It’s funny how life circles back on itself, offering us a second chance to grab hold of a skill or interest we had as a child but abandoned like a forgotten toy as we transitioned to adulthood and got overwhelmed by work and raising families. When struggling with what we are meant to do or what would make us most happy, we often revisit a younger, more carefree and rootless version of ourselves. Leeya Mehta is no different from many of us in this respect except that she has decided to take the leap. Stepping off the conventional career path, the former international development specialist has thrown herself full-time into writing: “When I write, I feel incredibly happy. It’s remarkably satisfying. I don’t find that any part of my life is missing, which is what I used to feel before I became a writer.”
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Mehta grew up in an open household highly appreciative of culture and the arts. Her mother, an English Literature teacher, writer, and journalist placed few constraints on her only daughter and encouraged her from an early age to express her feelings through writing, acting and directing.
Despite her relatively Bohemian youth, Mehta’s sensible side propelled her onto a more conventional path and she enrolled in Mumbai University’s St Xavier’s College, where she studied economics and math. Surrounded by theories and algorithms, Mehta found reprieve and inspiration in poet and novelist Eunice de Souza, head of the English Department at her college. She also acted in a major role in a unique production of The Crucible by candlelight and started writing a young adult novel when she was nineteen, thinking that somehow she would be able to simultaneously pursue her multiple interests.
Awarded a Chevening scholarship, the British Foreign Office’s equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship, Mehta did a Master’s in economics and politics at Oxford University in the UK. On returning to Mumbai at the height of the tech boom, she was recruited to run a legal services internet start-up, Legal Pundits, launched by family friends. She did the job for two years before moving on.
“I had started a young adult, semi-fantasy novel that I wanted to finish. I was young and adventurous so I quit my job.” Mehta lived at home with her mother and grandparents, as is the norm for single adults in India. But she was disciplined, writing every day from 7am to 5pm, and doing some consulting in international development on the side.
“This was a wonderful period! My poems and short stories were published and I wrote for newspapers. I was invited to read my work in New York and at the University of Michigan. Because of my private sector experience, consulting seemed the best way to earn a living and allow me the time to write, and I was trying to figure out how to do both when an exciting opportunity took me on a UN University (UNU) fellowship to Tokyo.” At the UNU Mehta researched and wrote a paper on how to make a profit from environmental stewardship. Her experience in Tokyo led to a series of poems set in Japan, but also strengthened her resolve to balance a career in international development with her writing.
Around this time, Mehta’s mother, who had remarried and moved to the US, became quite ill. Wanting to be closer to her, Mehta enrolled in Georgetown University’s Public Policy Master’s Program to study energy and environmental policy as her goal was to work for an international NGO. She was editor of the Public Policy Review, and, during her first year, she signed up with the World Bank as a consultant on energy and carbon finance projects in the Africa region.
Marrying a fellow Georgetown graduate, Mehta soon found herself with two small children, a busy job, and little time to write. It gnawed at her. “There was always the sense that I was missing something fundamental. I knew what it was. I had already had a test run, I knew what it felt like. I wanted to go back to it but, with a young family and work, it was hard.”
Mehta stayed with the international institution but took on a new position after a few years as an independent evaluator of the Bank’s gender mainstreaming policy in the poverty and gender group. “I had a great gig with two phenomenal managers. They allowed me to work from home and I had a lot of flexibility to operate,” she recalls.
At the end of 2012, Mehta took advantage of the flexible work hours and moved to an as-when-needed basis. She did some projects on the side but for the most part immersed herself in a new novel about three generations of women in an Indian family and how each one responds internally to violence in the home, how their own rage has unintended consequences.
And then, with her manuscript coming together, tragedy struck.
The family home caught fire in the middle of the night. “It was a full blown crazy fire. It was providential that I woke up in time for us to escape being trapped and we were able to walk away with our lives. But we lost everything. Absolutely everything. And we had very little insurance. It took a couple of months to get back on our feet. We stayed with friends during that period. We had to start over completely.”
While Mehta’s husband’s computer had melted and fused to the kitchen table, her own Toshiba, although burned, had the hard drive intact. She brought it to local consumer electronics firm, Best Buy, to back up the drive. Incredibly they lost the drive and it only turned up after several weeks of hounding them. Staying with friends at the time, a somewhat distracted Mehta unfortunately placed the back-up and original together in a box, which was promptly lost along with three other boxes and her husband’s tennis rackets when they moved into their current apartment.
“It was as if everything was conspiring to get rid of that book! January was very hard for me. The thought of starting the book again was depressing. I kept getting pains in my chest. I even went to the doctor for a stress test but she laughed me off. I knew I should not let this kind of stress get to me but it wasn’t that easy. Yet I knew where my contentment lay, and that I had to be tenacious; I set myself a goal to write every day and hit a certain word count. It was just a matter of getting started and then it felt so easy.”
Like a fairytale, occasion followed calamity. Mehta’s mother stepped forward, offering to cover childcare and other expenses so her daughter could focus more intensely on writing. “It’s the most amazing thing she’s ever done. She sat me and my husband down and said, ‘You’ve been through a really traumatic experience. I’m going to give you what you need to make this happen. I want you to get back your emotional and physical health. I want you to write your book because that’s what you want to do. I don’t want you to worry about money, and so for two years, you can count on my support. What are my savings for if not to help you?’”
