Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
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Witchy Woman: Interview with Ipsita Roy Chakraverti
You might know her as “the cool witch”. Pooja Pande in conversation with India’s most famous practitioner of Wiccan craft, Ipsita Roy Chakraverti – the grapevine has it that A-list Hollywood stars are vying to play her in a biopic.
Pooja Pande (PP): How does the term ‘The Other Side’ resonate with you?
Ipsita Roy Chakraverti (IRC): ‘The Other Side’ to me would mean another dimension, another doorway, another portal. From the esoteric point of view, it would mean what Wicca has always believed in – physical death is not the end, but it’s just a room in a huge mansion. Nowadays, science also seems to have accepted that view whether it be the physicist who is explaining the String Theory, or Stephen Hawking talking about the existence of black holes in the cosmos. ‘The Other Side’ to me of course is not an alien side, but it is very near and I would rather call it a parallel dimension than the other dimension.
I suppose ancient writers like Plato as well as modern scientists like Hawking or great inventors and scientists like Thomas Edison have all peered into this universe and realised that this is so.
PP: Have you felt like you’ve been living on the other side, in your identity as a Wiccan?
IRC: I have, I suppose, been living it all my life, not only in my identity as a Wiccan but in my identity as Ipsita, an inhabitant of many dimensions. I know that for most, the thought of anything beyond the very tangible evokes fear. But for me, it is an adventure.
PP: I feel that as women, we all understand the politics of the other side quite deeply. In so many ways, we are the other. And the politics get deeper, more insidious, more dangerous, as identities move further away from the so-called mainstream – be it caste, race, religion, sexual identity. What do you think?
IRC: This is of course a gender issue which you are talking about. I think it has always existed in this country – more so than in the West. At one time, women were burnt as witches in the West. Today women are still burnt as witches in India. So, women have a tough lot wherever it may be. But that does not mean that inspite of this, I would support the LGBT movement. A true intellectual, which a Wiccan is, does not give so much credence to sex and gender. I believe in the individual.
PP: Could you please trace for us your own journey in Wicca, from being someone tagged “weird” to someone branded “cool”. What are the parallel socio-cultural conversations in a world that echo these changes?
IRC: Well, I’ve always been tagged “cool”, even when I brought this movement to India. Now perhaps I’m given more glittering epithets, like “pioneer”, “pathbreaker”, and “ageless”. In fact, I have heard people call me “a legend in my own lifetime”. So have things changed? The foreign press has been very interested and kind to me and that has obviously made a difference here. The world has opened up. The Internet has redesigned our thoughts and horizons. The Wiccan Brigade which I founded in 2006 has started a movement in India. But mostly I think it has been my work with the masses through the years that has changed things for Wicca in India. I am surprised to find that the present young generation has taken to the book ‘Beloved Witch’ in a big way. So the Wiccan movement has grown, diversified and is now claiming centre stage in a country which once had forgotten that at one time Wicca was a global phenomenon. And that the word ‘daayan’ had actually come down to us from Greece many centuries ago in the form of ‘Diana’ the Goddess who stood among other things for the free-thinking woman. Maybe that is one reason why our patriarchal society chose to denigrate the word.
PP: What have been the differences for you, personally and professionally in your Wiccan identity, living in America and in India? Have there been different sets of pros and cons?
IRC: I think the West has a more practical approach to the supernatural in the way that they acknowledge that another dimension exists out there. Where Wicca is concerned nearly everybody wants to show some connection with the knowledge and practice. However the downside to that is that in many instances the subject becomes distorted and you have “covens” springing up everywhere where the true knowledge is lacking. It is converted into a social arena for networking and a bit of fun. Wicca has its ancient academics and book-learning side which is either not known or inaccessible to them. That is why I put such a store by the tradition of the pagan school of Wicca in the Laurentians where I was able to learn and live the true Wicca as I look upon it and which I have written about in my books, ’Beloved Witch’ and ‘Beloved Witch Returns’. As far as I am concerned, in the West along with my more conventional studies I was learning Wicca in my free time. I was happy in the knowledge that Wicca had chosen me. I did not find any negative reactions. The subject was taken as any academic pursuit combining many subjects bordering on science as well as ancient history and psychology.
In India when I started the practice of Wicca through my classes and therapy in the 1980s, it was something completely new to the people. If anybody had heard of Wicca it was in the negative way. So I had a herculean task before me which I undertook and I think I have done well. The intelligentsia, the press, (with a few exceptions) were able to grasp the true meaning of the subject and the masses were thrilled and would line up outside my gates wanting therapy for mind and body. I used crystals, my athame, and my words of power. I think my presence did the rest. They said they found immense relief. In India, one had to be careful that people did not mix up Wicca with superstition. In other words, I do not want to sound arrogant, but India had to be educated first, before anything else. We are a country riddled with superstition and distorted religious beliefs. Unfortunately Dakini Vidya in India, which plays such an important part in the religions of neighbouring countries was often taken as a negative subject here. I had to change many preconceived ideas. I believe I have achieved a lot, but more needs to be done. In rural areas women are still being killed as ‘witches’. I am afraid our Bollywood producers do not help matters with films like ‘Ek Thi Daayan’ where a certain female producer presented the worst superstitions to frighten people and sell tickets – until she was brought to a halt through my intervention and had to make substantial changes. In fact I had to take the producer of that film to task by going to the then President of India, and to the NCW, for drastic clipping of that film. It was done even though the makers of that film were none too happy. So in India I have to not only educate, I have to constantly be alert about people, be they politicians or filmmakers, taking advantage of our poor illiterate masses who are fed with fear and superstition so that some lobbies can make money or get votes.
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