea with my husband and find that a part of it has somehow made it into his book, and vice versa. Some days I would want him to listen to my stories, but he would be busy trying to share his with me. Writers are obsessive people. But you know, when you are with a writer, you can say something using minimal words and trust that the other is able to extract, elaborate and expand as needed. Writers are also more open than other kinds of people, I think. When we separated, my husband told me honestly about his lover. Plus, this was not the first time he had strayed in our marriage. I always knew about his affairs because he would tell me, or write about them. Many male readers have also asked me why I did not make the writer husband character in my first novel a politician, or someone with another profession -- but my husband never once questioned that decision. I appreciated his openness.

Maybe it is also because you tell the entire story with so much humour. I laughed out loud in so many of the scenes. I think humour can be one of the hardest things to write.

My baba was a comedy man. For instance, when we did not listen to our ama, she would scream at us: Must I repeat the same thing to you twelve and twenty-seven times before you begin to listen? And our baba would step in and say, Your poor mother who does not know math is now having to put together twelve and then twenty-seven—that is half of her day gone right there!  We would laugh and then go do whatever she wanted us to do. I realised early on that humour can make difficult situations a little easier. So in making my first novel, I spent a lot of time carefully weighing out the serious scenes against the humourous ones and deciding where and how to place them so that my readers would follow along and do what I want them to do. (Laughs).

Who are your readers?

I write for our parents’ generation, my generation and those who will come after me. People from my grandparents’ generation, I do not even try. Their  thinking is set in stone. I wrote for women, but I quickly realised that the problem is that not enough women read. So what is the point of writing for women when our audience is clearly male? Women in Nepal have written for decades but the reason we still struggle to be heard and seen is because we are writing for women, which makes it easier for male readers to snooze. If we write for men in the manner that pleases them, then our stories become heavily edited, and ultimately incomplete.

Read also: Bimala Tumkhewa: Putting kinema on the map of Nepal, Muna Gurung

What about stories about women that men have written?

I feel like exactly how my character Numa feels about the way her husband writes. Numa is not a writer, but she finds that her husband, Sushant’s words lack something. Women must write their own stories, men can try, but it will be incomplete. For instance, I remember reading Abhi Subedi’s powerful article once where he writes about replacing the concept and language of  maiti ghar with that of afno ghar. It is a beautiful idea because why must we call our husband’s home our home, or afno ghar, and the place and family we were born into and grew up in and around our maiti? But what Subedi never brings up in the article is the importance then, on a policy level, for women to be able to claim that space as indeed, afno ghar. Where is it in our law? What kinds of property rights does a daughter have in her father’s home? Changing a word is a good start, but it is not the end of a larger problem.

I also found the way you write about Numa’s desire as a sexual being very refreshing. I love that she lifts lines out of her husband’s unpublished book and sends it to Prabhakar in a flirty text. You don’t always beat around the bush with some lofty metaphor, you write clearly and unapologetically. 

(Smiles). I wanted my readers to know that women, too, have desires. I especially wanted my male readers to know that they are always replaceable in a woman’s life. Many of my male friends who have read the novel do not like the character of Prabhakar. I think they see themselves as the husband character and Prabhakar as Numa’s boyfriend, and therefore a threat. The novel I just finished, Thakra, is actually a sequel to Lekhak Ki Swasni, so we will follow the same characters in a different future. My male readers urged me to get rid of Prabhakar in the third novel. But I assure you, he is going nowhere. In fact, there is a scene where Numa is told by her father-in-law that since she cannot give them a grandson, that it only makes sense for her husband to remarry. Numa is hurt by this and she gets drunk with Prabhakar one evening. Some readers, I know, are not going to like that. (Laughs).

How long did it take for you to write your last novel? 

Two years–I have not worked for money in those two years. I am deep in debt, so I must begin to work again now that the novel is done. It took me 7-8 years to write Lekhak Ki Swasni because I was working then at a school first as a teacher and then later in the exam department, typing up papers. I had a computer where I worked and I had created a folder for my novel, and I would steal some time everyday to write it. My colleagues soon found out and complained to my boss. He began to bring me large piles of random papers to type, just to keep me busy, I think. Every hour, he would walk in and ask if I was done. In another universe, I would have just put my head down and said, No sir, not yet. But instead, I would snap at him with Do you think I’m a photocopying machine? (Laughs). I was incorrigible. They even made me sign a sheet of paper that said, “I will not write during work again.” But the very next day, I wrote.

So you finished your first novel while working there? 

No–later, someone deleted the folder and I lost everything. I had to write it all over again. We had a computer at home, but there was something electrifying about stealing time to write at work. When I came home, I never wanted to write. (Laughs). Just when the school was about to kick me out, I left for Korea to work with my new novel in a pen drive.

When was this?

2010. We were struggling financially. I felt like it would be a good idea to go abroad and make quick money. My husband wanted to join me, but his writing career was taking off and I knew that going to Korea would ruin it--all that effort for nothing. So he stayed back with our two sons, who were already in their late teens, early 20s by then. In Korea, I had to do manual labour in the agricultural sector. My roommate was a woman from Myagdi and super strong. She would work all day and be fine at night, whereas I would have all sorts of joint and muscle ache. There was a computer in our room, but she was always using it to chat with her husband. I never got a chance to sit at it. I remember complaining to Sudha Tripathi didi that I was not able to write because I didn’t have a computer. She clicked her tongue and said, Why don’t you just sit on the floor and write on a notebook with your hand? Why do you need a computer to write? I took her advice. Eventually, my employer kicked me out of work because I was spending my nights writing and he would see my light was on all night; and in the afternoon I was unable to work. For three months, I stayed back in Korea, unemployed trying to finish my novel. Everyone was scolding me. When I think about all the things I went through to write this novel…it is a lot.

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What happened after you finished writing the book?

I experienced the deepest kind of satisfaction–that I had arrived on this earth and left a small signature.

A signature, that’s a powerful image. My mind keeps circling back to the naming and how common it is for women to not have proper names. Twice a year, my family sets out a feast for our ancestors, and we invite them to come and eat. My baba has a long list of their names and when he goes down the list, I notice that the men have proper names but their wives are just their names plus a ni. So, Gopal’s wife is Gopalni. How we continue to rob women of so many things, starting with their names. 

I say it in my poem, Rukh (Tree), how our great-grandmothers gave up their lives in the name of tradition, and when it was time for our mothers, they gave up their names, it was a price they paid to uphold their traditions, any tradition. We keep following in each others’ footsteps, one generation of women after another. We may alter things here and there, but unless we uproot that tradition, nothing will change.

Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times on interesting figures in Nepal’s literary scene. Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu.

The Basket

Pragati Rai

translated by Muna Gurung

After she gets the basket,

the little girl forgets everything else

She forgets food, forgets her mother

After she gets the basket,

she forgets her mother’s lap–

A mother has no right over a daughter who has left her lap.

The little girl has a basket to fill,

she forgets everything else

When she places a flower in the basket,

she likes the moon better,

When she replaces the flower with the moon,

she likes the stars more...

And even more than the stars, she begins to like

the wind, water, butterfly, cloud and what else–

She has only one basket,

but she has so many things to keep in it

She keeps one thing in the basket, takes it out for another

Keeps, takes, keeps, takes, and suddenly

evening sets in

The little girl begins to cry, the basket is empty

Seeing the basket as life,

The little girl’s mother begins to cry with her

In the midst of trying to fulfill each desire,

life remains empty.

And so–

In between her sobs,

The mother tells the little girl:

Fill the basket with one thing

the rest, keep as memories that fill your heart. 

Muna Gurung