“Rosebud.” Like the last words uttered by Citizen Kane that were traced back to the carefree moments stolen from his otherwise difficult childhood, Sudha Menon also perhaps, finds resonance in this word as the cornerstone of her existence.
Her father, who loved gardening and spent hours talking to the dozens of rose bushes he grew, couldn't give her much but was able to give her her life's very purpose.
Her mother, who relished pruning her roses so much that she gained the name “Rosapoov aunty” in her neighbourhood, treated her four children no differently and raised them to be fiercely ambitious.
Like a rose, her homeland decided to let its layers unravel, to reveal its thorns and darker core. And so her writing came to be likened to a rose, too – deep, with many goals ensconced within, meant not to merely enthrall, but enlighten and uplift.
Meet the leading ex-journalist, author of four successful books, motivational speaker, and unapologetically feminist Sudha Menon.
Born to be bibliophile
Sudha grew up in suburban Mumbai in a cottage by the railway tracks, as her father was a railwayman and philanthropist labour leader. So, instead of fancy meals in restaurants, Sudha and her three siblings got homegrown produce, and – as her father was a voracious reader who scoured old bookstores and roadside stalls alike – a great love for reading.
Sudha had read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Citadel, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Zhivago, The Dram Shop, and Anna Karenina when most kids were still getting around to reading the newspaper.
Growing up with three other siblings, Sudha often felt like the average Joe child. “I was painfully shy and never knew how to make friends. The lonelier I became, the more I retreated into my books,” she says.
All of that changed magically in her college days, when she discovered that she could weave magic with her words. “I learnt that we don’t have to be the best at everything, as long as you do your best in that one thing that you are passionate about,” she reflects.
The seeds of her turning journalist and then an author were sown all those years ago. “As a teenager, I had a secret fantasy to see my name emblazoned across the cover of a book,” she reveals. So, at the age of 20, she got a step closer to the dream, and became a journalist.
The young storyteller
She cut her teeth in journalism at the Free Press Bulletin and within a span of four months, found herself a reporter’s job at The Indian Post. “My father believed we owe it to the world to care for fellow human beings. So, I was always drawn towards stories of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, and the exploited. I reported on labour issues and the exploitation of the working class in large corporate houses and felt vindicated when I could do something to improve the conditions under which they worked,” she says.
One of the most exploited sections of workers in those days was the thousands of casual workers who manned the length and breadth of the railways. The rail administration rampantly exploited them by keeping them permanently on the casual workers rolls even though many of them had been in the jobs for over a decade. “My father kept up a continuous campaign to get the railways to ditch the casual and contract labour system, and eventually succeeded in his efforts. I was glad to go on the ground and report on the level of exploitation that took place in the railways,” she says.
She also wrote extensively about health, women’s issues, and was a greenhorn in political reporting. “I remember times when I would sit in the canteen in Mantralaya, Mumbai, witnessing the next day’s news develop, in conversations between various political leaders such as Gopinath Munde, Pramod Navalkar, Pramod Mahajan, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Manohar Joshi,” she reminisces.
City of dreams or illusions?
On December 6, 1992, Sudha was on night duty at The Independent, when the news came in that the Babri Masjid had been demolished by kar sevaks in Ayodhya. “I remember going reporting to Mohammad Ali Road and seeing knots of people everywhere. Even though the atmosphere was sombre, there was certainly no indication that within days, the city would go up in flames and violence and marauding mobs would rob the city of its soul,” she recalls, adding, “I had never thought of Mumbai as a place where people could forget their humanity and take lives so ruthlessly. I was disillusioned and did not want to raise my daughter there. Just over a year after the riots and the carnage, we shifted to Pune.”
She went on to set up the news bureau for The Hindu Business Line (HBL), the business news startup by The Hindu, where she worked till 2006, growing the newspaper’s brand in a region where it was completely unknown. “After 12 years of this, however, the charm was beginning to fade a bit because I had done this for so long, and I hated the fact that I was sleep walking through my job,” she says.
Thus, when Hindustan Times collaborated with The Wall Street Journal to launch Mint, she decided it was time to move on from HBL. “I was delighted to be part of yet another startup, and set up Mint’s Pune bureau, working with the paper till I quit in 2009 to become an author,” she says.
