Chef and food consultant Diya Sethi, 40, has seen the best of times and the worst. The daughter of an Indian ambassador, she has known boxing legend Muhammad Ali, dined at the same table as The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, and walked the runway for Christian Dior.
But the brilliance of her public life and the loneliness of her private world gave rise to the condition of bulimia, a disease well-known in the Western world, but still misunderstood in India as a weight-loss problem. The Addict-A Life Recovered is the story of those years of Sethi's life and her eventual fight-back. Unlike many tell-alls, the account of her addiction and recovery are both painstakingly detailed and shines a light on her understanding of her past, her limitations, the relapses, and finally, her resolve to cure herself. A conversation:
It is a searing account and you have spared no one, least of all yourself, and your parents. By the end of the book, you seemed to have found grace. But by writing this book, did you take a risk? How did your parents react?
Writing my story was not a premeditated act. One day I just found myself put pen to paper, and I began to write. It was as if I had to use, or make an example of my life to fulfill a purpose: to bring attention to an affliction that plagues many people.
I didn't ask my parents for permission when I began, but a few chapters into my book, I informed them of what I was doing. My mother had just one question for me: 'Will you be able to hold your head high after people get to know all this about you?' And I said if they recoil from me, then I no longer want them in my life. My father said: 'There is no need to protect us, tell the truth.' But what was the effect of writing the book on me? I was relentlessly ill for the last one and half years of finishing the book.
I shut my eyes and re-lived 26 years of my life all over again. Then I wrote, but all the pain I was regenerating diseased me - I no longer had the escape route of addiction.
Bulimia is not a well-known disease. You are actually the second person after Princess Diana whom one has heard of being afflicted with this.
I was anorexic-bulimic. Bulimia is the flip side of anorexia. I tried to hide that I was anorexic, and that's when bulimia set in - the purging of any nourishment I took in. I was never overweight. People tend to think anorexia-bulimia is just about weight loss. It isn't. Both the denial and purging of nourishment generate a 'high' that de-sensitise one of pain fear, rejection, loneliness. Later, I added alcohol and drugs to augment that desensitisation.
You've written about the painful experiences of growing up in the book.
From very early in life, I moved from country to country as a result of my father's career as an ambassador and I began to feel 'different' from other kids my age. It created a sense of panic that was easily detected by my peers. I was rejected in school, and often ridiculed. Even worse, when I was 13, I encountered racism in Zimbabwe. At an all-white party to which I was invited, a boy called attention to me by shouting 'Long Live Union Carbide'… Go home, behenji." That was the tipping point which catapulted me into anorexia. I had to bury the acute pain and humiliation. Today I no longer allow myself to bury my feelings. Neither do I search for durability in my relationships. I look for quality. My heroes were, and still are, my own parents and brother. They are my world.
What was your battle with food like?
It was a vicious one that swayed between brutal starvation and punishing binge eating followed by relentless vomiting. At times, I would try and get away with eating as little as 30gms of boiled peas and carrots, or else, I would consume bags of chips, candy, mayonnaise, and any leftover food in the fridge, until I couldn't eat anymore. Then I would kneel on the floor of my bathroom and vomit copiously and mercilessly. Today, I have learned to feel my hunger and taste what it is I want or need to eat. I don't deny myself anything - I eat chocolate, cheese, carbs…anything I wish to, and as much as I feel I need to. I simply keep myself active and fit through exercise. You see, it was not about my weight and food. I simply felt I wasn't good enough.
Your experience at the Cordon Bleu school was one of the stepping stones to your recovery.
It helped me develop a new relationship with food, through sensations. I became re-vitalised in the kitchen. It ignited my sense of taste, smell, touch, sight and sound. . I had to be coordinated, quick-footed and attentive to each of my senses as I prepared dishes, or filleted fish and handled meat.
You are now a food consultant with some of Delhi's restaurants. How's that working for you?
I give them a roadmap and then they do their own thing. I would love to write a book deconstructing fine dining and proposing a DIY format. Or else, a fly-on-the-wall kind of book, reporting conversations at Delhi dinner parties. They are hilarious. For example, I heard a Frenchman, enamoured by a wealthy south Indian heiress, attempt to flatter her by saying: 'I hope you will be widowed soon.' In another corner was an art critic regaling her audience with an account of how each of her parents dyed the other's hair.
What's the next challenge?
To make sure that the next 40 years of my life do not warrant the kind of book I've just written.
Extract from The Addict-A Life Recovered
Diya Sethi; HarperCollins
Rs 250, 189 pgs
At the belligerent age of six, I was the best athlete in my age group. But when the whistle blew I was paralysed by the possibility of failure, a possibility that appeared so suddenly, the fear of which briefly infiltrated my entire being - the next time, it dropped permanent anchor in me: I refused to do a school examination when I was unsure of the answer to the fi rst question. I knew the rest of the answers, but to my evolving mind, there were only two choices available: zero or 100 per cent.
Both those events warned of the person I was to become, someone with a fanatical fear of failure, disguised as perfectionist fervour. That fear was generated by my extraction from my cocoon into an ever-changing world -the persistent and almost metallic unfamiliarity gradually weathered the encouragement I received to move forward and it chipped away at any nourishment I had to do so. In my adult life, which I entered with great trepidation and much later than my peers, I have understood that my terror was borne of the feeling of being deprived of a childhood - there had been no constant, no familiar places and faces outside my cocoon in the first five years of my life and for many years to come. The transient nature of that life induced my desperate clinging to a childlike disposition well into my adult years. Seventeen years later, at a treatment centre for addiction, I learned that it was the foundation of my eating disorder, which both in sickness and recovery, directed much of my life and shaped my person.