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Chillibreeze Interview with Sudha Menon
For over two decades Sudha chased a career in journalism with passion and commitment before walking away from it all to fulfil a long-cherished dream of writing a book. Over the last year and a half, she has written a best-selling non-fiction book on the inspiring journeys of some of India’s most accomplished contemporary women.
Sudha is a woman of varied interests, one of which is volunteering for the Prashanti Cancer Care Mission, one of India’s largest charities in the area of cancer. She is an advisor on Prashanti’s board and is also a frequent speaker at corporate houses and educational campuses where she talks about women and leadership development.
Sudha says the most interesting parts of her day are the moments that she gets to chat with people, even if they are strangers, and getting to know about their lives. “I draw inspiration from the most ordinary people and their extraordinary courage in the face of life’s knocks”, she says.
When she is not busy doing any of this, she is busy trying to be the role model that she wants to be for her 20-year-old daughter.
1. You have a degree in Political Science and a post-graduate degree in Communication and Journalism. Was it a thought-out decision to get into business writing armed with the right degrees? How can an aspiring writer identify a genre of writing that s/he can be successful at – any tips?
I actually worked for The Free Press Journal and The Independent, where I covered a variety of topics including the state legislature, health, women and the labour movement before I joined The Hindu Business Line. The brief was to set up the start-up newspaper’s bureau in Pune. Challenges energize me and this was a challenge like no other since I had never done even a single day of reportage on business. It was tough but I learnt everything along the way.
2. Your successful stint at The Hindu Business Line landed you a job at Mint (a Wall Street Journal collaboration). You chose to leave these successful stints to become a full time writer. Did making a decision as big as that take a lot of courage?
For years, I had dreamt about writing a book even though I did not have the least idea what it would be about. It did take a lot of courage to walk away from a career that I had built up painstakingly but two years later, looking back, I can say that it has been well worth the initial moments of despair when there was very little money in the bank and I missed the self-importance that my designation gave me. My book would never have got written if I continued to be controlled by my comfort zone at work.
3. Your debut book ‘Leading Ladies – Women Who Inspire India’ must have taken a lot of research effort. How and when was the idea conceived? How long did it take from then until it got published?
As a young mother struggling with home, a demanding career and the need to look after my only child, I had often looked around for inspiration to allow me to stick to my chosen path. For over two decades, I had been following the lives and journeys of so many sterling women who were doing such meaningful work for themselves and for the community. As a woman I wanted to know their best practices - what are the philosophies, the beliefs that gave them the extra edge in such a competitive man’s world, the x-factor that made them winners in a country where women are still trying hard to just be able to finish their education and have a decent career for themselves. It took me an entire year to research and interview the women in my book and I must confess that in that one year my family ate hundreds of dial–in meals and suffered a lot of my stress induced mood swings. However, in the end, it was a transformational journey for me. I am forever grateful to the women in my book who gave me their time, shared their stories with me and continue to be involved in my journey since the book...I think each one of us can do with some inspiration in life.
4. Can you share some experiences from working on your book ‘Leading Ladies’? Interviews, insights, learnings, anecdotes that particularly stayed with you?
From each of the women I interviewed, I learnt priceless lessons in courage, the importance of self-assurance, the belief in your own ability and the importance of being yourself as opposed to pretending to be someone you actually are not. I learnt about the need to involve yourself in a cause that does not necessarily concern you – Ela Bhatt’s life is a study of self-sacrifice – and learnt that all it takes is a vision for yourself and a strong commitment to stick to the path that will take you to your vision.
My second book is also in the non-fiction, inspirational genre. I think all of us need inspiration to get through the daily rat race and that is my calling, providing people with fresh reasons why life is so worth living hundred per cent...maybe it comes from the fact that I was an eternal pessimist, the woman who always saw the glass almost empty. But that was before life dealt me a few blows. During those dark years, I went back inside me and found a fountain of courage that has been my biggest weapon since then. Nothing like adversity to build up one’s personality!
Will I do an e-book? Why not? I am always open to new ideas. Am currently negotiating with a few publishers for my next book but if that does not work out to what I want, maybe an e-book is the answer...
6. You are regularly invited to speak to senior managers at official meetings. You also give lectures on leadership development at educational institutions. What differences do you keep in mind when talking to these two diverse groups of people? Any tips for successful public speaking?
You have to be extremely careful about the messages that you carry to educational campuses because those are impressionable minds and will absorb everything that you say like sponges. On the other hand, young people are also extraordinarily clear about their own thoughts and will question you and probe into the deep of subjects. So, you have to be well prepared with your subject before you head to an educational campus. Do your homework well!
At corporate campuses, people are already well exposed to a variety of subjects and most of them have well-defined diversity programmes in place. At such places, I talk about my own experiences with the ladies that I profiled in my book and how they tackle the entire diversity issue. Corporate houses are also open to a variety of ideas and will implement them if there is value in your suggestion.
The trick to effective public speaking is just practise, practise, practise. Understand beforehand who your audience will be, how large a crowd they expect and possibly, what are the interests of the invitees. Go over your speech/presentation many times in your head, speak in front of the mirror to watch your expressions, record and play it back to yourself to understand how you sound. It’s easier said than done but if you do it, the results will have you singing with joy on the way back home from the event.
7. You have written on various subjects like health, travel, politics, business and lifestyle. Which of these do you like writing about the best?
I am intrigued by people and places and the way things are changing around us. I am a chronicler of things, that is done best by talking to people and visiting places, and so that is what I do best.
Women fascinate me. They have such complex lives, there are so many layers to their personalities, they have to deal with life at so many layers and play so many roles. Their lives are so challenging and each day is a new chapter of that struggle. I want to focus on the stuff that make women the fascinating creatures that they are and so, my writing is preoccupied with their stories.
8. Fiction novels get a lot of publicity. How easy or difficult is it to have a non-fiction book publicised?
While fiction gets publicity, I think it is also a lot of hard work to create a story from nothing but the working of your own mind. I have a novel in progress that has not progressed beyond the first 50 pages, even though I know it is a cracker of a story. Non-fiction is a passion for me because I am fascinated by people’s lives and the way society is changing everyday and I could spend days just observing stuff and recording it in my brain somewhere. When I see something happening around me, I notice stuff that others don’t and I know it will make an interesting story.
It was not hard to publicise my book at all because the subjects themselves are such strong, arresting personalities that they drew publicity like magnets!
9. Tell us something interesting about yourself – something that people do not already know about you.
I am one of the most reserved and shy people that I know! I was a painfully shy child who would rather read than meet people but journalism put me out there, rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of society and that proved to be the game changer for me. I trained myself to stick around and make conversation at post-event dinners and tea sessions, I sought out friends amongst the community of journalists, amongst my women colleagues and slowly found my groove. But even today, I would rather have a quiet dinner with a couple of friends than hit a night club or boogie away. That scares me.
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