Interview with Sweta Vikram
It was late in 2013 when I was first introduced to award-winning writer Sweta Vikram, by another writer, Monica Bhide, who became someone I consider a dear friend. Monica and I had come to know each other as many of us in the nebulous world of food writers and non-chef chefs do- coming across each other’s works at some industry function and connecting through social media. I fell in love with Monica’s warm, charming personality immediately so when she was enthusiastically telling me that I should connect with a dear friend of hers, this “wonderful writer,” I jumped at the chance.
As expected, anyone Monica Bhide speaks highly about is certain to be a unique character in the most endearing of ways. To date, Sweta Vikram and I have yet to meet face to face but we have had numerous email interactions since 2013. After looking into her works which span poetry, short stories and essays, I immediately wanted to feature her on my International Icons series. Vikram was not a super famous household name but she was accomplishing work more valuable than many celebrities- that of bringing a strong voice to minority women based in America. Through her work and my learning of her personal strength during the loss of her Mother, I came to have deep admiration for her and believe her to be a force creating positive change and joy in those who read her works or study directly with her in her meditation and Ayurveda classes.
What are a couple of the earliest memories you have of your childhood? Also, please share where you grew up, what you remember about your childhood home(s).
I was born in Rourkela, India. It’s a small steel township in North Eastern part of India. My Dad, a metallurgical engineer, was employed by the steel plant in this city. By the time I was seven or eight, my Dad took up another job in Libya. I went to school there for a few years before joining my boarding school in Mussoorie, India.
My fondest memories are of our Rourkela days. Our lovely community of friends. Family visiting us during summer vacation. The kids playing together on the streets. Mom cooking us all a feast. Dad teaching us to swim and planning day trips. Don’t get me wrong; our stay in Libya meant lots of exposure to global travel and cuisines since my parents were big believers in education and travel. We met good people and made lifelong friends. BUT, the years spent in Rourkela, they were simple and sweet. I remember them very fondly.
Tell us about your Mother and Father- what were they like as parents, as individuals and how did your relationship change with them from childhood to adulthood?
My mother and I were poles apart, I believed for the longest time. I was a child of curiosity and science always asking questions and questioning archaic traditions. And I think Mom would have liked a daughter who just listened and was more “Indian,” like most other kids around us. But as we both grew older, we found strength in our differences and started to connect. Food and women’s rights were dear to both of us even though our approach was different. But it was only after Mom passed away suddenly did I realize that I am a lot like her. From our love of yellow roses to planning similar menus for the holidays, we also processed people and emotions similarly. While I am fiercely ambitious, I am equally domesticated, like my mother. I love spending time with our friends/family—cooking and entertaining, taking care of my home, and nurturing relationships…like my mom.
My Dad and I are more like buddies. We argue a lot because we are very similar. Hahaha. BUT, we also understand each other better. He is the kind of man, who instills the importance of passion, ambition, devotion to humanity & social change, and doing things that make you happy. He seems less constrained and concerned by societal pressures. But he is also the kind of person who is caring and giving.
What is the first tangible thing you remember writing? (A poem? In a diary?)
It was a poem I wrote to and for my father. I was in 8th grade in my boarding school in Mussoorie, India. I wrote a rhyme poem in my pocket diary, which I still remember was dark blue in color.
What was it about writing that you fell in love with since early on? What was it that writing gave you that nothing else could?
I come from a family of writers. My Dad was a poet by night as was his sister, my aunt. My Dada, paternal grandfather, even in his last days asked me to never give up the arts. It’s safe to say that I grew up around words.
By now you know that I had a pretty nomadic life growing up. Three extremely different countries and continents have influenced my upbringing. I am grateful for the exposure but not all of the displacement was easy. Stories captivated me. They give me the tool to create an alternate reality. Writing was the stable factor in my life. It allowed me to create a safe space for remembering experiences and sharing stories. It gave me access to understanding others and myself.
When did you move to the US and why?
My husband and I moved to New York in 1999. We both wanted to study further and travel. He found a job offer and the rest is history.
