Journalist turned author Sudha Menon, whose latest book, 'Devi, Diva or She-Devil', deals with the complex issues faced by women at the workplace, talks long-distance to IBNS correspondent Tanushree Sen about her journey as a journalist, a writer, a mother, a wife, a daughter and most importantly, a woman.
Tell me about the thought process that goes behind your books. What was the singular idea that started this journey?
I am often asked why I have largely focused my writing on women and why my books are written with women in mind. The reason is simple. I have always been intrigued by the lives of women, their singularly lonely and hard journeys; their commitment to whatever it is that they have taken up, including their career and the well-being of their families and the determination with which they fulfil their responsibilities.
My first book, Leading Ladies was the result of my own struggle to find my footing as a working woman and mother rolled into one. It was not easy to be a woman journalist back in the late eighties and early nineties, especially if you were also a young mother. Every day, I woke up and found the mountain of things to do on my list had gotten bigger. I wanted to be the best mom to my toddler and also wanted to be the best news reporter in the city.
I spread myself so thin that I often thought of quitting but my job often brought me face to face with some very successful women of those times, women who seemed to be in complete control of their lives. I wanted to know their secret strategies to success so that I too could be like them. I wanted to tell their stories to other women. Six years after I wrote that book it continues to catch the imagination of people.
The book was written based on extended conversations with 18 women who opened their offices, homes and indeed, their hearts to me, talking about their triumphs and tribulations while making the lonely climb to the top.
When I wrote Legacy, letters from eminent parents to their daughters, I was actually trying to grapple with the fact that my 21-year-old daughter was on the threshold of starting life on her own. I wanted to tell her about the important things that a woman should know to lead a content, fulfilled life.
Like every parent, I wanted to protect her, tell her to stay a bit longer with me, tell her to be safe and healthy but I decided to get these messages across to her through letters from some of contemporary Indias admired and accomplished men and women. Listening to their journeys and crafting those letters for the book was one of the most meaningful things I have done in my years as an author. Legacy turned out to be book that many readers continue to gift to their own daughters. For an author that is the best validation of her work.
In 2013, I set out to co-author Gifted with my dear friend VR Ferose, who himself is the father to a special needs child. As I met and interviewed the people in Gifted, each of who had a story from which each of us can learn precious lessons, I was awed and humbled by their undying spirit, their positivity, their commitment to their chosen path and their great ability to make the best of whatever life has handed them. Never again did I assume that a person cant do something because he does not have the abilities that we normal people have. They taught me that it is possible to have a rainbow- coloured view of the world, even if you cant see or hear or have one arm or leg.
As a young mother and career journalist I struggled to do my best in all the roles I had to play journalist, mother, wife, daughter. I have floundered, fallen on my face, been a failure and rediscovered myself. Over the years, thankfully, I have realised that I was not the only one that experienced all of this. There is a common thread of experience that holds womens lives together and I chose to write about their journeys so that I could hold up shining examples of what a determined woman can achieve, if she applies her mind to it.
A couple of years ago I started wondering if there were other women like me who were driven, passionate about their work and ambitious. I wanted to know how they survived the toxic cocktail of judgement, societal expectations, and years of social conditioning and still continued to live their lives to the fullest. I spoke to some of the smartest, most accomplished women of our times and I asked them for the strategies they adopt to live the life they want. Devi, Diva or She Devil is funny, real, thought-provoking, chock full of anecdotes from the lives of these women and it has somehow evolved into a sort of survival guide for the career woman. Already, wherever I go, I meet women who tell me how completely the book resonates with them because it is story of their lives!
Is it a conscious desire to write stories of inspiration or courage or did it come naturally to you?
I think I write stories of inspiration and courage because my career in journalism brought me face to face with the terrible struggles and challenges that people go through, sometimes to just stay alive. I want to bring whatever measure of respite that I can to all of us, through my work. If a story of mine can motivate and inspire someone, if it can stop someone from giving up on life in despair, I will know my work has a lasting value to it. That is what I want to leave behind. I toy with the idea of writing fiction every time I finish writing a book but then I go back to non-fiction because in my mind real life has so many heroes that I dont want to create one more fictional superhero.
Tell me a little about your journey as a writer.
I suspect it started as I was growing up in our humble home in suburban Mumbai, where books were almost like religion. My father gave us loads of books to read and inculcated a great love for the written word. To this day, I have a habit of reading everything in a newspaper- even the advertisements!
I think embarking on a career in journalism was almost an organic extension of my love for reading. After two plus decades of a career in the newspaper industry that I absolutely adored, I decided it was time to write the books that I had always dreamt of writing. When I was a kid, I wanted to have my own name on the cover of a book but I never told anyone that dream because it was too big a dream for someone who lived on the wrong side of the tracks!
An author who I recently spoke to mentioned that writing is an exceptionally solitary task and the biggest challenge is to come back to it and pick up from where its left off. What is your take on this?
Writing is an intensely solitary affair and over the past six years I realised it every single day when I sat at my desk, typing away furiously. I lost track of time sometimes and of my relationships and of the things I have to do to belong to my family and friends. I find myself tentative and awkward sometimes in social gatherings because I have forgotten the art of making interesting small talk. I keep promising myself that I will go out more often and meet people, but that is a promise I find hard to keep.
On the other hand, there are also days when I simply cannot write a single word. There are months when my mind resists having to sit down and write the interviews I conducted months ago. I go out and window shop then and hang around with friend, doing nothing. Bringing myself back to the desk and putting the first words down becomes the hardest thing to do during these phases.
There is a raging debate that in this age of technology, people barely read anymore. Do you feel that the art of reading, and especially good reading, is going out of fashion?
I was at the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival last week and I was so happy and so surprised, to find all these young volunteers who were working there almost round the clock, with no other incentive but the promise of being around books and authors. I ran into dozens of them who quoted from books and talked books all the time. I dont agree that people dont read anymore. They read extensively. Maybe the medium of reading has changed.
Who are some of the authors who inspire you?
I am inspired by the work of Maya Angelou, Daphne Du Maurier, Sashi Deshpande, Jhumpa Lahiri. I adore Arundhati Roys writing and often wish she did not take so much time between her books.
How do you normally unwind?
Unwinding is often a challenge for me because I am completely type A. I find it difficult to do nothing at all because the moment I settle down on my sofa to do nothing, I remember half a dozen things I have to do. But on those rare occasions that I do find it in me to relax, I love to go watch a movie, read a good book, walk alone or even wander around in a mall because I get to watch people, live vicariously through them and eat junk food which I love.
And finally, who are your biggest critics?
My family! My mom who is convinced I should write fiction and stop writing about women, and my younger sister who believes that Im a lazy editor and I need to urgently learn to say the same thing with far fewer words. One day soon I am going to deliver on both their expectations.