‘Your fifties can be a party if you just loosen up a bit’
As we enter 2019, Bookaholicanonymous is proud to present this conversation with a prolific writer Sudha Menon. What we love about her is that not only does she write, she teaches and inspires people to write as well!
About Sudha Menon: She is an author, a columnist and a writing coach. She is the author of five non-fiction books, Feisty at Fifty, Devi, Diva or She Devil -The Smart Carer Woman's Survival Guide, Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India, Legacy: Letters to their daughters from eminent Indian men and women and Gifted: inspirational stories of people with disabilities. Sudha is also the founder of writing workshop series ‘Get Writing’ and has recently started ‘Writing with Women’, a project aimed at getting women from diverse backgrounds together to share their experiences and write down their stories.
Let's start with talking about your latest book 'Feisty at Fifty'. What made you write it?
When you have spent a quarter of a century as a journalist observing things and recording it in your mind become almost instinctive. As I headed towards my fifties I found myself watching the changes that were happening in my own body and my emotions from a distance. When I hit my menopause the shock was not just physical, it was emotional too because nobody but a woman will know what it means to feel redundant, out of control and unattractive at the same time. My kid was gone, the empty nest was suffocating me and the fact that my body had also given up on me was much to handle. There were days I would look in the mirror and want to cry from seeing the grooves around my nose, the horrid laugh lines, the wrinkles, and the lines on my forehead, hell, the droopiness of my breasts. But one day I decided enough of whining and complaining and I said I would just look at the funny side of being fifty plus. The fifties might be the end of perky and the beginning of a free fall with everything, including the morale drooping but the scramble to make the best we can out of what we have is adventurous, challenging and exhilarating. I wrote ‘Feisty at Fifty’ because I wanted to let other women in this age group and even the men who read the book that your fifties can be a party if you just loosen up a bit, let go of the baggage and decide to look at life through happier lenses.
At almost fifty, I was not ready to accept the stuff that is normally said about women of that age. I was not willing to hang up my boots and take to moping at home waiting for the family to come home. I have decided that I will do exactly what makes me feel good about myself and if that includes colouring my hair glorious brown and my lips fire engine red, I am going to do that. I have earned my right to doing the things that I need to feel good about myself and I am certainly not going to have anyone tell me what is appropriate or not for “someone your age”. At fifty two I don’t feel I am over the hill- I have so many mountains to climb and so many things to do and I am certainly not ready to hang up my boots and disappear.
It pisses me off that male actors who are well into their fifties are still cavorting around with girls in their twenties in our films while female actors in their late forties have to colour their hair and play mothers and sisters to the very men who were once their leading men!
Two years since I hit the Big Five-Oh, I am having the time of my life with work and my many projects. I have rediscovered long lost friends; I am bonding with my amma, my sisters, my daughter and my husband and cooking up plans for the rest of my life. I have bought myself some very nice stilettos, a few sleeveless dresses (back in my teens only girls with loose morals wore sleeveless, short dresses) and I am more than happy to step out in my new possessions.
The best thing about turning fifty is that I feel a sense of liberation and exhilaration because I no longer care to fit into any boxes that societal norms expect me, nor do I care what judgements are passed or labels fixed on me. Through ‘Feisty at Fifty’ I want to tell everyone that the fifties and the rest of our lives can be the most fabulous part of our life.
Sharing some of the personal stuff from my life was difficult in the beginning but the incidents were central to my story and writing about them made it almost cathartic. Also, putting them down on the laptop somehow made the difficult phases of my life look suddenly less difficult. I marvelled that I had put all of that behind me and survived to tell the tale. I had a blast writing ‘Feisty at Fifty’ and I am delighted when I have people come up to me, total strangers, who say they had belly laughs when they read the book.
Tell us a little about how ‘Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India’. How did your first book come about?
I think I knew even as a child that I wanted to be a writer. I was a painfully shy child who took refuge in between the pages of books so that I did not have to make eye contact with the world and try to make friends. Somewhere along the way I found myself dreaming of seeing my name in print one day. That dream was fulfilled when I studied journalism and, at 21, started working for a newspaper. My first by-line had me floating on air for days together. Eight years ago I decided that I wanted to put to use all the learning from my years in journalism to write books that could positively impact the lives of people. The book was written largely because as a young mother and ambitious career woman, I had struggled to play all my roles to perfection and floundered. The irony was that my profession brought me in contact with so many accomplished women who seemed to wear their multiple hats with great comfort and be completely in charge of their lives. I wanted to bring their stories to other women like me so that we could all take hope from their journeys and follow our own dreams with hope and enthusiasm. Meeting the wonderful, accomplished women in the book transformed my life forever.
