Excerpts from Legacy by Sudha Menon
About the book
Journalist and author Sudha Menon says being mother to a 21-year-old daughter was one of main reasons she was inspired to write Legacy. While she herself grew up in an age where parents raised children on their own and brought them up with a set of values, she worries that today’s generation does not have that privilege.
Children learnt values and life lessons from watching their parents and other elders but nuclear families, working parents and a generation of people hooked to various gadgets and social networking devices has meant that there is no time for the gentle handle-holding that helped my generation to chart our own course in life, muses the author.
“My little girl has grown up into a lovely 21-year old whose world is thickly populated with friends on Facebook, Whatsapp and every other social networking avenue possible. She has no time to look up from the various screens on which her eyes are riveted and I ache to tell her to treasure the moments with me because we never know when life steps in to disrupt our well-laid plans.
But more than anything else, I worry that my daughter will have no one and nothing to reach out to, when she hits a rough patch and wants some well-meaning advice, when I am long gone.
We no longer write letters. We have forgotten to pick up pen and paper and tell our children the stuff that will equip them for life, give them the benefit of the knowledge that we have garnered from our life experiences. We no longer have the time to sit down with our children and tell them about our own lives or that of our parents or the ancestors who built their lives under the most trying circumstances. There is great merit in telling our young ones of the toils, the struggles and the adventures that their elders experienced in their lives.
Yes, each of them will have their own challenges to face, their own mountains to climb and their own broken hearts to mend. But our own lessons can, I am sure, help them overcome these faster, with lesser pain and a smaller learning curve.
With Legacy, I have brought together the combined wisdom of a group of people who have inspired us with their grit,determination and a body of work which has influenced the way we live.” –Sudha Menon
I arrived for my 6.30 pm meeting with Zia Mody, possibly India’s best-known corporate dealmaker and legal eagle, expecting that she was going to be at the end of her working day and relaxed for a long chat with me. I was mistaken.
I was ushered into the conference room of her 23rd floor office in one of Mumbai’s high-rise buildings, just a stone’s throw away from the famed Queen’s Necklace, and was treated to coffee and biscuits before she bustled in, a smiling bundle of energy that seemed difficult to contain in the room. She looked like everybody’s friendly neighborhood aunt, the one you slink off to for some tender loving care when your mother has put you in the dog house for some nameless misdemeanor. But those who have mistaken her for that have discovered in the past that it was a completely wrong and very expensive error.
When Zia, a student of Cambridge and Harvard Law School, decided to start her own litigation practice, she ran into a glass wall straight away with many a client rolling their eyes in disbelief that a woman would handle their case. She had two burdens to bear—that of being a woman in a completely male-dominated space and that of being the daughter of India’s former attorney general and brilliant legal mind, Soli Sorabjee. Zia was vexed and she turned to her mother for advice. She got sound advice from the mother who told her to ignore the whispers and get down to the business of proving that she could become a career attorney who could beat not just her father but any man in the same business.
In the following decades, Zia’s firm AZB & Partners has become one of the most sought after in the legal space, known for sorting out the most complex corporate disputes and closing several expensive and prestigious acquisitions for some of the country’s top corporate houses, including Tata Steel’s high profile acquisition of UK steel-maker Corus, in a jaw-dropping $12 billion deal. The firm followed this up with advising the Aditya Birla group during its $6 billion plus acquisition of Atlantis-based aluminum maker Novelis and later, Tata’s takeover of Jaguar Land Rover.
My meeting with Zia was interrupted several times when she had to retreat into her office to attend conference calls. She told me later that she preferred coming into office after sunset in order to be able to work more efficiently in the still of the night, without distractions, before heading back home after sometimes having put in over fifteen hours at work!
When she is not working at the frantic pace that she goes by, Zia is a practicing member of the Baha’i faith and doting mother to three daughters with whom she does not get to spend the time that her mother spent in raising her. Her mother, she recalled fondly, spent her days teaching her not just sewing, embroidery, dancing, and music but also taught her about the importance of the woman being a unifying element in her family and in the community. Zia did try to ape her mother and teach her children some of the skills that she has but eventually gave up when her own career gathered steam. Which is why, she cherishes the couple of family vacations that she takes every year with her childhood crush and now husband Jaydev and their three daughters.
In this touching letter to her daughters, Zia tells them about the importance of doing whatever it is they do, with passion, being grateful for the generosity of God in their lives, and being happy in all circumstances or with whatever choices that have made.
My dearest Anjali, Aarti, and Aditi,
It seems like only yesterday that you came into my life, each one of you so cherished, so much loved and doted upon by Pa and me, and each one of you adding richness and color into our lives. I don’t know if I ever told you this but Pa loved children so much that he almost wanted me to get pregnant the day after we got married! I completely resisted.
