The beautiful and confident Sudha Menon is a journalist-turned-writer with more than twenty years of experience working with some of India’s acclaimed newspapers like The Independent, The Hindu Business Line and Mint. She is also a motivational speaker and has conducted various workshops and women leadership sessions across the country. Being the author of two sensationally motivating books: Leading Ladies – Women who inspire India and Legacy, Sudha Menon is indeed an inspiration for generations to come.
Ananya Dhawan: How does it feel to be a daughter, a wife, a mother and above all a woman?
Sudha Menon: If there is another life beyond the one on this earth and if I were given the chance to be reborn, I still would want to be born a woman! There are days when I wake up and think of the very daunting ‘to-do’ list that I have to clear before the end of the day and then I wish I was not a woman. We women come pre-packaged with a multi-tasking streak and also with what I now call the ‘guilt DNA’ and so we feel the need to be a good daughter, wife, mother and super-professional, all in the same pathetic 24 hours we have. Then I wish I was a man and I could simply go to work, slog away to earn the daily bread and come back dog- tired, to slump in front of the television!
Sometimes I feel the stuff we achieve in a day has put tremendous pressure on our poor men. They know now that if the women in their lives can do so much, they better buckle up and do something too… But jokes apart, I revel in all my multiple roles as a woman and even though I think I am not the best at any of these roles, I am able to muster gracefully. A woman has the power to change the destiny of an entire family. And it is she who sets the rules for how each member of her family interacts with the rest of the community. It is a great responsibility.
I love that we can be graceful, gracious, compassionate, kind and still have excuses for our mood swings, meltdowns , bad hair days and temper tantrums…!
AD: Leading Ladies – Women who Inspire India is a sensational read indeed. Who or what inspired you to write it?
SM: Every woman I met in the years that I was a young woman trying to do justice to my multiple roles, inspired me. I struggled to be a caring wife, a good mother, a good worker and a good daughter, and I thought I would be swallowed up by the magnitude of those responsibilities. And I looked in wonderment at my domestic help who had six children and yet put in eight hours of non-stop work at my home, still being able to smile at the end of it.
My mother was married off at sixteen, had four children by the time she was twenty-eight and she played all of her roles flawlessly, even though it was a scattered, frantic kind of life that she led. But she, more than anything else, inspires me. I would sometimes spoonfeed my sixteen-year-old daughter as she studied for her exams and my heart goes out to amma who was already married at that age and struggling to raise her children and hold an extended family together…
I was also inspired to write this book by the dozens of women leaders I met along my journalistic path, each holding her own, effortlessly and with confidence, in what was so much a man’s world, all those years ago….
AD: From being a journalist to a writer, how tough has the journey been?
SM: An extremely tough journey. I had to abandon all the stuff I learnt in journalism about being always objective, to never get emotional about a news story, to put everything down in a twenty-eight-word lead para…
Being an author means putting all of those lessons on their head and wearing my heart on my soul. I have to constantly get into the skin of the people I am writing about, put myself in their shoes, live the struggles they have lived and emerge to tell their stories in a way that does justice to their saga.
I have to constantly get into the skin of the people I am writing about, put myself in their shoes, live the struggles they have lived and emerge to tell their stories in a way that does justice to their saga.
I yearn, sometimes, for the monthly pay-check, the discipline of having a workplace to go to, the constant adrenalin rush and even the ego-massage that we journalists get – simply because we are journalists. Being a work-from-home writer is a solitary existence. I wake up in the morning and I am at desk after a quick breakfast and when I look up, it is already well past lunch time. Sometimes I hate the fact that I went from being a fairly well-paid journo to a barely-keep-body-and-soul-together kind of author, even though I get to meet some of the most interesting people in the country. Writing is an indulgence, a fantasy life that has nothing to do with real life and bills that I would have to pay, if my husband did not pay them.
But I love every moment of it and so does my family. I suspect they know that if I did not write every day, I would focus all of that manic energy trying to order them around!
AD: How did you decide on which ladies to include in Leading Ladies?
SM: I had been following the lives of hundreds of women who I came across during my career as a journalist. When I decided to write Leading Ladies, I approached many of them and the ones that responded first were in the book. My only yardstick was that they were women who could inspire other women and that they should be doing something for a larger good.
Someday when I have finished the projects I have on hand, I mean to write the next volume of Leading Ladies.
AD: What is your second book Legacy about?
SM: Legacy is a wonderful collection of warm, infinitely loving and deeply insightful collection of letters to their daughters, from some very eminent Indian men and women. Through the letters, these men and women talk to their daughters about their journeys, the lessons they learnt along the way and the other stuff that they really think is important for a woman to know along her own journey….
AD: How did the unique idea of compilation of the wonderful letters occur to you?
SM: I grew up in a family that wrote letters to each other. I had a clutch of feisty, hard-working spinster great aunts who lived on their own in a sprawling farm in Kerala, and they wrote letters to us, almost every month. I never appreciated those letters as an adolescent because I thought of them as sermonising missives that told me what to do. Looking back, I know that those letters had infinite wisdom and great life lessons of an enduring quality.
