Q. The collection, Saris and a Single Malt really works as a whole piece, with each individual poem moving you along the journey from your mother being unwell, her death, to coming to terms with her death. Was the poetry always with you during this tumultuous time?
Poetry and pain never left my side—from the time we got the phone call in New York to the time we completed Mom’s last rites in India. Even though I am an extrovert, I am a very private person. I don’t easily share my personal feelings with most. Here we were in New Delhi—where over a hundred people showed up to Mom’s funeral—hugging and expressing their condolences. It was gratifying but also overwhelming. Poetry kept me sane through shock, anger, and grief.
Q. I found it incredibly moving, tender and heartbreaking in places. Basically, I was an emotional mess reading these poems! What was going through your mind as you wrote?
I am sorry that the poems made you an emotional mess. I don’t think I was consciously thinking while writing Saris and a Single Malt. I was trying to understand the transformation surrounding us but at the same time feeling numb. So much changed so quickly, it was a lot to swallow. My entire family was dealing with shock and grief. I didn’t want to burden them with my pain. So, I wrote. You have the read the poems; they are transparent, confessional, and conversational.
Q. You’ve tackled the themes of grief and loss before. Can poetry have the power to heal us and act as a form of therapy, in terms of both writing and reading?
Yes, poetry can have the power to heal us and act as a form of therapy, especially if it’s written from an authentic and accessible place. When I wrote Saris and a Single Malt, I didn’t take into consideration its impact at all. I wrote to survive. I wrote because I didn’t know how not to write. The poems had a mind of their own and they poured. There was no conscious effort to document those tumultuous days of losing Mom. That said, when it was time to bring the book out into the world, I figured it’s such a personal story—who would want to read it? I undermined the power of grief: it’s universal. Most of us have lost someone we love or love someone who has lost a loved one. Even though my book and poems are about one such person, the emotions are relatable on a macro level. The number of people who have sent me personal notes about the book being therapeutic for them has been just incredible.
Q. To put your mum as the subject of your poems must have been incredibly difficult after she passed. What other than your grief did you draw on to write this collection?
I love this question because it made me think of elements I hadn’t considered while putting this collection together. For instance, I drew on a lot of childhood memories—be it Mom’s favorite breakfast or me twirling using her sari’s pallu or she adding ghee to our lentils.
Q. When were these poems conceived? Did you write as you embarked on this journey, or was there a period of healing and then you looked back and reflected?
I wrote all of the poems in Saris and a Single Malt inside of a week—literally from the time we received the phone call in New York to the time we cremated Mom in New Delhi and finally conducted her last rites in Patna. Everything felt raw at the time. I went back to India five months later and thought I would add more poems and poise to the collection. But my pen refused to move and that’s when I knew that the book was ready. Having said that, the essays were a part of the healing process and initiated by my yoga teacher training. They were written more towards the forgiveness and reflection stage of the entire journey.
Q. As you heal your way through, the emotions spiral from love, confusion, loss, to anger and guilt. Did you feel exposed writing from the deeply personal?
Actually, no. It was cathartic and I felt proud and strong exposing the cruelty I had seen. I don’t name people in the book, but I stand by truth and my writing. In the South Asian culture, very often, you are expected to accommodate unnecessary people and their behavior because of a million, inane factors. I don’t work that way. Everyone has a tipping point and mine was my mother’s sudden demise. I knew I couldn’t spend one more day sitting quietly when some people were being completely unreasonable. I know the book might offend some folks in the process—the guilty don’t like being called out. But here is my take: then don’t commit insensitive acts at all.
Q. Are you ever aware of any dissent or disapproval to what you write about? How do overcome the negativity?
I have always had opinions and haven’t been shy to share them. Of course, my writing has found disapproval from the kind of people who are averse to progressive change. The type who believe good, Indian girls are expected to brush things under the carpet, not voice their thoughts, and let things go. I use to handle the negativity badly—either got apologetic or riled up. I think I was subconsciously trying to please people and not stand up the right way for my writing.
But my writing and I have changed drastically after my mother’s death. My yoga and ayurveda journey might have something to do with it. I still write from a place of honesty, humility, and devotion but I am detached from the effects of my writing. I stand up for my truth without any apologies. I write because I am compelled to tell a story. But if someone gets offended (or feels pleased) along the way, that’s not in my hands. I don’t focus my energy on anything that is out of my control.
Q. This is really a sort of last goodbye to your mum who you didn’t get a chance to speak to or see just before she passed. You write ‘You always complained that I didn’t write about you, Ma / In thirty-six hours, I bled / a book of poems about you.’
Irony, what else can you call it, right? I have learned that grief changes us and both poetry and loss have a mind of their own.
Q. Your afterword is again deeply moving. You say you didn’t look after yourself. Where did you find the courage and strength to write?
For me, writing is where I find my courage and strength. I write to make sense of the world. I write because I don’t know what I would do without writing. Writing and editing this collection has helped me manage the different stages of grieving.
Q. Your collections are a snapshot of you at a certain point in your life. I’ve loved watching how you express yourself, and how you’ve developed from one to the other. What’s next for you?
Thank you so much. It’s been a joy doing this interview. Wellness has become a big part of my creative journey. Writing can both hurt and heal. And having a wellness practice in place makes the journey a lot whole easier.
I recently launched my company NimmiLife (named after my mother), which helps people attain their goals by elevating their creativity & productivity while paying attention to their wellness. I am teaching creativity and wellness workshops at Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in October and then speaking at a few conferences in India. Once I return to the States, I’ll restart my work on my second novel.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram, featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is an award-winning writer, five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Amazon bestselling author of 11 books, writing coach, columnist, marketing consultant, and wellness practitioner who currently lives in New York City. Her latest poetry collection, “Saris and a Single Malt,” ranked #1 on Amazon under several categories. Sweta’s work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. A graduate of Columbia University, she also teaches the power of yoga, Ayurveda, & mindful living to female trauma survivors, creative types, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. Sweta is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps you attain your goals by elevating your creativity & productivity while paying attention to your wellness.