Before 2010, it is said you worked as Head of Marketing at an accounting firm. How long were you in that particular position and what had you done prior to that?
I started my career with Kelloggs. I have held positions in marketing in different industries and countries. I was at the accounting firm for close to five years, I want to say. It wasn’t easy. I would wake up at 3:30am to write. Then go to work. And for two years—I was studying at Columbia University—I would go to school after work.
Especially in the modern world, writing is often a thankless and financially fruitless job. How did you find the courage to make the leap into this mad beautiful world of literature?
As the wise say, you have to be unhappy and miserable to create your best work and take high risks. That’s what happened to me. There were changes going on in my company, which weren’t in line with where I saw myself five years down the line. At the same time, I had my first book contract in hand and taste of 1st writing residency. It was start of a new decade. A bunch of my friends were quitting their corporate careers to follow their dream. I had absolute cold feet. My husband was one of the biggest reasons I took the leap. I was worried about my paycheck. He said to me, “Do you want to wake up when you are 70 and be full of regrets…wondering what it could have been had you tried writing full-time?” I quit my job thinking I would return to a marketing job in a few months. 7 years later, I am still here J And have now started my company: NimmiLife, which helps people elevate their productivity and creativity using holistic wellness tips.
What have been some of the darkest moments in your life both personally and professionally?
I have always been one of those people whose life has never been an easy ride. There have always been more roadblocks than open pathways. And I always, always, always have to work really hard. But I am an optimist, and I think I manage the turbulence and uncertainties pretty well. But losing my mother was excruciatingly difficult. Losing my mother and being completely caught by surprise as to how badly her death would impact me…that was a whole another animal. My writing, relationships, and I have completely changed in these past 2.5 years.
How have they changed?
After losing my Mom, I became vulnerable on a whole different scale with my writing. I didn’t plan for it. It just happened. I started to write about what I was feeling and how I was coping and the mistakes I was making along the way. And how I turned my life around. When you are authentic and honest, people recognize it. My editors and readers started to tell me that they heard a different voice in my writing. Even though it was my stories of loss and healing, many could relate to it. Grief, unfortunately, is so universal.
My yoga and meditation practice have grounded me as a writer, made me more compassionate, and taken away the frustrations associated with creativity. Every day when I show up to the yoga mat, my body behaves differently. On some days, I can flip into a headstand; on other days, I can barely do a simple tree pose. But I show up with dedication everyday and accept where I am at. Writing is similar…in that, some days are bloody productive and then there are days, where words become fuzzy. Instead of getting angry and going for that glass of wine, I accept bad writing days with the same gratitude as good writing days. Once you stop fighting words, they stop running away from you. Thanks to Ayurveda, I eat foods that soothe me and calm my brain instead of aggravate it.
There are many of your fans who may be dreaming of doing the same thing you did- jump corporate ship to pursue a life in writing and/or other artistic endeavors, which we all know is extremely difficult to sustain. After all the success you have had, do you still receive rejection letters and if so, how do you handle the emotions that come with those obstacles?
Of course, I still get rejection letters and emails. Some are cold and callous; others are a bit more personalized. For the longest time, this is what I would do: for every rejection that I received, I would send out the same piece to 4-5 other places. Yes, it was important to mourn a rejection for a short amount of time, but I did believe that we have only so much time and energy. I could either use it to be in a negative head space and find something/someone to blame and become bitter….or, find faith in my dedication to writing and use my energy to submit the piece to other outlets. Now, my perspective has changed drastically. I know nothing is permanent and that part of being a writer is accepting rejections in the same breath as we celebrate acceptances and moving on.
The reason I started my company, NimmiLife, is because I wanted to support artists and writers. It’s now expanded to other audiences as well for which I am grateful, but as an artist I saw how much mindfulness we needed in our day-to-day lives. But nothing was being done for those dark and difficult days of rejections and emotional writing. Turning to wine isn’t the solution. Having a daily yoga and meditation practice and an Ayurvedic diet (especially when rejection and emotional upheavals caused by writing hits the fan), keeps me grounded. It’s taught me to remain devoted and honest to my writing without getting attached to the outcome of it. Once you are pragmatic about the basics, everything stings less. It also makes you freer. I write because writing sustains me. It helps me make sense of the world. I don’t write to please others.
