From a business journalist to an author, Sudha Menon’s journey hasn’t been an easy one. Her debut non-fictional, Leading Ladies, inspired her all the way to show the different facet of the lives of women who have indeed made a difference to society by sheer determination and focus.
The book covers the stories of: Amrita Patel, Anu Aga, Kalpana Morparia, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Lila Poonawalla, Mallika Sarabhai, Mallika Srinivasan, Meher Pudumjee, Naina Lal Kidwai, Priya Paul, P T Usha, Shaheen Mistri, Shikha Sharma, Shubha Mudgal, and Vinita Bali.
Sudha Menon reveals to her readers the real women behind the names by focusing not only on their stories of their rise to fame, but also accounting stories of their vulnerable moments, their uncertainties, their failures and their resolve to carry on, undaunted and perhaps more determined.
Read on to know more about Sudha Menon and her forthcoming novels.
You’ve had a rich career as a business journalist for more than 20 years. Would you like to share the ups and downs of being a journalist?
I think there have been more ups than downs in my career. It was in this period that I transformed myself from a painfully shy, almost reclusive young girl to a woman who is confident of holding her own in any company. I think by its very nature journalism requires, indeed, pushes you to open up even while you encourage your subjects or interviewees to reveal things to you that they would not dream of telling anyone else…
I think journalism also gave me the opportunity to meet people from so many diverse fields and in some ways each of these people left their impression on me in a way that added to my own personality. Be it a meeting with Kapil Dev and Amitabh Bachchan , Infosys’ Mr. Narayana Murthy, badminton ace Prakash Padukone or much earlier in my life, the world’s first heart transplant surgeon De. Christiaan Barnard, or a meeting with Dr. Abdul Kalam our former President , or SEWA’s Elabhatt who brought economic and social liberation to over one million poor women, all of them left their indelible mark on the person I have shaped up to be.
The downs of the journey would be the age-old issue women have: time for their own families, sometimes the guilt of not doing stuff for your only child, not taking time off to stand and stare if you will, not being able to spend time with your ageing parents , siblings….. But in the end, it has been a memorable, soul-fulfilling journey and I would not change it for anything in the world.
Also, the downside would be that the profession gives you a real close look at how human beings, the most intelligent species on earth, can also be selfish, arrogant, infinitely cruel and insensitive to other human beings and also to the planet on which they live. I covered the horrific Mumbai bomb blasts following the fall of the Babri Masjid and in my mid-twenties, that was a horrible wake-up call to my dreamer’s soul.
Do you think there is a difference in the way the current age journalists/reporters work?
Absolutely. When I was on the field, covering the beat that was the only way journalism could be practiced. You had to be out on the field every day, meeting people, hearing their stories, verifying everything you heard. I think my generation had a socialist inclination, we were sensitive, sometimes even partial to stories of trade unions, women, the underdogs trying to get justice. Today it is all about fashion, films, society soirees, the bold and the beautiful. Our biggest celebrities today are not social activists, reformers or change makers but film stars, Page 3 denizens and reality show stars.
And yes, journalists are increasingly under pressure, especially the electronic media, to produce breaking news and that to a large extent has spawned journalism that is not always very objective. Call it pressures of competition but the truth is that things can be much better.
What was the turning point in your career? What inspired you to write a book – a non-fiction inspirational read at that?
The turning point in my life would be my decision to walk away from a career that I painfully and passionately built up. Something that happened at my work place conflicted with my idea of what was right. My sense of doing the right thing conflicted with something that my seniors thought and for me the only choice was to walk away from a situation which was not ethical. That one decision changed my life. Suddenly, I was free to do my own thing, the master of my own time and the road ahead was crystal clear: I was free to write the book that had been rattling around in my head for a long time.
The non-fiction, inspirational book was a no-brainer. For over two decades I had been following the lives and journeys of so many sterling people who were doing so much meaningful work for themselves and for the community. Some of these were women and a woman I wanted to know their best-practices, what are the philosophies, the believes that gave them the extra edge in such a competitive man’s world, the X-factor that made them winners in a country where women are still trying hard to just be able to finish their education and try and have a decent career for themselves.
The book had to be inspirational because as a young mother struggling with home, a demanding career and the need to look after her only child, I had often looked around for inspiration to allow me to stick to my chosen path. I think each one of us can do with some inspiration in life.
How did you choose the genre and title of your book – Leading Ladies?
The name leading ladies seemed just right to me. The women in my book are stars in their own right, even if they might not be the kind of leading ladies in films. But by virtue of their work, they are the leading lights of their organizations. I was playing with words when I called the book Leading Ladies- These women actually lead other women to follow their lead and chase after their dreams, isn’t it?
What is the book essentially about? How would you describe the role of women in our society?
Leading Ladies is an inspirational book that follows the journeys of some of India’s most-admired women achievers who have made a difference to society with their stellar work and other pursuits that touch our lives, in more ways than one. My book brings alive their unique stories with personal anecdotes that will serve as a beacon for many of us.