And so she began again, this time without worrying about money and investing more time in her health and wellbeing.
In addition to completing her novel, the 38-year-old Mehta continues to write poetry and is invited to read and speak on panels. “The poetry was always easier to take off. Being featured in publications like The Beloit Poetry Journal has opened many doors and I have found that poetry publishing is a nurturing world. I’m driven to write fiction but I’m drawn to the creative process of both. I do one and come up for air and then I do the other.”
And if she is not successful with her novel? “I’m just going to write the next one. I’ve made up my mind. My mother’s two-year cushion is coming to a close but we’ll adapt to the situation. This is what I was meant to do. I’ve got to write.”
Leeya Mehta’s Tips for pursuing your passion
- It’s hard to have every box checked off if you want to pursue something other than your job. It’s difficult to take care of yourself, your family, and find the time to focus. If you can, invest in help around the house, invest in exercise, sanity, nutrition…get help where you can.
- I would encourage young people to stick with one thing if you can. It’s nice to have something you can develop, and get better and better at. Even if it’s a hobby on the side, be it technical or creative, one must be single-minded
- Have confidence and be optimistic. Have the stamina to pursue what you are doing without getting bitter
- Build a community around yourself, that enriches you and celebrates you and makes you feel secure
You can read some of Mehta’s poetry here. Below is one she selected for Career 2.0
David and the Hummingbird
For Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Joyce tells a story of the day
the bird flew into the shed
and would not leave;
it beat its wings until it fell
exhausted to the floor.
But it didn’t end like that,
nor was this the beginning—
The morning of the Kill,
the hummingbird flew through the open door
and circled round and round the blood
“It was not interested to feed,” she said,
but just to see and understand.
It went up into the rafters
and then down again
towards the cement floor.
Its blues and greens dancing in
the light and dark;
the corners hiding it and then
like magic, letting it be seen.
David tried to make it leave;
first, sugar feeders lured it outside;
then, when it was noon, the
darkest noon they’d ever seen,
the thunder began.
He set the sugar water inside the garage door
“It must not starve,” he said.
The day was hurried, like the
wings—it beat and beat.
The world grew still behind the
murmur of the bird
as if to move, to breathe, would be too much.
The rain was sheets of ice;
it pierced the ground, it tore into the hillside’s heart
forcing the mountains to slide and the roads to close.
At dusk the rain stopped, bringing on a night that had not known a day.
The sky cleared and that was when she said she knew
the bird’s heart had begun to burst,
“You could hear it banging in your ears.”
The small buzzing body lifted up to the
ceiling one last time and dropped.
From where it lay the stag’s head was a foot away;
the eyes of the beast, strained and dead;
the bullet hole straight through its neck
revealed the moon in the night sky which shone
like a polished coin.
He picked it up to rest it for the night
in a shoebox with soft muslin cloth.
She said, “Its eyes brimmed with tears.”
Was it fear? It did not tremble.
Was it relief? Did it not know it was only David?
And he said, “It is bereft. It must be saved.”
Then began the longest night.
He left the bird to sleep beneath
the stars. It did not know
the inside of their house.
It could get disoriented in that space.
He lay beside her in
their bed, his ever faithful
heart racing beneath her hand.
Kindness cannot be measured by a single good deed—
a few here, a few there, some withheld.
Love measured out in spoons
as if it were a finite bucket of gold dust.
He would not sleep—
he tore the covers off
and shot down the stairs—
It would be cold, the raccoons might overturn the box.
The bird twitched and murmured in its sleep,
he put it on the garden table and
covered its feet.
Back in bed he tossed and turned—the coyotes would not spare its life
One a.m. and out he went again.
Carrying the box in, he saw its
eyes open and look at him.
What a strange look it gave, as if
there was no meaning there—
a still hard look, but liquid eyes,
as if it was not a bird to
speak of anything—
its mystery not a mystery at all
for it hid nothing
and revealed nothing both at once.
He sat beside it in the hall
he wrung his hands
he stood up
and paced and breathed
he towered over it, afraid of it
and yet he had to watch it once again.
It had been resting while he paced
now it turned its head
a movement so small an immeasurable dot in space
and looked up at him.
They stared into each other’s eyes
this grown man and this miniature creature of the flower world
Decades he had lived so well
this small bird seemed to know it too.
“What is the meaning of it all?” he asked aloud
The hummingbird closed its eyes and went to sleep.
He sat down again and prayed a while
As the bird’s breast rose and fell;
the morning light would bring it back;
he dreamed of it in his garden years from now.
As the sun came fiercely into the room
it was not clear any more who slept and who kept vigil—
the bird watched him as he slept
but closed its eyes again when he began to stir.
The hummingbird stayed with David until
the stag was gone, a day late, in the butcher’s van.
Their friends who’d shot the beast would send them some to taste.
David’s heart leapt with joy,
the sun was hot and the
little one was gathering its body and
shaking the sleep away.
He tried to catch its eye again but it did not look at him,
and then, as if the night was no time to go,
as if it had tried for David’s sake alone,
it died under a blazing morning sun at eleven o’clock.
There are many sorts of men—
some of them are cruel to humans
and rescue animals; they are kind to dogs.
“Some men are good for all to see,
Some men are always good,” Joyce said to me.