Sudha Menon is an author of four best-selling non-fiction books, Legacy, Gifted and Leading Ladies and Devi, Diva or She Devil, the smart career woman’s survival guide. A former newspaper journalist, Sudha is now a columnist, a writing coach and a speaker on diversity and inclusion issues. Excerpts from her interview at WIC INDIA Dehradun Community Literature Festival 2017.
Two of your books are women-oriented. Why did you take this subject for your books?
Actually three of my books including Legacy, a book of letters from parents to their daughters- are about women. I choose this subject because I do believe that women, even though we are supposed to hold up half the sky, are grossly under-represented in every part of life, everywhere in the world. It is important to give a platform to the voices of women so that their point of view is heard. It is important to hold up shining examples of what determined women can achieve so that other women can take inspiration and follow their own dreams to fruition. Women are complex, multi-layers beings and it is fascinating for me to peel back the layers and find out what it is that makes them the strong, resolute, committed, passionate people they are.
How do you feel is the position of women in India? Is India really divided into two parts-India and Bharat, as they say?
Like I said above, women are under-represented and unheard voices in India. And in many other parts of the world. We deserve much, much better. We deserve the right to live on our terms, follow our dreams and be who we are without being told by anyone how to dress, what to feel, who to talk to or who not to talk to. We are capable of taking informed decisions of our own.
Yes, India is very much divided into India and Bharat, no question about it.
Out of all your books, which one is the closest to you and which one do you think is your best work so far?
Every word that I write is special to me. Writing is my lifeline, my escape from the world, my retreat from the noise in the world. My debut book, Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India is the closest to me because that book was the point when I stepped off the diving board and into the deep, without any clue how my future life would pan out. I had given up my 23 years in journalism and decided to follow this dream of writing a book. I had no money, no plan B and no idea what I would do if this book failed. Thankfully, it continues to be a great success to this day. Writing that book has changed everything for me. It gave me a great new identity, reiterated my belief in myself and liberated me from the clutches of a job that consumed my life breath. I love journalism but I was sleep walking through it. Besides, the journalism of the type I had grown up with was dead by the time I left.
Share a sentence of your own that you’re particularly proud of.
You come to this world with nothing and you will go with nothing and the sooner we accept that, the happier we will be. The party will begin the day you stop hankering after possessions.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy and Jerry Pinto are my forever go-to books. If you have not read Jerry’s Em and the Big Hoom, read it now! No matter how many times I have read it, it continues to clutch at my heart and have me laugh and cry and think about my family and its eccentricities.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Footloose and Fancyfree: The life and follies of Sudha Menon
You have adorable pictures on the internet and reflect a certain way of styling. What is your idea of fashion and which decade you do think had the best fashions?
I am all for the classic way of styling. I love my sarees and revel in them. Fashion to me is what makes you comfortable, confident and brings out your best features. I also believe fashion and style is a lot about being age-appropriate.
I think the current decade is fashion and style at its zenith. When I see all those gorgeous options that younger people have as options, I sometimes wish I were 20 years younger.
How did the idea of ‘Get Writing’ and ‘Writing In the Park’ come across? How challenging was it to get the workshop started?
On my book tours after I launched Leading Ladies, I would often come across people who would tell me that they secretly hoped to write stories, but were clueless how to do it. The more I met these people, the more I was intrigued by the possibilities. There is nothing more liberating than giving wings to the words that flutter around in your head. With Get Writing I hoped to be able to kick-start the writing journeys of such people. Five years later I am glad I started this workshop series. I have had a diverse group of people- actors, lawyers, doctors, techies, home makers, kids and senior citizens attend my workshop and then come back for more. They write like pros now and keep in touch with me to tell me about their progress. I take the Get Writing workshop to corporate houses as a team building exercise and to catalyse innovative thinking in middle and top management.