Your second book 'Legacy' was much talked about. What made you write it?
‘Legacy’ was written the year my daughter turned 21 and, like every mother, I too wanted to tell her about the really important things for a woman to know so that she can live her life with dignity, happiness and fulfilment. I started writing a letter to her telling me about my own journey and the lessons I had learnt, some of them painfully, so that she could learn from those lessons. Somewhere along the way the thought came to me that instead of keeping this as a letter from me to her, this could be a book that would have the wisdom of so many modern-day icons and people we can all look up to. I followed my heart and reached out to some of the people I admire and was blown away by their response. Infosys founder Narayana Murthy was a day away from his son’s wedding but he met me for a long conversation about the affectionate bond he shares with his daughter, Akshata.
I met Prakash Padukone one winter afternoon at this office in Bangalore and was blown away by the humility of my childhood hero. My feeling of awe intensified when he spoke about raising his star daughter, Deepika, with the same middle-class values that he and his wife had grown up following. She is our daughter first and a star later, he said with quiet confidence.
Legal eagle, Zia Mody spoke to me about how her own mother had raised her as an independent, free spirited girl who followed her own dreams and never allowed her gender from doing so. She told her three daughters the same thing and also that each of them needed to find meaningful employment of their own, faith in God and unwavering honesty.
Legacy remains one of my most popular books even six years after it was written.
How did your book 'Gifted' inspire you?
I wrote ‘Gifted’ along with my friend V. R. Ferose, who was then MD of SAP, India. Ferose reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about the lives of people with disability and I said spontaneously that I would love to. Writing Gifted was life transforming in many ways. It taught me about courage, compassion, self-belief and determination of people to never give up in the face of the most formidable challenges.
I met dozens of men and women with disabilities who did not allow their condition to limit their dreams or their life. And meeting them changed my own world-view and made me a more compassionate, inclusive person.
About 'Devi, Diva or She Devil', tell us what were you aiming for? Did you achieve it?
With ‘Devi, Diva or She Devil’ I wanted to tackle other issues about women in careers. As a career woman for over 35 years now, I have come across dozens of issues that concern women who choose to follow a career path while doing the rest of it-marriage, kids, family, relationships etc. I have been amazed by how most women, even the ones occupying corner offices in top notch organisations, are faced with the same issues- they are judged, labelled and slotted into boxes by society- they are either devi, diva or she-devils. And yet, most of us survive the naysayers, overlook the judgement and go about our business to the best of our ability. I spoke to some trend-setting, path breaking women to find out how they handled everything that gets thrown at them on an everyday basis, found out their survival strategies and sought tips from them so that I could pass them forward to the women of this country who struggle everyday to do what they want to do, without being labelled or judged for it. Many of the women in this book including Olympian Mary Kom say that ambition is not a bad word for women and that each of us deserve to chase our dreams.
You hold writing workshops. Do you think everyone can write or you get to know who is a writer during the workshop?
Part of my life after turning full-time author a decade ago, has been dedicated to setting up and running my writing workshop series, ‘Get Writing’. I started this initiative after being approached by several people on different occasions, at bookstore launches, readings and even at airports, who would tell me their stories and say they did not know how to put those stories down. Instinctively I knew this was a need in the market and started the workshop with nothing but my great love for writing as my working capital. My first ever workshop, back in 2010, had an 8 year-old-boy and a gentleman of 80 writing together in the same class and it was magical. We all can write. It is a matter of practice and attention to some technique but what sets the good writing apart from the average is the passion that drives it.
What did you learn while holding ‘Writing with Women’ (WWW) workshop series? It must be interesting.
Three years ago I started ‘Writing with Women’, a project very close to my heart because this workshop is a safe haven I have created where women can express their thoughts, share their experiences and write about the things that happen(ed) in their lives. Now I am regularly invited to hold this workshop at corporate houses where I use it for leadership and team building and to build up the confidence levels of women in the organisation. It is one of the most fulfilling things I do. From the experiences of the women who write with me in WWW, I have had a close look at how marginalised we are in some situations, even in our families and how our stories are in the danger of getting lost if we don’t document them. I always knew we women are strong but when I hear the stories in their own words, I realise the extent of our determination, our strength and our struggle to stay true to our thoughts and feelings. I never thought when I started it that this would develop into something so precious to me.
