Yet another episode in which I am seriously considering to changing my format to an hour long show. Or maybe two? Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night in India, where she lives, Swetha Nisthala and I could have talked for hours about the books and people and places we love. Swetha calls Elizabeth Gilbert a “Soul Writer,” which is her term for an author who can put complicated emotions into words. We also discussed how her love of Gilbert’s work has seen her through many life changes, how grief comes in waves, and Bookstagram’s response to the Covid crisis in India.
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Books discussed in this episode
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield et. al. (holy moly I had no idea there were so many versions of the Chicken Soup series. 259 books!!)
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Swetha’s recommendations if you want to donate to help in India:
KVN Foundation supplies free oxygen concentrators to the needy
Hemkunt Foundation provides oxygen support for whoever needs it
Khushiyaan Foundation: Among other things, they provide free meals daily for underprivileged kids and provide oxygen support for Covid
Adivasis Lives Matter provides emergency relief material for 10 particularly vulnerable indigenous groups in the remotest forest areas in India
Donatekart for Daily Wage laborers provides groceries and food for daily wage laborers on the brink of starvation
Feeding India by Zomato serves cooked meals to people in need every single day
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, meaning I get a few bucks off your purchase at no extra expense to you. Anytime you shop for books, you can use my affiliate link on Bookshop, which also supports Indie Bookstores around the country. If you’re shopping for everything else – clothes, office supplies, couches, gluten free pasta – use my affiliate link for Amazon. Thank you for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and I am so excited for you to meet today’s guest, Swetha Nisthala, of the lovely Instagram account called @Booksqueaks. Swetha talked to me from her home in Hyderabad, India in the middle of her night, which honestly tells you everything you need to know about how generous she is with her time and her fascinating conversation. She calls herself an internet extrovert and a real-life introvert, and she has one of the most interesting professional histories I’ve ever heard of. We started off discussing that and then veered into the crisis points of our lives that led us into big changes. And it all came back around to the book she chose to tell me about today. Swetha is a true fan girl for today’s book and author, and I can’t wait for you to hear her tell me why Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is the best Book Ever.
For more on how to support this podcast, Check out my Patreon. For about the cost of a latte, you can have access to it all sorts of extra goodies. Every week, you’ll get exclusive interview clips with my guests that are only available to patrons. I also send out advanced notice of the books we discuss, curated reading lists, my monthly reading wrap-ups including the good, the bad and the DNFs, and essays about the reading life.
Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Swetha! Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Swetha Nisthala: Hi, Julie, I’m super glad to be here. This is something off my bucket list, like being on a podcast. I’m going to check it off and I’m happy for forever, so thank you for the opportunity.
JS: I have never been the conduit for someone’s bucket list before. So that’s exciting for me too! What I want to start with is: your bio is so fascinating to me because it is so varied. It was really fun to read about all the things that you’ve done and. I’ve never met anybody with such an interesting resume in that, a lot of people have a whole bunch of jobs in the biology field or a whole bunch of jobs that have something to do with math or finance, but you’ve really moved between disciplines. Can you tell me about that?
SN: You know how Indians are, they always want to go the practical route. So, sciences are always the preferred option in India. Like usually people go for engineering, but I was not interested in engineering because it had a lot of math and physics. So I was like, okay, I can do chemistry, even though I didn’t really have a passion for it. It was just something for me to, you know, get a job. And then it was also a way for me to get to the U.S., because getting in to a PhD program in the U S. for sciences is much easier than going there for humanities. I went to Michigan state, I think it was in 2015. But then after two years I didn’t really enjoy being in the lab for 15,16 hours a day. So, I quit because I was like, if I have to do five more years of this to gain a PhD, I’m going to die. I don’t think I can do it. So I left that and then I got a job in New Jersey. While I was doing that, something like earth shattering happened to me personally. My father passed away very suddenly. They were in India of course, my mother and father. One night I just get a phone call, you know, Dad passed away. He was 57. I’m an only daughter; an only child and an only daughter. So, I came to India, I spent three weeks here and then did all. I’m a Hindu. We have a lot of rituals after somebody dies. So, to do all that, I was here for three weeks. Then I thought, okay, you know, I’ll just go back to the U.S. Everything’s going to be just the same. That was what I thought. I didn’t really account for how my mom was feeling. I was like, okay, fine, I have a life to live, you know, I’m just going to go back and live my life. But it didn’t turn out that way. I had to make a choice that was like, I just want to be there for my mother. So, I came back to India. The job, or even being a scientist, was not all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s not like the TV shows. It’s not like the movies. Basically, I felt as if you were doing manual labor for 12 hours a day and it just doesn’t stop.
