• Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Interview with Shalini Sheth Amin, Author of “Fit In, Stand Out, Walk: Stories from a Pushed Away Hill”

Interview with Shalini Sheth Amin on her book "Fit In, Stand Out, Walk," exploring Neelima's journey, sustainability, and female empowerment. Read more on Frontlist.
on Jun 06, 2024
Interview with Shalini Sheth Amin, Author “Fit In, Stand Out, Walk: Stories from a Pushed Away Hill”  | Frontlist

Shailini Sheth Amin is an architect, a community project initiator and a financial consultant. She studied in India and in the UK. Her field of work has been in energy efficiency and sustainable practices, conservation programs and heritage support to buildings, people and places. A spokesperson for sustainability, crafts and Fair Trade, she writes regularly for periodicals and in the social media.

Frontlist: The title, "Fit In, Stand Out, Walk," is very powerful. Can you explain what each part of the title means and how it relates to Neelima's journey in the book?

Shalini: Oh, yes, such an interesting question! Neelima, the protagonist in the book, is an orphan. She is found in the garden, and then she is adopted by a very special family who brings her up, nurtures her, and loves her unconditionally. Despite childhood trauma and setbacks, she is blessed with amazing role models. For her to be an orphan and in her adoption—both very significant moments in her life—she had no active role in them. Like a roll of dice, they just happened. In her later age, she comes out of this childhood trauma, but this sense of being pushed away, being distant, alone, and detached remains. It is like she is on this pushed-away hill from where she sees and experiences her life.

In this situation, trying to fit in with people, places, and circumstances is a conscious endeavor for her; nothing comes easy. With her inspiring mentors and with an in-built mindset of being abandoned, she probably has the need to work to establish her identity. She is moving on—walking. She stands out in the process. Neelima, as a character, stands on her own, and she becomes her own person. Don't we all work to fit in and stand out sometime or the other in our lives?

Frontlist: How did you keep "Fit In, Stand Out, Walk" engaging and captivating for readers while staying true to Neelima's character and her authentic journey?

Shalini: I've been writing reports articles, and giving talks for a while. Creative writing like this book is a first for me. Readers tell me that the titles of each chapter and the way they begin and end have kept them captivated. The stories, many times, manage to make one connected to real experiences of the moments. The exciting story, told in a fresh voice and a new perspective, finds the readers invested in the characters and events of their lives.

Frontlist: Given that many characters in your book are strong and resilient, how did you ensure that Neelima stands out as a unique and powerful character while also giving each woman in her life a distinct and memorable identity?

Shalini: I am not an experienced writer, so I am not so sure how Neelima came out to be stronger than other characters, but I suppose, simplistically, it is Neelima's story! Her honesty, vulnerability, losses, pains, and little triumphs come out strong. This connects with readers. Her courage, guts, and self-belief in openly talking about them in a clear, objective, and distant manner perhaps make her relatable and stronger.

Frontlist: Writing about personal and often painful experiences can be emotionally challenging. How did you manage the emotional highs and lows while writing this memoir?

Shalini: Neelima's story is very closely related to incidents that have happened in my life. But I was very conscious about one thing. I did not want this book to be therapy or catharsis for me. To write in that frame of mind, I thought, would be selfish. I have worked in many ways to deal with my emotions and my feelings well before writing. Neelima, as a character, stands on her own, and she becomes her own person. I believe this makes her story more relatable and gives it a kind of wider spread of wings.

Having said that, Neelima lost her adoptive mother to cancer when she was nine, and she became an orphan again. That is directly related to my life experience. That is the saddest and most painful experience in my life. I still get a lump in my throat when I read it.

In the book, Neelima mentions that, as a child aged nine, after her mother's death, she instinctively behaved like a normal person, as if nothing had happened: no upheaval and no pain. Probably that was the only way she knew how to deal with the shock, vulnerability, and loss. She wanted to hide everything, subconsciously wishing that it never happened.

Children going through acute difficulty, pain, loss, and complex family issues sometimes deal with this in the same way that she does. They behave as if everything is OK. They do not go for help because they do not have that kind of understanding, or more importantly, the courage to open up to anyone. They are too scared, and there is always a sense of guilt that they are responsible in some way for causing the problems. Believing that everything is fine is a much safer and comforting way. Living in deception is better than naming and acknowledging the monster.

Frontlist: At what point in your life did you begin to believe in the importance of sustainability and environmental conservation, and did you actively try to portray these values in "Fit In, Stand Out, Walk"?

Shalini: My husband was born in East Africa and served as an officer in the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom. We settled in Pondicherry, South India, and I started my architectural practice there. I was fortunate to meet Shri Chamanlal Gupta ji, a well-known scientist, scholar, and disciple of Sri Aurobindo. He is known as the Father of Solar energy practices in India. With him, I learned about alternative energy sources and their applications.

After a few years, we moved to the UK, and I worked there. Energy efficiency in buildings was a developing movement at the time, and I got involved. My understanding and connection started from there. It has become a lifelong mission and commitment, attempting to live lightly on Mother Earth. That is to adopt a conscious lifestyle, live with low consumption, buy meaningfully, try to be self-sufficient in food, be aware of reducing carbon footprint where possible, and recycle and upcycle resources whenever I can.

Frontlist: Your book highlights the importance of female support systems. Can you share a particularly memorable moment or lesson you learned from the strong women in your life?

Shalini: My family had women in the forefront. A family that broke the stereotypes in an age where society was steeped in set norms about women's domesticity, daily rituals, male supremacy, and all other social constructs. These pioneering women must have faced censure, challenges, and discrimination at all levels. Along with that, there would be all the normal ups and downs of life, within the family and from outside: conflicts; competition—fair and unfair; frustrations; loneliness; jealousy; anger; money problems; failures; and losses. This was not a commune; it was a family of women with a matriarch. Some members were related by blood, and all were related by heart and soul for life—a family with everlasting, indestructible connectedness.

My mother did not cook or clean. She did much more than that. I saw that she was a mother, a father, a teacher, a mentor, and a spiritual Guru. She was very kind and loving not just to me as a child but to people all around her and the community. She was a person with vision and a strong moral code. She was a hard-working woman-soldier, a strict taskmaster, a person with self-belief, and a confident leader. She was equally influential at home and in the outside world, where it mattered. But, at a personal level, none of the mother or parent figures in my life were perfect. Their childhood traumas, disjointed relationships, family connections and lack of them must have been difficult. They had big losses and deaths of fathers and mothers in their childhoods. They were victims of their own circumstances. Their hopes, fears, dreams, and expectations must have shattered them to the core at times. They were self-centered at times and suffered from self-righteousness too. In spite of all that, they had a sense of meaningfulness, strength, and peace in them. They were survivors. My life DNA is from these women, and I feel I have inherited from them parts of who they were.

Frontlist: In a world where storytelling is a powerful tool for change, how do you envision your bookmaking an impact or sparking conversations about women's experiences and empowerment?

Shalini: When I wrote this book, I wanted more and more people of our culture to read this book; men and women. My first thought is to get this book translated into many Indian languages. I see this book as a story of finding our passion, finding our vision, to be open to self-search and remain a survivor in whatever circumstances. If this book generates a kind of dialogue, it would be worth its while. Let us see what happens next! I am not sure.

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