We no longer write letters; nor do we have the time or the opportunity to write letters in this crazy time of Whatsapp and Facebook, and I thought a compilation of letters would be perfect for those who do not engage in “face time” but are happy to read!
The aspirations of girls today are soaring like never before. Our society still does not really seem to be as ready as she is, to accept her changing role in society and her new-found confidence. I think of the letters in Legacy as a parent’s loving, helping hand guiding his/her daughter towards her goal and towards a meaningful and content life.
AD: Do you think that women have adequate access to entrepreneurial training opportunities in India?
SM: No, we don’t. On my journeys across cities, smaller towns and villages, I see so many smart, bright women who have dreams for themselves and entrepreneurial ideas but they simply don’t know where to take those ideas and how to take them to fruition.
NDDB chairperson Amrita Patel told me that if each urban woman devoted maybe a month each year to going to smaller towns, meeting the women there and teaching them, that in itself would catalyse change. Those women need our helping hand.
AD: In India, what according to you explains the gender gaps?
SM: If by gender gap you mean the way we treat our boys and girls, then I would say the main reason is the fact that we treat them differently from the time they are born. And we continue to reinforce the idea right through the early years and well into their adulthood, that the boy child is superior. My sense is that if you raise them with the same messages, then you can break that chain which is now threatening to suffocate our women. Teach a boy early in life that his sister is his equal and that the women in his household are to be respected and he will never go out and treat another woman with disrespect.
At the workplace the change is happening and there are more women now in influential positions and power than ever before. It is a change that can come only with sustained efforts, by making sure more women are given the confidence that they can take up responsibilities that men can, at various levels of organisations. It calls for a change of mind-set from men and women in opposite camps to one in which both genders can work together without being combative. It is a lot of hard work but I can see it happening, even though it is at a slow pace.
AD: Who has inspired you the most out of the fifteen ladies you’ve mentioned in your book?
SM: P.T. Usha and Lila Poonawala came from the humblest of backgrounds and yet made a great impact in their respective fields. Elaben Bhatt’s life is an epic saga. When I met the frail, softspoken lady in her humble home in Ahmedabad, I found it difficult to believe that she had given a life of dignity to over a million women across the country when she set up SEWA. These women, who lived an anonymous life in their families, now have the skills that help them earn their own livelihood and have a definitive niche in society.
AD: What inspiration in general, do you draw from your personal experiences in life?
SM: I grew up in humble circumstances in a family which did not have much in material comfort but put a great premium on learning and reading. We worked hard as children, helping our mother run the house because we could never afford house help. We knew as kids that there is no substitute for hard work and that has been an enduring lesson for each of us. The only legacy they could give us is that of a solid set of values that we could use in our future life.
I was the girl living on the wrong side of town, with little hope of ever bettering myself but every time I dreamt a dream for myself my parents bought into that dream and encouraged me. I do that with my own daughter because what is life if we are not able to dream and to chase that dream to fruition.
My father’s journey from a young boy in Kerala to an honest, hard-working labour leader in Mumbai, who always put our interests ahead of his own, has been a beacon for all of us. We lived our lives with the constant message that it is not enough to live a selfish life and that each of us can bring about change, in whatever little way we can.
AD: Few words of wisdom for budding writers…and for the women of today.
SM: For budding writers my message is simple: read a lot to write a lot. Write for yourself and write like you are the only person who is going to read what you write. Let go the fear of being judged or of hurting someone. Write to express, not impress.
For the women of today, the message is almost the same. Live your life the way you want it, on your terms and non- apologetically. You have only one life to live. You might not always win or get everything you want but at the very least, you tried and in a larger context, your life will have inspired and motivated other women who want to break free of societal expectations and chart their own course. Easier said than done, of course, but then, nothing in life is easy!
1. The three most important things in your life.
My family, my writing and being able to bring about whatever change I can, through the medium of my writing.
2. Any phobia in life?
During times when I am chasing deadlines, I wake up at night, sweating, because I have dreamt of a math exam and that I am incapable of solving a single problem! My friends call me a paranoia queen because I worry myself to death about the weirdest things.
3. Your favourite memory!
My fondest memory is of hot summer afternoons lolling on the verandah of my grandmother’s house in Kerala, reading the stories of Rani Padmini or the valour of our Rajput kings. A sea breeze would come waltzing through the coconut groves that surrounded the house and would lull me into a slumber from which I would wake up to the aroma of golden ripe plantain fritters being fried in the kitchen. I wish sometimes that my own daughter knew such simple pleasures but sadly, those days are gone and so are the people who made those summer vacations so special.
4. Your most prized possession.
A tattered page, torn from a notebook, now-yellow with age, on which my then three-year-old daughter wrote in her child’s scrawl: ‘To the best mama in the world, Happy Birthday!’
There have been many instances in my life when I haven’t felt good enough and I have gone back to that letter, so full of trust in me, and my self-belief has always come bouncing back.
5. Your dream destination.
A cottage where I could wake up to the sight of the Himalayas, go walking amidst the towering trees and sit down to write un-fettered by the distractions of urban life. I know I will make it to that cottage someday and then, my journey as a fiction writer will commence…