She started out as a journalist at the age of twenty-one and had a memorable journey in that field, working furiously to bring on-the-ground stories that showcased the human condition and brought burning issues concerning women, the underprivileged and the underserved in the country, into the public eye. That journey began in a little house by the railway tracks where her father, a railwayman who worked tirelessly to better the plight of lakhs of rail workers taught his four children about the virtue of honesty, integrity, compassion and dignity of labor. With a career spanning three decades, she has worn multiple hats of a journalist, a prolific author, a mentor and a guide with her Get Writing workshops and a sought-after speaker on gender and diversity issues.
Sudha Menon talks to Woman At Work about her journey from an acclaimed journalist to an author and enabler of ‘good’ writing.
Tell us about your early days and growing up years.
I was quite the small town girl from suburban Mumbai living in Dombivili with my parents and three siblings near the railway tracks; my father worked for the railways. He was a union leader and a great humanitarian and often financed the education of the children from underprivileged families of rail workers. We grew up in a home where there was very little to go around because he would often give away big portions of his salary to people who he believed needed that money more and that meant we never could afford luxuries that other families could. But what he did give us was a home full of books, turning us all into book addicts just like him. Since he was a champion of the Russian system, I had read many of the Russian Classics, where stories of human bondage and an egalitarian world provoked my thoughts. While Sundays were a family day out for my peers, for us it was dividing and devouring the articles in the many newspapers my father bought and somehow, that was extremely fulfilling.
I was the second-born among my siblings and the ultimate Average Joe- introverted and shy and often invisible because I lived in the shadow of my brilliant elder sister who I continue to be in awe of even today. I was friendless back then and thought that I would amount to nothing. However, I always had this dream of seeing my name in print; never knowing that I would write books someday. At nineteen, I was the first one in my family to leave home and study in another city. I moved to Pune to do my postgraduate degree in communications and journalism. Nothing that has happened in my life was ever planned but somehow it all seemed to fall into place. When I look back today I can’t believe so much has happened to me in just 51 years.
I would imagine that for someone from a middle-class background, a career in journalism in those days would seem pretty daring. What made you go for beat journalism?
Though it was my mother’s dream for me to become a bank clerk, I dreaded a desk job, knowing my restless nature and my loathing for number crunching. I was terrible with multiplication and math in general, was terrified of math tables and even today I use a calculator for multiplications. I think the biggest influence in my choice of a career in journalism was my father’s passionate belief that newspapers had the power to change the world. As a family which grew up on newspapers, we all believed in the power of the Fourth Estate. Also, with an upbringing that was focused on helping people, it was probably natural that I sub-consciously gravitated towards looking at media as a tool for social change. At my final year in college, I just knew I wanted to become a journalist. I broke the news to my mother after writing my last exam. It was an audacious dream for someone like me who had no money, no connections, nothing. But I took to journalism like a fish to water and being the rebel that I was, I loved the thrill of writing a breaking story and seeing my name in the byline on the front-page.
Was writing books a part of your plan?
I started off working for the Free Press Journal for one year; almost all journalists begin there. After that, it was The Indian Post and later The Independent. But after the riots in Mumbai, I decided to move to Pune, making the transition to business journalism as I set up the Pune bureau for The Hindu Business Line in 1994. I really sunk my teeth into the corporate sector in my new stint in business journalism, working with HBL for over a decade before I left to join the startup team for Mint, the business daily from HT Media, in collaboration with TheWall Street Journal.
Honestly, it may not have been part of a conscious career decision or a planned move, but I guess it was always in my mind that I would write a book someday. One fine day, after a sudden decision to quit my job after something happened at the workplace that clashed with my idea of what is right and just, I found myself at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go. When you start working from a young age and spend twenty-three years in a career you love, being a rudderless boat can be scary. But then I realized that this was my chance of listening to my heart and doing something of more consequence and create something lasting.
How did you prepare for a career move from journalism to authorship?
I had to completely reinvent myself since journalism is very, very different from writing books. From short form journalism to long-form writing, I had to learn everything all over again, I had to bring in my emotions, my view and color into the stories, unlike journalism where one has to report happenings and incidents with as little bias as humanly possible.
I love my new role as an author but sometimes it is all to solitary a business to sit at the worktable and tap away at the keyboard with little human contact the entire day. I do like for it to be quiet when I am writing but sometimes it makes a recluse out of me and there are days I am still in my pyjamas at noon.
Getting a good break in the literary world can be tough. How was it for you?
After a long career in beat journalism and business journalism for over two decades, I already had established a credible body of work, which was a great stepping stone to a reputed publisher. As part of my job, I had met some incredible women achievers and wanted to chronicle some of their struggles and successes to reach where they had so that it could inspire all men and women. Thus was born my first book Leading Ladies: Women who Inspire India. I got an amazing response to it and my journey as an author began. Then followed ‘Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to their Daughters. My publishers were not sure when I wrote ‘Gifted’ because it was about differently abled achievers and they thought I was stepping out of my established success formula. But I just knew that I should stick to it. Today it is one of my best-loved books and has been translated into multiple languages. My most recent addition, ‘Devi, Diva Or She-devil’ is completely different from the previous ones. I love to try new things always, I can’t bear monotony. Also while commercial success is important, one cannot write without passion and purpose.
What are some cherished moments of your career?
For me, my biggest achievement is that I never let my biology interfere with my work and I never let people tell me “you can’t do this because you’re a woman.” I never walked around playing the gender card. I clearly remember being on the night shift at The Independent office after a beat duty for elections at a very advanced stage of pregnancy. I also did whatever it took to get the job done and to live out my dreams, but I never compromised on my ideals and ethics.
Last year I started ‘Writing with Women’, a writing workshop series which gets women from diverse backgrounds together to share their experiences through writing. Hearing the stories of women who write unhindered and fearless because they know they were not being judged was a completely fulfilling thing for me. It has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done because I could see how cathartic it was for them to be able to express themselves without any fears and changed their lives forever.
Why start with a book on women entrepreneurs?
During the course of my career in journalism, I had the honor of meeting many of the power women in business and I would always wonder how these women were so unflappable and in-control while I was the opposite, always hassled because I was juggling a demanding career with raising a child. I was desperate to know what their secret was. Though there were just a handful of these power women back then, I wanted to tell their stories for my own benefit as well for other women. Though now a popular topic, back then it was one of the first of its kind.
Who do you consider as your role models?
My parents have always been my biggest role models, especially my father who was our conscience keeper. I greatly admire my mother’s generosity and her refusal to be defeated by circumstances. They inspired me to always do good work and I am lucky that I had the opportunity to make a difference, both as a journalist and now as an author. I know my father is watching over me from somewhere up there and beaming with pride that his children are walking on the path that he showed us.
There are so many amazing stories of success and grit in your books. What is that one advice you would like to give to your readers, especially women?
My biggest advice is that you may be living a very difficult life, but don’t forget that your career is a part of that life too. So, if you want to see progress in your profession, you must choose to stop feeling responsible for each and everything in your home. Take help from a housekeeper, babysitter, family and friends. A woman can have a very fulfilling career, there’s a lot she can do with her life and talent. Also, women should never wait to be asked anything, if you want it, you have to ask and go after it. If you don’t ask, no one will ever give!
If you had the chance, what would you advise your 20-year-old self?
Tell the universe your desires and you will surely get what you want. I was so terribly timid, shy and self-doubting when I was in my early twenties that it never got me anywhere. I would tell the 20-year-old me that it is important to reach out and make connections with people. Also, save money and learn to invest it because money in the
bank is a great enabler and liberator that will allow women to exercise her choice.
Image credit: Sudha Menon