You credit your father a lot in your interviews for your love for books and reading? How did he shape your interest?
I was a lonely, shy, reclusive, rebellious child with almost no friends. The books that our father regularly bought for us probably saved my soul because every time I felt lonely or sad or angry I would pick up a book and lose myself in the world in its pages. He was a voracious reader and read every type of book from the Russian and American classics to PG Wodehouse whose books he adored, to James Hadley Chase and Arthur Hailey. He simply loved the written word and I and my three siblings took after him.
My father believed that reading did not just make you well-read but developed other qualities such as kindness, empathy and compassion because you experience the lives of other people through the stories you read. Honesty, hard work and knowledge were the other things that he believed would change the world. He was an unwaveringly honest man who dedicated his life for the betterment of Indian rail workers and his work opened my eyes to the condition of the poor, the downtrodden and the hapless in this world. He passed away three years ago after a sudden illness and we feel his absence- his warmth and his wisdom every single day.
Your books highlight women and explore their journeys? Who or what inspires you?
My fifties has brought me closer to amma, the woman who suffered the most from my forever rebellious nature as a teenager and as a young woman. Now I understand and appreciate her supervision when we were growing up and so many times I catch myself saying the same things to my daughter, that amma used to say to me. I am not sure I have ever told her this but amma has been the strongest influence in our lives. From her we three sisters have learnt all about persistence, about moving forward in the face of the biggest hurdles and to be kind and generous at all times.
At seventy one she is as feisty as they come. She periodically declares she is turning food entrepreneur and a couple of times she delivered on her promise, cooking up delicious south Indian snacks that disappeared within hours of her making it. Only later we found that while her clients loved her snacks, she made no money because she gave the stuff off for free. Out of love.
Come summer and she makes endless bottles of nimbu paani and pickles that are now legendary in our community and her stock is sold in advance. She is now learning Tai-ichi, practices yoga, hangs out with friends and gives me the occasional lecture on the merits of doing Buddhist walking meditation.
Two years ago, in the throes of grief from the passing of my father, her companion of fifty years, she sat down and immersed herself in writing a book about their journey together. When she had published it six months later, she had put her depression behind her and is now chasing me to recommence writing my much-neglected novel from eight years back! Without a doubt she is my biggest inspiration.
Turning fifty has also reconnected me to my daughter, a wonderful young woman who I suspect I distanced from me as I went my manic menopausal phase. We are friends now and I find myself turning to her for advice many times and it warms my heart when she calls me every morning to chat, even it is for a few minutes. The mother daughter bond is like no other in the world and now that I bond with her, I find myself bonding with my own mother with the same enthusiasm.
Is it difficult being an author? Pros and cons
It is very difficult being an author, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that we are very poorly paid. A handful of writers in this country take away the bulk of the money that publishers have for writers. The rest of us are in it simply because we love what we do. I would find it difficult to live on my commissioning amounts and royalty because it is so little. I am able to live reasonably ok because of the speaking assignments, writing workshops and other activities that I do.
Writing is also a solitary preoccupation and I spent long hours every day at my work desk either writing away furiously or simply waiting for inspiration to strike. My social life is almost zero when I am nearing completion of a book.
Authors, or at least I suffer from carrying my writing bone everywhere I go. There is not a single place I can go to or a single thing that I do, that I don’t think of writing about. That is perhaps why it is said that if you get on the wrong side of an author she will put you in her next book and bump you off by the end of a few chapters!
The pros of being an author are many too. To begin with, I get to hang around in my pyjamas all day because it is just me at home because authors don’t have any office to go to.
Authors get to meet all sorts of interesting people and that nourishes their soul.
Now that I have discovered my funny bone I just want to go on writing funny stuff, stuff that makes people laugh and roll on the ground laughing. I have stories knocking around in my head that I want to put on paper. I already know what the sequel to ‘Feisty at Fifty’ will be.
Am also writing a book in collaboration with my mother, sort of memoir interweaving food, memories and experiences.
Bookaholicanonymous thanks Sudha Menon for taking out time for this interview and wishes her many more bestselling books in 2019!
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