Back to the bucket list
“As a working woman who also raised a child and kept home and hearth, my daughter carried possibly the most unimaginative lunch box ever, but ate it gamely for eight years,” she says. There was guilt that she was not the homemaker she was expected to be, and guilt because she felt she was not doing her best at work. “I wanted to find out how those accomplished women leaders managed their lives and their careers and I wanted to tell their stories to other women like me. I wanted to be the bearer of hope for other women. ‘Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India’ was a result of that need,” she says, of her first ever strides in writing.
Seven years after its launch, Leading Ladies continues to grab the attention and the affection of everyone who reads it. “The first book’s success made it easier for me to write and find a publisher for my second book, Legacy. In fact, I remember pitching the book to three different publishers at the same time and two of them say yes within hours of the pitch. I decided to publish with Random House because a lady headed the imprint and she was as excited about the concept of Legacy as I was,” she says.
At the Filmfare Awards night in 2016, Deepika Padukone read out the letter to her from her father, Prakash Padukone, from Legacy, and was based on Sudha's interview with him. Two other letters from the book – Narayana Murthy’s letter to his daughter Akshata and Chanda Kochchar’s letter to her daughter Arti, went viral after that.
Gifted – her third book – was written in collaboration with V.R. Ferose, former MD of SAP Labs in India, who, at the Bengaluru launch of Legacy, asked her if she would co-author a book about the lives of people with disability, as they led incredibly gifted lives. “Writing that book was transformational for me. I learnt from my subjects that we can all do all that we want, with courage, resilience, a never-say-die attitude and a belief in our own abilities,” she says.
Number four on that illustrious list, is 'Devi, Diva or She Devil', which has insights from women from different walks of life and careers, like Mary Kom, director Farah Khan, banker Manisha Girotra, actor Lilette Dubey and image management diva, Rohini Iyer, and talks about the strategies they have adopted to live the lives they have dreamt for themselves.
What is in a name?
They say 'what's in a name,' and yet – J.K. Rowling used an ambiguous pseudonym, and many female authors would resort to completely male names in order to be taken seriously. Even as authors are wearing their name on the sleeves – it's bad enough something so fundamental seems so revolutionary – the tag "Chic-lit" still automatically lends itself to books authored by women, and is one that is hard to shake off. “I don’t like the term chic-lit because it is so derogatory. On the other hand, do you know that there are now more male authors of chick-lit than there are women writers?” she says.
While Sudha has never had any problems getting publishers for her books, what she did have a problem with is the fact that publishers just don’t pay authors, especially women authors, enough to live off. “The system is blatantly exploitative. Some of my female author friends who have written amazing fiction, crib about how their male peers writing in the same genre get double or three times the advances that they are paid. It is a sad commentary on the situation indeed,” she says.
Sudha further states that gender equality is still a distant dream in every sector. The publishing industry is held up as a model for other sectors, with publishers insisting that there are more women heading publishing outfits in India. But, Sudha would like to set the record straight. “A top woman in Indian publishing went on record saying that there are more women in publishing in India only because women are willing to work for far lesser pay than men. I rest my case,” she states.
We could simply look around us to see the inherent biases at play. “At social gatherings, women would order me a glass of beer or alcohol while they sipped on nimbu paani, assuming that as a 'feminist' journalist', I probably led a bohemian lifestyle boozing, smoking, and making out with every man in sight!” she recalls. Given these state of affairs, Sudha unapologetically calls herself a feminist.
She has been approached by influential people to write their biographies, and is frequently invited to deliver motivational talks. She also conducts writing workshops for a range of audiences. “When I am able to help a senior citizen write about his life or when an eight-year-old writes alongside that senior citizen with the same self-assurance, that means everything to me.”
She even holds a Writing With Women (WWW) workshop series, because when women write down their stories, it is not just about them – we get a peek at social milieu of the times – family structures and gender equations. “Unfortunately, far fewer women think of documenting their experiences,” she says.
She has also taken this workshop to corporate houses and educational campuses where women, so few in numbers, find their voice, their identity, and their confidence by writing with her.