BY VISHNU MAKHIJANI
Imagine setting out as a writer by penning your own obituary to “find out who I really wanted to be” and close to two decades later, being the award-winning author of 11 books on food, culture and inspiration, being featured in four “Best Food Writing” anthologies, being named by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the seven food writers to watch in 2012” and being in equal parts storyteller, globe-trotter, accomplished literary coach, and educator.
That’s exactly the path trodden by Virginia-based Monica Bhide, born in New Delhi and raised in the Middle East, with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Bangalore University and two master’s degrees from George Washington University (Washington, DC) and Lynchburg College (Virginia), who feels fortunate for her rich, multicultural education, enjoys giving back to the global community and is hopeful of “leaving a loving legacy of beautiful stories for my children and my readers”.
“I wrote my obituary to find out who I really wanted to be. Sound far-fetched? It really is not,” Bhide, whose magical, fantastical, and hauntingly written new novel, “The Soul Catcher”, is packed with resilience and grief, magic and violence, love and loss, told IANS in an interview.
“In 2003, my dear friend Beth died tragically in a freak accident. We were all devastated; Beth was thirty-seven years old. My heart ached for her three young children. Her death shook my very roots. Selfishly, I turned inward and to God for guidance. What if that had been me, I wondered? What was I doing with my life? I was 34 at the time and I wondered what would happen if I, too, died at 37.
“So I sat down with a sheet of paper and wrote my obituary. This was who I want to be remembered as, I thought. There were obvious things like wanting to be known as a good mother, a loving daughter and a helpful human being. Common phrases surfaced such as making a difference and leaving the world a better place. It occurred to me that what I had just written was my personal vision. And I knew for a fact these values I held so dear were not reflected in my life choices,” Bhide added.
At that time, she had spent 12 years “in a job wearing the golden handcuffs. The pay was excellent, of course, but I worked 60-hour weeks, travelled endlessly, and rarely got a moment with my family. I did not hate my job, but just never felt satisfied” she explained.
“It was personally and culturally important to me to gain my father’s blessings. I greatly admire my father, and the man who taught me how to walk certainly deserved a say in how I defined my life. He agreed. The first thing I did was to turn my home office upside down to find the two pieces of paper on which I had written the personal vision and the professional vision.
“I then put my engineering hat on and compared the two notes, looking for a solution to the problems they presented. There were similarities. Some phrases appeared on both pieces of paper (making a difference and making the world a better place). I wrote those on the left hand side of a new page. These would later become the foundation of my new path. These were the things on which I would not compromise. Everything else was built up from these factors,” Bhide said.
“Saying I wanted to be a successful writer is like saying I wanted to be a movie star! So what does a successful writer do; what did it mean? My consulting self came alive and I created a sheet with the word successful and its attributes – what did it mean to be successful – qualitatively and quantitatively,” she wondered.
To her, it meant selling a certain number of pieces, i.e., getting published. She wanted to write about topics that made a difference, and this helped her define her market.
“The scribbling that emerged from the above exercise became my one year plan. Writing things down helped me make a commitment to them. I tacked the sheet on a board right above my computer so that I could see it each day. I began a new journey” and was triumphant when she sold her first print piece to The Washington Post in 2004.
Creating your personal vision, Bhide maintained, “is not just a creative exercise, but an exercise in commitment to yourself. It’s about actually doing something and not just paying lip service. It’s as much about finding out who you really are as it is about staying true to what you find”.
Today, she works a fulltime job “that I love; I make a difference at work and with my writing as well. I have travelled the world and taught writing seminars in London, Dubai, India and many other places. I get to share stories of food, love and longing. I have been a literary coach and a lifelong learner. I am hopeful that I will leave a loving legacy of beautiful stories for my children and my readers”, Bhide said.
Her output features bestsellers like “Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken”, “The Devil in Us”, and “Modern Spice”.
Author, activist, model, TV host and top chef Padma Lakshmi picked “Modern Spice” as one of the “Best Books Ever” for Newsweek. “The Devil in Us”, a short story collection, topped the list on Kindle as a bestseller in its category of Literary Short Fiction. Bhide’s memoir, “A Life of Spice”, was picked by Eat Your Books, a global community of cookbook lovers, as one of the top five food memoirs.
Bhide’s new novel, “The Soul Catcher” (Bodes Well Publishing), set in a real, yet magical, modern-day India, has its roots in 19th century New Jersey, where one of the most influential inventors in American history, Thomas Edison, lived and worked. Legend has it that Henry Ford asked Edison’s son to catch his father’s dying breath in a test tube now on display at the Henry Ford Museum.
“This idea that the breath of life can be captured – and shared with those who need it most – inspired me to embark upon a mystical journey, transcending time and space. I researched this book for well over five years before writing it. There was so much to think about – I wrote it as a novel first, then as a collection of short stories and then scrapped it all and started again! In the end, it is a novel told in stories – like a mosaic or a puzzle that comes together. I hope I have done it justice,” Bhide declared.
As an extension of this, she has a word of advice for people who are trying their best to do what needs to be done in these trying times.
“Don’t lose hope and focus on what you can control. We are living in times that are, well, challenging to say the least but there are still sunsets and sunrises, babies are being born, lovers are getting together, new friendships are forming and flowers are blooming ï¿½ there is hope! I have a podcast called Powered by Hope that focuses on this very topic, It is free on my site, www.monicabhide.com,” she said.
This is in line with how Bhide had set out as an author.
“By definition, obituaries signify an end, but for me they signified the beginning of a new life. I remind myself constantly that the journey is the key here, not the destination.”