JS: I have never heard it described like that before.
SN: You’re standing on your feet all the day, because you know, the instruments are on benches and especially being in a chemistry lab, you physically have to lift very heavy weights. So I came back to India. I was like, maybe I can do something people-oriented, because I liked talking to people. My mind first went into HR. I thought, okay, I know the pharmaceutical industry, I worked in it. So I randomly got an internship in that. And then COVID hit, you know, and my internship was redundant. So then I joined Bookstagram. I’m actually one of those Bookstagram success stories. Bookstagram helped me get a job in the marketing industry. I have no traditional education in communications. I was from a science background. For the pure passion of books, I started my Bookstagram and all my future plans have gone to hell because of COVID. The second year running we are still in lockdown here. So, I’m just taking every day as it comes at this point.
JS: Those big life moments, you know, you said your father dying and, and COVID did this for all of us as well. They, they sort of crystallize things, don’t they? And it’s always interesting to me that it takes a very bad event to make us stop and reconsider.
SN: That is exactly what happened to me. Like after my father died, I really had to reevaluate things. I felt the immediacy of, you know, we have a finite life. What am I doing? Why am I going through life, you know, almost sleepwalking through it?
JS: At what point in this trajectory did you come across this book that we’re talking about today? Eat, Pray, Love. Had you already read it when your father died?
SN: Yes, I did. I don’t know when I bought it the first copy, but it had the movie cover and the movie came out in 2010. So somewhere right after, like somewhere around 2010, 2011. I bought the book and read it in India. And at that point I was just a young person who badly wanted to go to the U.S., and just live by herself. I mean, I hadn’t really traveled out of the country that much at that point. Like, I’ve been to a few places inside my country with my parents. But since I was five years old, I can clearly remember the first place that I want to go. It was it was the United Kingdom. But I haven’t gone to the UK yet. You give somebody like me, at the age of 20, when I was raring to go traveling, a book like Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert… It’s her real life. She got to travel to Italy, India and Indonesia in one year. At rock bottom when she went to travel. I was also depressed, anxious, growing up in my teenage years. And I really connected to this. She was a 30-something woman who wrote this book. I was so young, I was 20-something. And I somehow connected to her life trajectory without going through some of the things that she went through. I wasn’t married. I’m still not. At that point I didn’t even, I wasn’t in any relationship. But the idea of finding yourself – because I’m also a self-help junkie sort of person. I used to read a lot of those books. Chicken Soup For the Soul. Growing up, I used to read those. I had all kinds of self-help books growing up because I was trying to fix myself. I think because I was a little bit different, you know, very bookish in a class of people who didn’t really… who, who were all into playing, you know, running around and playing. And I wanted to read books.
JS: I know that feeling.
SN: Yeah. Did you know, I actually read, do you know that book, Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People? I actually read that book, and tried to follow those rules to make friends.
JS: Did it work?
SN: Yeah, I still use some of the teachings that I’ve learned from the book even now. So I was that person. Then this came. The fact that Elizabeth Gilbert came to India played a role because I was more familiar with it. You know, it’s my country and I know how Ashrams are. I’ve been through that experience growing up. So, it felt a little familiar, but then again, it felt unattainable. Because, to be honest, as an Indian woman, you have a structure growing up. You’re supposed to study, and then get married and then you have children, and then have grandchildren. Something as crazy as solo traveling in the world still feels unattainable to me at this point of 28 years old. And I’ve actually gone and lived in the U S for a while. I mean, one of the things is obviously I’m a scaredy cat. I don’t want to go alone anywhere, even, like, to the end of my street. It’s just my personality. So yeah, like this just blew my mind when I read it, and I connected it to it on so many levels. But the primary thing was the travel. And the other thing that stayed with me was how it was the Gilbert went through her depression. Like she like battled it and she defined God. Not the conventional God. That I really connected to that because I’m spiritual too. I’m religious, but I still question it a little bit. The first time when I read it, I knew that it’s a very important book for me personally. When I was moving to the U.S., I have a huge book collection. I mean, I’m a bookworm. I couldn’t take all my books with me. So I took about six or seven books with me.
JS: Oh God. That’s not a lot of books.
SN: But, I mean, I can’t do anything.
JS: No, of course not. That sounds like an agonizing decision to have to make.