While a lot has been written about how these women have achieved success, Leading Ladies highlights the guiding principles of their lives, the personal and professional beliefs that drive them, the life and management practices that have always stood them in good stead, and the non-negotiables that have guided them on their path to success.
What makes the woman professional/ entrepreneur/achiever/leader tick? What is it that drives them? What are the rules by which they play the game? Is there a level playing field for women? Do women need a level playing field? Is there something males can learn from their female colleagues? Are women leaders also from Venus along with the rest of their clan or do they belong to Mars too? My book seeks to answers to these questions.
(L-R: Karen Anand, Anu Aga, Sudha Menon, Meher Pudumjee and Shaheen Mistri, at the Pune launch of Leading Ladies)
How did you short-list these women? What was the kind of research and process you had to undergo to gather information on the women and assimilate the book?
Being a business journalist has its merits in that I was always expected to know the trend-setters in the business world. And a journalist has to try and be above things as they develop. We are generalists too so the sheer amount of reading newspapers gives us in-depth, current knowledge about people. I spoke to the women themselves and the people who have been associated with them extensively. The short listing actually did not happen. My initial list itself was some 100 women and I had to actually stop with the first 17 women confirmed their participation in the book, because people don’t have the patience to read more than 400 pages at a go. So, there is volume 2 for sure and more later.
The lives of these personalities (mentioned in the book) have been documented in various publications earlier too. What is it about your book that makes it different or worthy of being picked up?
The fact that they spoke to me unedited. Somehow, I struck a connection with each of these ladies in such a way that they let their guard down and shared things from their lives, thoughts, dreams, their inner fears, stuff that they would otherwise never , ever think of putting in the public domain. These anecdotes transformed them from being perfect beings with unattainable, achievable women in books and magazines to women like you and me, who have their share of problems and fears and weaknesses. There is something infinitely charming about that and people are interested in learning from such stories.
Of the 15 women you’ve mentioned in your book,
o Who has inspired you the most?
P.T. Usha and Lila Poonawalla. They came from backgrounds where the odds were stacked heavily against them. Usha ran without shoes till she was about 16 because there was no money to buy shoes in a family where the father had a tiny village store to run. Lila’s initial life was spent in a refugee camp and from abject poverty she rose to become the first woman CEO of a multinational company in India. SEWA’s founder Ela Bhatt. Being in the same room as her is like being in the presence of an energy field that instantly charges everyone up. For a 70plus woman to do so much for a sisterhood of women and also work simultaneously for global change, is awe-inspiring.
o Who has impressed you the most?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Kalpana Morparia, Shaheen Mistri of Teach for India, Shikha Sharma… In fact, all the women in my book are my stars. They work hard for themselves and for the community around them. Each of us can learn something from them.
What makes you tick?
My work is my biggest energizer. That and the fact that I have a family which adores me, admires and supports my work and gives me unconditional approval for my endeavors. My 20-year old is the guiding light of my life. Each day, when I set out to do something, I say to myself that I have to make her proud of me, I have to be her role model.
Leading Ladies – volume 2 is on its way but it’s being penned in a different format I gather – will it appear in interview form then?
Each of my work will be based on interviews because there is nothing like making a person talk unedited, to get a great story.
The fiction that you are working on at the moment – a few words about that please
It is the story of Karthu, a young girl growing up in coastal Kerala, in the period of the gulf boom. That era brought great wealth to the state but also corrupted the society in shocking ways. Karthu falls victim to an older man’s lust and the story follows her from being a victim to an unwed mother in a disapproving society and her eventual coming of age. An excerpt of the novel was published recently in Indian Voices, an anthology of emerging Indian writing from around the world. Honestly, I have not touched my fiction work for a year now because real life stories inspire me so much more than fictional characters.
Non-fiction and fiction –both of your works are woman-centric, is it just inspiration or that’s the realm you would like to focus on for now?
Women fascinate me. They have such complex lives, there are so many layers to their personalities, they have to deal with life at so many layers and play so many roles. Their lives are so challenging and each day is a new chapter of that struggle. I want to focus on the stuff that makes women the fascinating creatures that they are and so, my writing is preoccupied with their stories.
Tell us about a few of your all time favorite authors and books.
A J.Cronin’s The Citadel, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, Emile Zola’s The Dram Shop,P.G. Wodehouse’s amazing books. Gone with the Wind and The Thornbirds were books that I grew up reading maybe dozens of times. I get moved my powerful characterization, intense people, settings that make you yearn to be part of that story…and by passion, be it for someone or for something.
Your advice to budding writers…
Read a lot. Read stuff that you like so you learn from them and read stuff that you don’t like so that you learn to avoid that style. Live a life that is rich with people and experience because in the end, powerful writing is about the powerful experiences that we ourselves go through. Armchair writing is infinitely less interesting than the writing about a person who has lived life rough, on the edge, lived dangerously and lived life as if each day is his/her last day on earth!