It has been a long journey for all of us and it seems almost unbelievable at times to see all three of you grown up into young women now with your lives charted before you.
Now that we have put all the birthday parties, magicians, pink frocks, and late night ice-cream treats behind us,
I would love to get you together to tell you a few things
that I know that you are already aware of, but are still worth saying.
The other day somebody asked me what I think are the most important things for our daughters to know, as they set out on the journey of their own lives. These are the few things that I always want to convey to my daughters, and I think holds true for any mom in general.
As clichéd as it sounds, my princesses, what I want most for you is to learn to live your life with great self-respect and dignity. That is the most important thing of all for a woman, anywhere in the world. That and to do something the three of you love to do. Often my friends, and sometimes you three too, wonder where I get all my energy from and how I manage to stay awake at nights so that I get work done at the office, late into the night when the world is fast asleep. My reply, always, is very simple. I am in love with what I do and that alone is enough to give you all the energy you need. That, plus being happy and being grateful for the generosity of God in your lives. Happiness gives you a kind of energy boost that nothing else can give, so cultivate the ability to be happy in whatever circumstances or choices that you have made.
My most fervent prayer to God, the one prayer that I hope He is listening to, is that my daughters remain grounded in their faith to him. My dears, I can’t tell you enough about the importance of faith in our lives. When everything in our lives seem to have gone horribly wrong or topsy turvy, faith alone has the strength to keep us moving forward. I hope always that you will believe in the Almighty and His creation and that you fear and love God in equal measure. Retribution by God is a good thing to fear, it keeps all of us on the straight and narrow, you know.
I often get the feeling that young people don’t think they will ever die and so they don’t start building their life’s balance sheet till much later. My belief in the Baha’i faith has helped me personally withstand a lot of very challenging times and you know how much I try to impart that faith to all you sisters. There are times that I wish and hope that you discover the power of prayer because I sometimes worry that you need to have enough faith. I want to tell you today that the connection with God is something that will help weather a lot of storms in life and believe me, there are going to be many of those.
This means having the inner conviction that there is a superior force more powerful than us human beings, a conviction that every test that comes your way is yours for you to conquer for Him. I get nervous sometimes for you, my children. I worry that God has been kind to us and things have been so smooth that I wonder how my princesses will deliver when God finally tests them with struggles
Like every parent of daughters, I too worry about your future, pray that you find wonderful partners who will love, cherish, and respect you for what you are. I got married to my childhood sweetheart and so the path of an arranged marriage for you has never struck your parents. In some ways, I know you will find the right companions because we have inculcated the right values in you, opened up your minds by making sure you have travelled all over the world, been exposed to different cultures and people, and know to hold your own in most circumstances.
Marriage, children, and life will happen to you but through all that, I want to urge all three of you to go find your individual place in the sun.
Anjali (Anjoss), I can’t believe that my first-born, the little girl for who we prepared a nursery with so much enthusiasm months before her arrival, has now travelled around the world, and has found her own groove in designing furniture. We should have seen that coming because even as a child, you amazed us with your love for stylish clothes, your eye for detail, and your insistence that everything around you had to be ‘just so’. At the same time, you juggle your commitment to your NGO and pack your day completely. Sometimes I see you looking tired but think this is your time for hard work. This is your beginning.
Aarti (Artuss), my second born, you have no idea how much I am waiting for you to finally discover that law is truly your calling. I’m hoping that the three years that you will spend in New York for your law degree will convince you that there is merit in what your mother is doing. I pray sometimes that you will join me in my profession but if you discover something else that engages you more than law, I’m still going to be happy for you.
Aditi (Aduben), my youngest, your father is convinced you are our brightest daughter, the one who will outperform her siblings, once you discover what it is that your heart desires. So you have to live up to our highest expectations!
While I am confident all of you are perfectly able
to manage your lives on your own, there are things that
I want to tell you anyways, things that I learnt from my own parents.
Someday, whenever you find your life partner, remember to go join his family as a happy agent who nurtures them and not as a divisive wife. Make his family yours in every way possible. My mother used to tell me before I got married to your father, that I was actually marrying my mother-in-law. Now that might seem funny to you but don’t forget that it is that lady who has made your future life partner the splendid person that you love, so gain her confidence first, make her your friend, and that is a surefire way to a happy life. My mom told me to accept the fact that there were people in your partner’s life before you came along and there will be no cause for whining and complaining after marriage. Don’t worry about the petty and the inconsequential, fight the big battles of life, not the small ones. Ignore them and they will cease to seem so important.
When your kids come along, don’t forget to teach them the values that your parents inculcated in you and it is my belief that they will be able to lead richer, more fulfilled lives from that.