Every writer, in due time, finds their audience. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. Someone will connect with your stories. But be patient. Don’t rush into writing what you assume others want to read. Write for yourself. Sometimes, the audience you intended for your book doesn’t work out because it might not be the right audience. Have faith in your writing.
In addition to being a sought-after and prolific writer, you somehow make time to teach meditation, yoga and Ayurveda. Can you please share first of all, how you became a student and teacher of these disciplines and then how you see everything you do fitting together?
As I mentioned earlier, I am the CEO/Founder of NimmiLife. It’s a service-based company, which helps you uncover your potential and accomplish your goals. I use creativity tips and holistic wellness to find solutions to your obstacles. I started NimmiLife (my mother’s name was “Nimmi”) because I am a big believer in one philosophy: we are nothing without our wellness. I don’t mean losing weight or being a certain size. I mean the mind-body-spirit connection, which allows us physical as well as mental health.
I have first-hand experienced the benefits of yoga and meditation when I was working on my graduate school thesis or book deadline or client presentations. But it was after my mother passed away; I turned to holistic wellness in a big way to find peace and forgiveness. Along with self-growth, I started to realize how much yoga and Ayurveda affected by state of being, relationships, creativity, and productivity. Meditation affected my writing—my editors started to notice. Studying Ayurvedic Nutrition has allowed me to make better food choices (and relationship choices too!! Can you believe that??), which directly impact my thoughts and emotions….and eventually my creativity.
I went on to professionally train as a yoga and Ayurveda practitioner (several different certifications) because I wanted to share the gift with others. The idea for NimmiLife came me to me in one of my meditation sessions.
I am grateful that my clients include creative types, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, academics, female survivors of violence, students, children, busy moms with high stress lives etc. etc. I am excited that people are realizing the importance of wellness in our day-to-day lives. And giving unique methods a chance.
For the generation now in high school and college, perhaps even 20 something year olds who feel suffocated in traditional corporate jobs and desperately figuring out how to leap into writing full time, what words of wisdom can you impart on them?
I am a practical person, so I will say what others might not be expecting to hear: Keep that job because it’ll pay for your writing residencies, allow you to hire good editors, and inspire you to create some of your best works. We draw inspiration from life. And if you are stuck in a small physical space all by yourself, everyday, where will you find the motivation as well as inspiration to work?
Also, there is nothing romantic about not having food to eat or a place to live. Yes, don’t sell your soul and keep your creativity alive. But find a midway, not extreme solutions.
Your social media posts are wonderfully eclectic and often include hunger-inducing images of Indian food. What are some of your favorite foods of all time?
Thank you so much. Haha, I love food—cooking, sharing, and eating. It’s funny; I was not a big fan of Indian food growing up. I wanted noodles or pasta or something cheesy all the time. But now it’s all changed. While I have a sweet tooth and am addicted to noodles, I try to be mindful of what I cook for my family or put in my body. I cook everyday and try to follow the Ayurvedic principles of cooking.
On a day-to-day basis, I prefer freshly cooked, vegetarian, wholesome meals made with lots of love. Ayurveda teaches us that it’s not what we eat that matters but what we digest. And if the food isn’t cooked with love and devotion, much like writing or yoga asana practice, you can sense the poor quality.
Outside of writing and teaching the various disciplines, if you have any down time, what do you enjoy spending time doing?
It totally depends on the time of the year and my commitments. I love leading an active life. Reading, cooking, and traveling are of my favorite things to do. Also, hanging out with friends and family in intimate groups where you can savor conversations and have a good time. In December, because the social commitments increase multi-fold, I also make time for just being still and living in the moment. While I am an extrovert, I also need my “alone time.”