Writing In The Park came to me from my concern with seeing too many of us slouching on the sofa watching television, working endlessly on the laptop or busy with our phones. Nobody talks to anybody anymore or reads a book or paints or even looks out of their windows because we are too busy with our gadgets. I worry for our children and the fact that they don’t experience nature any more. Writing In The Park gets them off their gadgets and into the lap of nature where they can see the sunlight stream through age old oak trees, hear a stream gurgle, the butterflies flit around and myriad birds in the parks.
I have other things that I do too. For instance, Telling Our Stories came out of my fascination from the stories that my grandmother and trio of spinster great aunts told us when we were kids. I wanted to know about how life was back in the days when the British ruled us, I wanted to know about the journey one of them took from their coastal village to distant Mumbai where she knew carved out a career in nursing.
Over the years I have seen our senior citizens go silent as we got busy with our own lives. Nobody has the time to listen to their stories because we are too busy reading about the lives of strangers who have become our FB “friends”. I worry that if we don’t listen to and document the stories of our ageing population, we will miss out on a precious chance to know about the times bygone, our own ancestors and the evolution of our cities.
It is my hope that each of us starts with an aged member of our own family and start documenting their memories. Individually and collectively, this could be a precious legacy for our future generations.
WWW (Writing With Women) is a project that I started when I realised that many women participants in my Get Writing workshops stayed back to tell me about their own lives. They were not comfortable with talking or reading out their experiences in a mixed group class. With WWW I have women from diverse backgrounds and age groups come together and share their experiences through writing and telling their stories.
Imagine what the world will lose if PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Deepa Karmakar don’t write their stories. Or their mother’s did not get the chance to document the leap of faith they had to make so their daughters could go find their spot in the sun.
You are also a motivational speaker other than being a writer. From where do you draw your inspiration to be multi-faceted?
Because I believe that you have to tell your story as many times as it takes to inspire others to follow their own dreams and get to their goals. If just one person in the audience gets motivated or inspired by what I am saying, it is a great success for me.
“Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India”, “Legacy”, Gifted and Devi, Diva or She Devil are all non-fiction books. Do we see you writing fiction in future?
That is my dream. I am already in the midst of a book but I am stoked about a collection of short, humorous columns I have written about being a woman of fifty in an age where everything is about being young and sexy! I look at the entire process of ageing and becoming a matron at 50 with my humor-tinted glasses on. It is a rough, rocky place to be but it is also very liberating.
How true is the statement, “There is no battle mind cannot win”?
Absolutely the only truth! There is nothing that a determined soul cannot do. Our first and last battles are the ones that we fight in our mind and head.
Your daughter is a pastry chef. Do cooking and baking interest you too?
I love dabbling in the kitchen with her and being her helper but that is because Nayantara considers me her taster-in-chief. I do cook but I am a reluctant cook at best. I would rather do a million things outside than be caught in the kitchen drudging over curry.
What are your thoughts on literature festivals? How important are they to boost the morale of writers and literary minds?
I love the community that lit fests create for writers. Writing is such a solitary occupation and sometimes I am bored out of my wits because I have spent endless days just chained to the desk. Meeting others of the ilk is joyful; it creates fresh thought and motivates writers to bring out work that is more inspired and relevant.
It is my hope, however, that the festivals do open their minds to folks who are not “celebrity writers” and give a platform to authors who write with commitment and sincerity. Far too often these I am alarmed to see literature festivals being hijacked by the film industry and minor celebrities who have nothing to contribute but their glamour.
Is there anything that you would like to share with young and aspiring writers?
Keep the faith. You might not immediately find success with your writing. Make writing your passion and not let publication of your work be the only motivation for you to write. Write for joy and not for fame.
To write a lot, read a lot of good books and fill up your life with rich experiences that will give layers and complexity to your work
Have you been in Dehradun before? Does travelling excite you or tire you?
I am so excited to be in Dehradun. I have never been here before and after the fest I am looking forward to exploring the region. I have heard so much about this place!