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The books that shaped me: Dr Pragya Agarwal

The Good Housekeeping Web team
·7-min read
Photo credit: Chris Thomond - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Chris Thomond - Hearst Owned

From Good Housekeeping

Welcome to 'The books that shaped me' - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week we're hearing from Dr Pragya Agarwal, a behavioural and data scientist, author and freelance journalist. As a Senior Academic in US and UK universities, she has held the prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship, following a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Pragya is the author of SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. As a freelance journalist, her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Independent, BMJ, Times Higher Education, Huffington Post, Prospect, Forbes, and many more. Pragya moved to the UK from India almost twenty years ago, and now lives in the north-west with her family.

How have books impacted your life?

Books are a world that I escape to, a window into worlds that I do not know, those lives that I have not yet lived, and those that I could have chosen if I had stepped through different doors at various points in life. From a young age, I would carry a book around with me wherever I went, and they were like a comfort blanket and also an armour against various societal expectations and demands. I would wait for the school library to open for an hour every week and run my hands along the books as if I could breathe in all the words and worlds through my touch. I would save my measly pocket money every month until I had enough to go and buy one book every three months from that one tiny bookshop in the small town that I was growing up in, rummaging through the stack to find a book, grasping it close to my chest and reading it in one night under the duvet with a flashlight. I still continually marvel at how much words can say, and the images they can create, the connections that can be forged through just a few words.

The childhood book that's stayed with you...

The first book that I remember being completely enthralled by as a child was Tales of Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan. These are short stories of ordinary everyday life in an imaginary town of Malgudi, capturing snippets of people often invisible to us in endearing details such as a postman, a vendor of pies and chapattis, and a snake-charmer. While I was reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and Famous Five books, they showed me a world that I was so unfamiliar with. Malgudi Days reminded me that sometimes one has to just look out of the window to see a story unfold. I have since introduced this to my own children, because for them growing up in the UK, this is a world so unfamiliar, and I want them to know the essence of India, without tropes and stereotypes, and acknowledge the diversity of human experience.

Your favourite book of all time...

This is a very difficult question. It is impossible to choose one specific favourite book. But I will always remember the lyrical quality of An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. Unlike his much more well-known A Suitable Boy, this is a much shorter book. Beautifully poetic and evocative, it weaves in loss and longing (oh so much longing!) and unspoken desire, along with classical music. My eldest child plays the violin and used to study at a specialist music school and so music and quartets were a huge part of our lives. The underlying message of the book is that love is so much like music: so individual, yet so universal. This book isn’t perfect at all, but I guess this is what is so wonderful about it: its representation of imperfectness in relationships, in music and in life, and the way we search for hope and intimacy amongst such frailties and flaws.

The book you wish you'd written...

There are so many writers who I admire and adore: Sinead Gleeson, Annie Ernaux, Sheila Heti, Rebecca Solnit, Carmen Maria Machado, to name just a few, and so many books that I wish I had written. But, above all, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments is a book that I often return to as a masterclass in writing the self; reading it, marking it in the margins, folding pages to remind me what good self-assured yet honest writing looks like. The way she shows vulnerability without being helpless is superlative. I am reading her latest Approaching Eye Level, a collection of essays looking at the nature of solitude and making connections and navigating a city. I am particularly interested in our connections with the spaces that we live in, and I admire Gornick’s ability to evoke sense of place with such sparse language, something that I continually aspire to but find it impossible to achieve.

The book you wish everyone would read...

As a young single mother in a new country, bringing up a child at the intersection of different cultural and national borders, I felt an acute sense of nostalgia, longing and loss. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies showed me other people living through cultural transition. Her writing dazzles as she sensitively tackles these life of two worlds, moving between both with one foot in each, a parallax of double perspective - converging, diverging, merging - without ever homogenising the group into one faceless mass. Lahiri writes about seemingly mundane lives, brief relationships between friends, lovers, families, illuminating them through her incredibly luminous prose. Most of all, these stories bring the female diaspora to the forefront, something we very rarely see or hear about, doing so via food and cooking. You will love these stories, I promise; wistful, melancholic and joyous by turn. And, you will return to them again and again, much like I do, savouring them slowly and languorously at times, while devouring them hungrily and wildly at other times.

The book that's got you through a hard time...

Rachel Cusk’s A life’s Work, often maligned for its very honest and raw representation of new motherhood was my saviour in those early days with my now four-year-old twins. There were times when, desperate with exhaustion, I had questioned my love for them, and I had questioned my own sanity. I had sat in the Waitrose car park at midnight, crying desperately, wishing to disappear. I had driven around trying to get them to sleep somehow and had driven on the wrong side of the road. My brain couldn’t fathom where I was and what I was doing in that car. Much of the time I was petrified, agitated and seething. And, then I remember the guilt. Somehow there are no words in our armoury for maternal anger and ambivalence; words that can stand side by side with our love. This book reminded me that I was not alone.

The book that uplifts you...

I first read An Elegance of Hedgehog, first written in French by Muriel Barbary and then translated into English in 2008, almost 10 years ago when I was really struggling personally and professionally. I was finding reading difficult in my completely unfocussed, distracted and anxious state. Interweaving lives of people living in an upscale Parisian apartment, this book immediately comforted me. Somehow as I was feeling so introspective and indolent (and often prickly like a hedgehog), this book reassured and bolstered me. It is a book of joy and hope, of humanity and love, of finding beauty in unexpected places, criss-crossing philosophical theories beautifully with everyday life. This is a book questioning and shattering hypocrisy of modern life, the hierarchies of class and status that we automatically subscribe to. And, this was really a book that made me think so much of the unconscious biases that we carry within us, and that has informed my own research and writing.

Wish We Knew What to Say by Dr Pragya Agarwal is released on 29 October.

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