It is also important for a woman to have a career of her own, something that fulfills her intellectual needs and keeps her independent financially. My philosophy about this is to build up your career and a dignified one at that, one step at a time, without faltering. There will be moments when things overwhelm you but stick to your chosen path. When you work, give it your all, don’t be lazy about it or take it for granted. There is no point in being casual.
Very often I tell you that nothing is worth losing your sleep over or falling from grace in your own eyes. Don’t, knowingly, take decisions that will affect your reputation, hurt your conscience, or prevent you from sleeping peacefully at night. Moral decisions that affect these three things are simply not worth it. A lie always gets caught and it looks bad when it does. There is no upside to a lie. If the truth had come out for the first time, it would not have been a great deal and I think that there is nothing that a ‘sorry’ cannot fix. Take the path of truth as much as possible and when you mess up, learn to say ‘sorry’ too. It helps. And when things seem to get out of control and you need a shoulder to rest your burden on, be secure in the knowledge that we are always there to take your side, comfort you and support you as you fight your battles. Again, remember: fight only the big battles not the small, inconsequential ones. Be strategic!
One of the things our parents taught us as kids is that wealth is transitory and that creating our own wealth is a better option than inheriting it. And as young adults, we always believed our parents should utilize their wealth the way they please because we would give it away anyways. God has always been very kind to us siblings: material wealth has always been there but we have grown up with a sense that there is only so much we can eat. I believe that the more we give away with a higher level of pain, the more we will get because God does not like to be in our debt. His will is to never be in our debt and so He will make sure you have plenty. If you have the faith enough to give away without the expectation of anything in return, you will never want anything in life. In my life this has been proven.
I firmly believe that beyond a point money should not be the main reason for things that we do in life. Not all of us can completely sacrifice our lives for the good of society but each of us can partake in many small acts that helps the community around us. What matters is to do what is in our capacity to do, gain the respect, love, and adoration of the people around us, and then leverage your reputation to help society in a larger, more meaningful way. Anjali, you have no idea how much it delights me when you already show signs of having a generous attitude at such a young age. Your work with NGOs, particularly the project where you tried to use solar lanterns that will eventually bring light to underprivileged families, filled me with pride. As we get older, working for a cause that is beyond and larger than our own livelihood concerns should be a significant part of our lives.
In a way, Papa and I are confident the value system that we have inculcated has already given you a firm footing and a healthy respect for what the community will expect from you. You all have come a long way from the time your father once pointed to the fridge at home and asked Aditi how much she thought it cost. Her answers ranged from Rs 50 to Rs 1 lakh. That was many years ago. Now we are confident each of you have a much better understanding of ground realities.
What I am about to say will sound surprising, but let me say it anyways. Nothing can substitute the power of bonding between all five of us as a family. I know I haven’t spent enough of that time. Very often, in our fast-paced lives, we overlook this simple truth and come to regret it later on. As parents we had resolved to do at least a couple of shared vacations every year, when we get to hang out together, just having fun and sharing the stuff that is going on in our lives. I’m hoping that when your children come along, you will do the same with them.
As a young girl there were times when I would resent all the stuff that my Nanima would make me do. She insisted I do everything—learn piano, Indian dancing, cooking classes, horse riding, sewing… I occasionally resented it but in retrospect, all those things shaped the person I am today. I benefitted from each of the things that I learnt as a child. I tried to do that for you kids too, piano, tabla, dancing, riding class, and indulged your fancy for ballet. So there it is, my Anjoss, Artuss and Aduben, I could not do as much as my own mother could do for me because I was a working mother but I made sure that you are never going to regret that you did not get an opportunity to learn something that would have enriched your lives.
Every moment that we spend with you is such a precious gift. We soak up the affection that you give us so generously. All the BBM’s we get from you and all the phone calls Aarti makes from New York are wonderfully precious. I have saved many. Even some angry ones! Sometimes, when I worry that I don’t spend enough time with my children, I am blessed by the fact Pa can’t have enough of each of you everyday. He has been the rock for all four of us with his continued presence in our everyday lives. And someday I hope that when you become mothers, you will remember to do all the things that your grandmother and your mother did for their children. Give them the gift of your time when they need it. More than I could do.
In a chaotic, often unpredictable world, it gives me joy to know that you are incredibly positive, forward-looking, loving, and kind children. These are gifts that will always help you.
In the end, I want to tell you about a very special secret to a happy life: My grandmother and my mother gave me as their legacy an intense sense of internal pride. I want to add to that and tell you to cultivate the consistent ability to look upon someone as a mentor or role model, a person who you will not just learn from but also derive comfort and faith that will stand by you during tough times.
