I want to comb through the facts, to detangle them, but then there would be no story. I want to start at the beginning, but this story has no beginning, only a seed. The seed planted itself in my mind, rooting there without my knowledge, tempting me with its novelty. This seed eventually turned into The Idea that changed the course of my life.
In 2013, I joined a non-profit in Hyderabad. Their office was a musty three-bedroom apartment with open working spaces, colourful walls, and a kitchen with an electric kettle and a water filter. When the electricity went out, the cooler whispered itself to sleep, and in each of the three bedrooms a ceiling fan wobbled. In 2015, I sat in one of these rooms, the only furniture a creaky wooden table and two chairs, one for myself and one for my manager, who sat on my right. A laptop lay on the table, and a woman’s smiling face stared back at us from the screen.
She was glad I was applying for a promotion, the woman on the screen said. I smiled. Perhaps the promotion would cause The Idea to dissolve, like a dream that drains from memory on waking. Perhaps if it left me, I could finally ‘settle down’, the way people were supposed to as they left the rebellion of their twenties.
To settle would be to calm my childhood silt, to accept that this was what the rest of my life would look like. It seemed like such an unsettling way to map the future. So there I was, trying to discard The Idea by applying for a promotion in a room with green walls, paying more attention to the fan’s wobble than to my manager’s voice.
‘Can you give us an example of when you collaborated?’
‘What do you hope to bring to the role?’
‘What is your vision for personal development?’
I knew what I was expected to say. Over the last two years, I had interviewed dozens of candidates for the organisation myself. I cited my strengths – I could plan and get things done. I was a good listener, empathetic. The woman on the screen nodded, smiled. My manager typed on his own laptop. Click click click. Lots of clicking was a good sign.
‘How long do you envision being committed to the organisation?’ the woman on the screen asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate your honesty.’ She spoke in a tone that felt genuinely compassionate. But I knew her as someone who was always genuinely compassionate, so it wasn’t necessarily a good sign.
I should have been more certain. I should have committed to something, to anything.
Commitment had always felt unnatural. By the age of fifteen, I had studied in eight schools across six countries. This was before 1999, when the family decided we would immigrate to Austin, where Ma’s parents and sister lived. In the winter of 2003 I taught families how to make gingerbread houses, and in the summer of 2004 I taught middle-schoolers how to make circuits with resistors and diodes.
By 2006 I had a Bachelors in Biology and a teaching degree. I had worked as a research assistant on Middle Eastern Studies, a researcher on grasshoppers, a curriculum developer at a nature preserve, and a science teacher – all by the age of twenty-three.
2009 arrived suddenly. I had lived in Texas for a decade, and I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I didn’t know who I’d become or where I wanted to be, but it didn’t matter. What was the point of sticking to one person or place or profession? The idea of commitment seemed forced.
Still, there was one thing I had committed to. I had started writing at the age of six.
Rocks are big and tallish
Rocks are round and smallish
Rocks are flat and bumpy
Rocks are long and lumpy
Rocks are thin and fat
Even some are as big as a bat
Some have a golden touch
Others have golden too much
Now I told you all you should know
About rocks that are
too big, too small, too high, and too low
In my best handwriting, I titled the work ‘Poem 1’. On the next page I drew a cluster of rocks, just in case the reader couldn’t see them the way that I saw them. It became important, early on, that the reader saw the world exactly as I did.
My first poem was published when I was seven years old. A year later, I changed schools. Writing remained a companion, a friend who listened when friends were hard to make and harder to keep.
The poem I wrote at seven was about Halloween, a festival about pretending to be someone you weren’t. The Idea, as it swished in my mind while this interview ended, called on me to stop pretending. I left work that evening and drove to play rehearsal. Theatre encouraged observation, the discovery of the spirit inside the body, the who inside the what. So I observed the people I performed with: the girl with dark rings under her eyes. The curly haired boy who yearned to make her laugh. The fellow who had a question for each character he played, and who, while others chatted between breaks, practised his lines.
I enjoyed the rush of adrenaline before a performance, the beat of silence before applause, the celebration after. Before the performance some actors paced backstage. Others distracted themselves with small talk. I liked being quiet. Theatre made me self-aware of when I was performing and when I wasn’t. There was always a stage; there was always an audience.
Excerpted with permission from Swimming In Our Oceans: A Memoir, Pragya Bhagat, Zubaan.