Writing and travel are two eternal passions for Sweta Srivastava Vikram. Her debut novel Perfectly Untraditional has received good attention and critical acclaim in India, her native land. While living in New York, Vikram is connected to Indian culture via a timeless bond which shows in her novel. Let’s hear from her about her cultural and writing experience in connection with Perfectly Untraditional.
Ernest: Sweta, thanks for being with us today. Please tell us what it was like to be an Indian girl growing up on different continents and in different cultures?
Sweta: Hello, Ernest. Thanks for having me.
In one line, I would say that I, like my female peers, was caught in the web of dichotomy between thoughts and action of the parental generation. South Asian parents, at least when I was growing up, were homogenous. They carried their traditions and values in their suitcases when they traveled. And they all put milestones for their children inside safe deposit boxes—there was the good kind of education, apt profession, right time for marriage, and perfect phase for having grand children. Overall, most of them had similar aspirations for their kids.
Those were confusing times. On one hand, I was given equal opportunities as my brother, the best education, and provided with incredible exposure growing up — food, travel, culture; on the other, like every other girl my age, I was expected to become a Bollywood style “good woman” overnight once I was married — put everyone else’s needs before mine. Be the dutiful wife, obedient daughter-in-law, and caring sister-in-law. Cook five-course meals and look pretty as a trophy wife. And then squeeze in a career too somehow. A woman was defined by her relationships. I wasn’t told in so many words, but it was implied. Women were expected to accept their secondary status without complaint. The hypocrisy of “what’s appropriate and will appease outsiders” is pervasive across socio-economic groups and different strata.
I am grateful I grew up across three continents. All those years of closely observing other cultures became my best learning guide. They showed me both the positive and negative side of eastern and western mindsets, helped me stay grounded. Most importantly, all that exposure made me who I am today.
Ernest: By the time you got married and went to live in the US, did you have a self-image of being a woman of the East?
Sweta: Most South Asians are brought up with a collectivist philosophy. There is minimal to no emphasis on individual desires or thinking. I was no exception. I don’t think I had much of an image of anything when we moved to the United States. I was newly married, extremely young, confused, and still trying to figure out my life — maintaining that balance of what others wanted of me versus what my dreams were. All of a sudden there was home and work to juggle. With all that was going on, attaching geography to my emotional identity didn’t occur or matter to me. My Indian background was matter-of-fact to me.
Ernest: What were the major influences on your writing, in various places?
Sweta: I have written ever since I could properly hold a fountain pen. My father is a poet by night, so I grew up expressing my world using verses. What I saw, heard, felt, and didn’t agree with often showed up on paper. Writing is how I made, and continue to make, sense of my world.
For most writers, the art of writing makes you emotionally aware and in touch with your surroundings. I rarely accepted anything that wasn’t backed by logic. At an early age, I learned to question people, adages, and my environment. And every time I was dissatisfied with the answers, I wrote about it. But I didn’t express my opinion out aloud.
You could say I have always been drawn to giving a voice to those who cannot write— the underdog, so to speak. Telling their stories can be healing. Social issues affecting women and children, hybridization of cultures, abandonment of homeland and its effect on individuals, nuances of identity — as an immigrant, modern woman who doesn’t need to be saved by the west or dominated by the east, are some of the umbrellas by stories find a place under.
I think, more than the place, age and time impacted how and what I wrote. As I got older, I became more comfortable in my skin. I wrote because I had to and I wanted to write. I wasn’t shy to share what was on my mind or worry about the consequence. I didn’t stop to evaluate what others would think of the content. Once I became fearless, everything else became a lot easier.
Ernest: How does Perfectly Untraditional present a woman from the East living in the West?
Sweta: The female protagonist, Shaili Kapoor, in Perfectly Untraditional, moves to New York City after she gets married. She represents many South Asian women from the 90s who married US-settled men during the IT boom days. Two weeks used to be official time frame for prospective brides and grooms to meet, greet, marry, mate, and move to the US. Shaili, like many others, fulfills the dreams her family had seen for her by being the compliant daughter. But after moving to the States, distance offers her a perspective. She figures out her reality and follows her dream. And for a lot of us, being away from the “system” gives us an opportunity to reflect upon our individual selves.
Ernest: Does your novel highlight any particular strengths of women in our South Asian societies?
Sweta: Given the structure and teachings of our culture, I believe South Asian women are rather tolerant and accommodating. It’s engrained in our DNA is to make things work as opposed to walk away when a bad situation arises. Family and relationships are the backbone to our existence. I believe Perfectly Untraditional highlights all of those values.
Ernest: Sweta, we know you are a person who loves to travel and already have seen what I may call at least half of this world. What main values do you find common in women of various cultures you have seen so far?
Sweta: You know, I have no data to back up my claim, but I think women overall are much more tolerant and open to different choices and lifestyles. Also, I am a foodie and love to cook and entertain. Traveling taught me that women in many cultures express their love through cooking.
Ernest: There is little doubt that beside being a writer, you are a woman one could easily call stylish. In your appearance, do you make choices to keep a balance between East and West?
Sweta: Haha. Thanks, I guess, for the compliment, Ernest.
I don’t believe in wearing any one identity on my sleeves. While I am proud of my Indian heritage — in fact, the older I get, the more my roots call out to me; I am comfortable with maintaining a good balance of eastern and western influences in my life.
There is a time and place for everything. At meetings, I prefer being professionally dressed in western formals. To me readings are all about filling every corner of the room with words and vibrancy. I love colors, so I make sure to include them in my wardrobe for public appearances. If it’s an Indian holiday, I’ll throw on something slightly more ethnic; at Thanksgiving, I am happy to adorn pearls and a skirt.
I am of the school of thought that more than my wardrobe, my attitude and thoughts need to be balanced, healthy, vibrant, and fresh. Also a big believer of these words said by Dr. Seuss “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Ernest: How do your friends in America find you as a modern woman writer from India?
Sweta: I think they discover something new every time they meet me. They know I am very proud of my ethnicity and history. But then I am also a fan of western ideologies pertaining to women’s rights. I think, immigrants of my generation—traveled, educated, working professionals—have it much easier than people who moved to the west forty-fifty years ago. The world is more global and people know where India is on the map. Frankly, I have never been asked questions about my dietary habits (“You eat meat?”) or beverage choices (“You drink wine?”). Most of my American friends have expressed interest in traveling to India with me. A lot of them cook Indian food at home from scratch—I am talking dosa batter and vindaloo curry paste. I am thrilled I am seen as a woman writer before anything else.
Ernest: What has been the response like to Perfectly Untraditional?
Sweta: The book is less than a year old, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. But so far, both the media coverage and reader response has been incredible! It was on the best-sellers list, for one of the largest online retailers out of India, for an extended period of time.
Ernest: We come to the end of this session here. Thank you so much Sweta for joining us!
Sweta: Thank you, Ernest. I had an amazing time talking with you.
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Readers can learn more about Sweta Srivastava Vikram through her website www.swetavikram.com.