SN: I took two books by Cecilia Ahern. I love her. I also took this other book called Americanah, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. And then what happened is when it was, coming back, I went to Kentucky to meet a friend and Nashville was like a four hour drive from her place. So we went to Nashville. I’ve been to Parnassus books! I got a t-shirt. I wore it today. It’s like a mecca for book lovers. Before I leave the U S I wanted to go to Parnassus books. I needed my photo up. I was just hanging out at the bookstore for so long, I didn’t want to leave it. And that is when I saw this beautiful 10th anniversary edition signed by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh my gosh. I freaked out. I was like, that’s a sign. So, I bought this book and I left my old copy in the U.S. I donated to the local library. The amount of love that I carry for her. I don’t know what is it about her? I just want to hug this book. I just want this book and everything that she ever says to get into a molecular level, like in my body. I just am so passionate about her. And it’s so weird.
JS: I don’t think it’s weird at all. You know what I was thinking as I was rereading it for this conversation, I’ve read this book several times and I also adore it. But I always forget how funny she is.
SN: I know I was laughing, and then I was just internally screaming during this read. Because I’m connecting to it more than I connected to it eight years earlier when I read it before. It’s also because of my personal experiences as well that I can connect with more now. Even though I didn’t go to Italy, I did go to San Francisco and felt the kind of liberation that she felt in Italy. I was standing on Golden Gate Bridge and I will never forget that moment, forever. I had my mini Eat, Pray, Love before I came back to India from the U.S.
JS: What were the places?
SN: San Francisco, Nashville and then Chicago.
JS: Why Chicago?
SN: It’s my second favorite city in the U.S. There’s something about Chicago. New York City felt very, very big to me. The kind of big that I can’t comprehend, then it was just like too busy. Chicago was the right size of big.
JS: And then you went to San Francisco.
SN: Oh, my God, San Francisco blew my mind.
JS: It’s my favorite city in the U.S., too.
SN: Virtual high-five!
JS: So let’s talk about this reread. I hope it’s okay that I share this story. You messaged me before we started talking and said you were having a really hard time getting through the book this time, because you had to keep stopping. Why do you think you’re stopping so much this time around? What is it that you have to think so much about?
SN: I’m just writing notes for a future me, you know, when I can just open the book and just go to the relevant to passage. For example, this particular edition has it preface. She read the book after 10 years and then she wrote, you know, she looked back on what she left out of the book. Especially on choosing not to have children, and how in the original book, she was a little bit ambiguous. But then in her preface, when she looked back at it, she knew the exact moment, I think in Italy, and she knew that she never wanted to have children. She had this encounter with a lady and her son, then he was just playing. Liz was sitting opposite her on a train. Just to give the mother, some me time, because she was reading a book or something, she started playing with the kid. And then when the mother took her kid and she walked away at the station, that’s when she said it was like a physical symbol when she walked one way and the mother and the kid walked the other way. She knew at that moment. Oh man, those observations. She talks about how she felt old. She was 34 years old when she went on this trip. When she went to Italy, she was feeling very old. [In the preface] she was like, I’m 10 years older now, and I have never felt younger. Just a lot of little tidbits that I was internally screaming about. I was like, oh my God, what women, this particular thing of what society teaches women to be. I am very passionate about that subject because I am living in that society. It’s always a set path. You’re supposed to have everything stable, settled, in a straight line. To be honest, in India, most women don’t date, it’s not encouraged. People get married, like arranged marriages, right? I mean, I would love to live in a world where there are not those many rules of who a woman should be, how she should behave, what she should wear, what clothes she need to wear, at what time can we step out of the house, and then what time she needs to remain in the house. This is not radical feminism; this is just basic human things. I mean, the culture is different, obviously. I can’t really say, oh my God, Indian culture is bad, or the American culture is great. They’re just different. Because even Elizabeth Gilbert, she said, even in American society, a woman needs to have a job, have children. There’s an age for everything. You know, get your shit together and then just push all your feelings down and live for other people sort of thing. I think that’s for women everywhere. And what Liz did, by just throwing away the convention, she was like, I’m going to choose myself. And, you know what? That is shocking for women everywhere in the world. And I think that is why this book resonated so much. Why were we tied down before? Why shouldn’t we break free? Why should it be a shock to everyone?
JS: Do you think that’s what appeals to so many women about this, is that she is completely unapologetic? Because we’re so trained to apologize for the things that we don’t do. And the reason so many people can’t stand her, by the way, is that she absolutely refuses to apologize. That’s my thing. That’s my thought.
SN: Yep. Exactly. And she, she wrote in the preface that she got a lot of hate mail. Like literally, some women wrote to her, like, Bitch, don’t you think I hate my marriage too? Literally she was putting bitch at the end of every sentence, she wrote a hate letter to Liz Gilbert. Don’t you think I would love to get a divorce, bitch? I stick with it because this is what marriage means. It means honoring the commitment.
JS: Oh, man. That’s sad woman.
