In a one-to-one exclusive with novelist Sweta Srivastava Vikram, My Little Magazine takes a peek into the untraditional life of an Indian woman and discovers the intricacies of human relationships
MLM: How did Perfectly Untraditional happen?
“Perfectly Untraditional,” true to it name, happened in a rather unconventional way. I had this story inside of me—gnawing—waiting to get unleashed—touch ink and morph into words. Not the detailed book that you see today. But I had the seed for a story. I knew I wanted it to be different—about common people—all of us. But nothing stereotypical or mundane A narrative about relationships, identity, immigration, and modern Indian families with subtle suggestions on how we could make our society a better place.
When I started working on “Perfectly Untraditional,” by the way it was called something else then, I basically wrote a 40-page novella. My agent came across the novella and asked if I had ever thought of writing a full-length novel—she had liked the story and my writing style. I was ecstatic and nervous. I am a poet before a prose writer. I knew it was a humongous undertaking, but I was determined to take up the challenge. The way I saw it, I had nothing to lose.
I have had so many friends and family members support me through my madness. Be it helping me with research to putting up with my crazy hours to tolerating my artistic moments to evaluating the title of the book to just being there as sounding boards.
MLM: At any point do you identify with the protagonist Shaili?
Before I answer that question, I would like to clarify that “Perfectly Untraditional” isn’t my autobiography. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have asked me that question even though my husband was standing right next to me.
Yes, I do identify with the female protagonist, Shaili Kapoor—but only in a symbolic way. Like Shaili, who realizes the truth about herself after moving to New York from India, I too found myself, in a *symbolically* similar situation, when I moved to NYC from Mumbai.
I had always wanted to be a writer. But due to personal reasons, I couldn’t follow my dream when I was in India. While I thought I had made my peace with the decision to study sciences and turn away from creative writing and journalism, I was terribly wrong. Living in New York, I couldn’t fool myself any longer. I conceded that I am and will be nothing without words. And much as I respected all other professions, I didn’t see myself spending eternity studying or practicing sciences. Even if I tried…I couldn’t.
Both in Shaili’s and my case, distance offered a perspective on “The real us.” It gave us opportunities to blossom and carve out our individual identities. When we are inside the system of societal expectations, it’s difficult to think differently—even if your inner voice begs you. There is no room for it, actually.
As desis we are trained to appease and not consider our happiness. But once we move away, many of us start to evaluate terms like sacrifices, happiness, and fulfillment. Arisitotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Can we impart happiness if we are unhappy from within? Can we pretend to be someone we aren’t? And is it really worth it?
MLM What's the best thing you have heard about the book so far?
Readers have been generous with their response so far. People have discussed it with me or reached out and said that they found at least a few things in the novel that resonated with them. For a writer, that too a debut novelist, knowing that your “untraditional” book was received well by both men and women across different age groups and ethnicities, has been extremely humbling and encouraging.
As writers, we pour our heart, blood, sweat, and soul into our books. And when readers recognize the efforts, interpret your book, and discuss it at length, it gives a warm, fuzzy feeling—that of fulfillment. I was pleasantly surprised at how involved people got with the characters. They had their favorites and not-so-favorite ones picked out.·A ninety-six-year-old-American man, who fought in both World War I and II, said to me, “Your book touched me in a way nothing else has. Never stop writing.” A psychotherapist, also a reader of my novel, commented that I understood human complexities and the different layers of human emotions. Her lesbian friend complimented the authenticity of emotions in the novel. An aunt-in-law in Minneapolis said, “I always wondered about the lives of writers and actors. It was such a distant world. Beta you have shown us that world. And I am so proud of you. any people have said that they couldn’t believe this was my first book. Numerous women have requested me to write a sequel…because they want to find out what happens to the young, male protagonist: Sadhil Sethi. He turned out to be a favorite with the ladies.
MLM: Any anecdote related to the conceptualisation of Perfectly Untraditional that you may wish to share?
I have shared this anecdote at probably all my readings, but it still cracks me up. When I wrote about Sadhil Sethi, in the first draft, I exaggerated his goodness—to the extent I put most Yash Chopra heroes to shame.:-) Sadhil was unreal, by human standards, in terms of his looks, heart, benevolence, attitude, manners, and personality. Or at least that’s what I was told. Sure enough, after having worked on Sadhil Sethi for as long as I did, I lived inside an unreal bubble of expectations. One evening when my husband returned home from work, we debated about some trite issue. I was upset and retaliated with, “Sadhil Sethi would have never done this.” Poor guy didn’t know how to respond. His competition was a fictitious character created by his author wife.
MLM: What's next?
I am working on several projects simultaneously including my second novel. But in the near future, I have a chapbook of poetry, titled Beyond The Scent of Sorrow, scheduled for October 13, 2011 release in Brooklyn, New York. And I am working on a nonfiction collection of prose and poetry, Mouth full, which will be released in London in early 2012.