My grandmother was a feisty, tough woman, full of beans and boy oh boy, she was a deliverer! She travelled all over the world, had five kids, lived her life with unstoppable enthusiasm and energy, and had complete conviction that her faith would see her and family through life. She was my hero and she left a lasting impression on my life. That is what I want you all to remember. Leave a lasting impression on your family.
I love you all completely,
Letter from Narayana Murthy
Akshata, becoming a father transformed me in ways that I could never have thought possible. I could never go back to being the person I used to be before. Your arrival in my life brought unimaginable joy and a larger responsibility. I was no more just a husband, a son, or a promising employee of a fast-growing company. I was a father, who had to measure up to the expectations his daughter would have of him at every stage of her life.
Your birth raised the benchmark of my life, in every aspect. My interactions at the workplace became more thoughtful and measured; the quality of my transactions with the outside world more considerate, dignified, and mature. I felt a need to deal with every human being more sensitively and courteously. After all, some day you would grow up and understand the world around you, and I didn’t want you ever to think that I had done anything even remotely wrong.
My mind often goes back to the initial days after your birth. Your mother and I were young then and struggling to find our feet in our careers. Two months after your birth in Hubli, we brought you to Mumbai, but discovered quickly enough, that it was a difficult task to nurture a child and manage careers side by side. So, we decided that you would spend the initial years of your life with your grandparents in Hubli. Naturally, it was a hard decision to make, one which took me quite a bit of time to come to terms with. Every weekend, I would take the plane to Belgaum and then hire a car to Hubli. It was very expensive, but I couldn’t do without seeing you.
What never ceased to amaze me was how you created your own little happy world at Hubli, surrounded by your grandparents and a set of adoring aunts and relatives, oblivious of our absence from your life….
I am often asked about the qualities that I have imparted to my children. I tell them that it is your mother who shouldered this great responsibility and I am ever so grateful to her for bringing you up to be the fine individuals you are. She communicated values more by action than by talking about them. She taught Rohan and you the importance of simplicity and austerity. There was this one instance, in Bangalore, when you were selected for a school drama for which you were required to wear a special dress. It was in the mid-eighties, Infosys had just begun its operations, and we did not have any money to spend on non-basic goods. Your mother explained to you that we would not be able to buy the dress and that you would have to drop out of the performance. Much later, you told me that you had not been able to understand or appreciate that incident. We realize it must have been a bit drastic for a child to forgo an important event in school, but, we know you learnt something important from that-the importance of austerity.
Life has changed for us since then and there is enough money. But, you know, our lifestyle continues to be simple. I remember discussing with your mother the issue of sending you kids to school by car once we were a little comfortable with money, but your mother insisted that Rohan and you go to school with your classmates in the regular autorickshaw. You made great friends with the ‘rickshaw uncle’ and had fun with the other kids in the auto. The simplest things in life are often the happiest and they are for free.
You would often ask me why there was no television at our home when the rest of your friends discussed stuff they watched on TV. Your mother decided early on that there would be no TV in Our home so that there would be time for things like studying, reading, discussions, and meeting friends. She insisted that it was important to create an environment conducive to learning at home. Therefore, every night we dedicated the time between 8 pm and 10 pm to pursuits that brought the family together in a productive environment. While Rohan and you did your schoolwork, your mother and I read books on History, Literature, Physics, Mathematics, and Engineering, or did any office work.
It is quite a well-known fact that when a daughter gets married, a father has mixed feelings about it. He hates the fact that there is somebody else in his daughter’s life with whom she shares her affections–a Smart, confident, younger man who gets the attention that was earlier his alone. I, too, was a little sad and jealous when you told us you had found your life partner. But when I met Rishi and found him to be all that you had described him to be-brilliant, handsome, and, most importantly, honest-l understood why you let your heart be stolen. It was then that I reconciled to sharing your affections with him. A few months ago, you made me a proud grandparent. If holding you in my arms for the first time gave me indescribable joy, seeing Krishnaa, your lovely daughter, for the first time at your home in Santa Monica, was a different experience altogether. I wondered, whether from now on, I would have to behave like a wise, grand old man! But, then I realized the bonus to growing older and becoming a grandparent. I would have the joy of pampering a child silly! Besides, you know what they say about grandparents and grandchildren having a common enemy-the parent! I am convinced Krishnaa and I will eventually exchange notes and crib about you and be completely on the same page when it comes to criticizing you!
As you pursue your goals and live a contended life, remember that there is only one planet for us to live in and that planet is now becoming endangered. Remember that it is your responsibility to pass on this planet to Krishnaa in a better condition than you got it from us.
Take care, my child!
Sudha Menon’s Legacy is published by Random House India (Non Fiction, Price: Rs 399). The book can bought from from Flipkart in India.