SN: I mean, silently judging is one thing, right? I judge, too. I silently judge, and go about my day. I do not have the time to write a letter that I hate them, then send it to them.
JS: Right. That’s a whole new level of pissed off.
SN: That’s right. And then one more thing that I resonate with, on a serious note, was that whole depression. That night that she goes back to where she was on the bathroom floor, and she was just like, please, please, please help, tell me what to do. I have been there, many times in my life. But every time I ended up on the floor like that, when you know, some major thing is happening with me, my mind goes back to Eat, Pray, Love. There’s a reason that this book really stuck with me when I’m down there. I literally do what Liz did in the book. It’s feels very profound to me. I’m crying about my own issues and I’m suddenly Liz Gilbert pops into my head. And then I’m like, oh look, I’m right here, listening.
JS: The book has become a conversation.
SN: Yep. And that is why I’m going through it very, very slowly, because again, the same anxiety that I keep talking about, when would I reread this book? It might take another 10 years for me to reread it. I better reread it properly this time and attach as many post-its as I can underline many passages I can. Oh, my God I just sound like a fangirl. Like how people are crazy about movie stars. That’s how I’m crazy about this woman who I’ve never met, who just wrote a book. But somehow, she understands my life so much. My lows and my highs, I remember her and it’s not even voluntary. It’s very subconscious. And even right now, after so many years. You know how her second marriage was over, and then she was in a relationship with her best friend Raya? I just love everything that the Gilbert does. The grace and dignity with which she handled that. How she was with Raya, then after Raya’s death, how Elizabeth dealt with the grief. I turned to her Instagram posts on grief, her articles that talk about grief when my own father died. I turned to her writing and whatever she has to say, every stage of my life, ever since I’ve discovered her. She’s like my soul writer. I use this word soul writer because sometimes I have so many complicated feelings, and I can’t even articulate what I’m feeling. And then when I was reading Eat, pray, Love, There were some passages where I was like, that is how I feel. She has written it down, and now, I know how to talk about it. And I think that’s the greatest thing ever.
JS: So what are you reading right now?
SN: I just read The House in the Cerulean Sea. Oh my God. I loved it. It is so adorable. And I stayed up late till 2:00 AM last night, reading that book. At the end of it, I just hugged it tight and I just sat there and I just contemplated everything I’ve just read. And I know that I want to read that book to my future children because the message is so important.
JS: Before we end this, I feel like it would be just glaringly ignorant of me to not bring up the COVID crisis in India. We’ve touched on it a couple of times, but at this time in our history, it is particularly ravaging India. For my listeners who are inclined to help, can you recommend aid centers or ways that we can be of service?
SN: So, yes, it is very, very, very bad. The government is trying. I know that the situation is dire. And when you open your social media, there are SOS calls, like in every story, like people are just sharing phone numbers and like requests for ventilators, oxygen supplies, hospital beds, ambulance rides, you know, all sorts of things. And then people were isolating at home, you know, where everyone at home got COVID they needed somebody to cook for them and send home deliveries. And, uh, there was this very real survivors’ guilt sort of thing. That was happening to people who were not directly affected. We are grateful for it, but then again, you look at what’s happening to other people and then you question everything. So a lot of Bookstagrammers in India, they really try to do their best. There was this one particular book giveaway fundraiser held by two Bookstagrammers, they actually collaborated with five or six publishing houses in India who donated books for the fundraiser. There was a lot of good happening as well. There were a lot of people helping. So obviously, I could give you a list of places that are all doing great work. *
JS: Swetha, it has been marvelous talking to you. I want you to know you have an open invitation. Anytime you have a book you want to talk about, I would love to have you back on to talk to me about what I should be reading next. Will you tell my listeners where they can find you and the work that you do?
SN: I’m Booksqueaks on Instagram.
JS: By the way, I didn’t even get to ask you that. Why do you have that name?
SN: I squeal a lot. I internally scream about things and I externally also scream about things. So “Book Screams” doesn’t really have the, you know. It just became “Book Squeaks.”
JS: Yes. That’s very good. Book Screams would be a little intimidating, I think.
JS: I want to thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute delight talking to you.
SN: Thank you so, so much for having me, Julie, I absolutely enjoyed this conversation. And obviously I would’ve just kept on talking about this book. I really want all the listeners to just buy this brilliant, brilliant book. If you haven’t read it yet, read Eat, Pray, Love.If you’re a woman, read it. Like, it’s essential reading for you.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. If you loved this episode, as much as I loved making it, why not leave a review wherever you’re listening. Each review helps new listeners find my work, and I’m so grateful for your help.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.