Sudha Menon: I wish we wrote more letters to each other
Sudha Menon is an Indian journalist with over two decades of experience ín news and feature writing. She has worked in some of India’s prominent newspapers, including The Independent (The Times Group), The Hindu Business Line (The Hindu Group), and Mint (HT Media in exclusive agreement with Wall Street Journal).
In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, 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.
You have been a full-time journalist. How did you venture into writing?
I think becoming a writer was a natural progression of almost a quarter of a century of being a journalist. I grew up in a family where we treasured books more than any material thing. The four of us siblings waited to be able to collect enough money to be able to buy books rather than go and buy toys. Ours was a family of extremely modest means but my parents always made sure we had enough to read. Books surrounded us and so did newspapers. Everything else was not priority. I believe that if we read a lot, that in itself will propel us towards writing and expressing ourselves through words.
How did ‘Legacy’ happen? In this age of Twitter and Facebook updates, people hardly write letters to each other now. Did you see a need for a book like this today?
Sometime in mid – 2011, I started work on Legacy, a compilation of letters to their daughters from eminent men and women. That journey itself started because of my own need to bridge the communication gap between my 21-year-old daughter and me, a gap brought about not because we don’t care for each other but because of the huge change in the way we live our lives.
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 even when I am with her on a cherished two hours out, even if it is just a visit to a shopping mall. 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 I worried that when the going gets tough, as it does many times, my daughter will have no one and nothing to reach out to, and wants some well-meaning advice, when I am long gone.
I worried that our children would have nowhere to go and no one to reach out to when they want to discuss a heart break, resolve a crisis at home or work or simply want to chat with a trusted elder?
I remember the warm letters that my grandmother and grand aunts, wonderful women who lived life on their terms, wrote to me while I was away from home studying to be a journalist. Those letters were full of their homegrown wisdom, lessons learnt from lives well-lived, often against many odds and they taught me how to stand my own against a lot of stuff that happens to people, especially women.
Unfortunately for our own children, 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.
Legacy came from my need to leave her a Legacy in the form of the collective wisdom of so many respected men and women who we all look up to. I am hoping that reading Legacy will throw light on many of the issues that we face at some point or the other in our life.
I recall resenting some of their well-meaning advice sometimes, thinking to myself that I was old enough to lead my life the way I want it but strangely enough today I find myself in the same boat, often accused by my loving daughter of sermonizing too much. The only difference is that I write to her small messages on the bbm, sometimes in an email, and very often in the message section on her Facebook page! I am not sure I would appreciate it if my own father were to give me life lessons via a bbm message though… For me there is no substitute for a hand written letter from a loved one. To be able to feel the paper and run your fingers over the familiar hand writing is the closest you can get to reaching out to that someone, maybe even after they are long gone. I wish we wrote more letters to each other the old, now forgotten way- with pen and paper.
What kind of response did your book receive? Did someone write you a letter of appreciation after the book came out?
Here is an excerpt from a note I got from a young woman who works as a teacher with Akanksha, an NGO working in the area of education for the under-privileged.
“I am writing to you about your book ‘Legacy’ that I am reading., well for starters I can’t put it away! I am so inspired reading those letters and especially so because they are written to daughters and I am a daughter and I think only a daughter can understand that emotional connect that she has with her parents, it’s so instinctive and deep that my eyes well up even as I write these lines, it’s such a feeling!
I found out about the book while trying to find out more about you and I mentioned it to my father who immediately sent me the book! So every day since then I have been reading it and after reading the very first letter I messaged my parents that I wanted a letter from them and they’ve both agreed to do so! That letter will mean so much to me and I will cherish it forever holding it so close to my heart (eyes welling up again)!
So I just want to thank you for writing and compiling this book and bringing the parent and the human side of eminent personalities who seem so larger than life and distant otherwise!”
Writing Legacy has been a deeply moving experience for me because I have realized that reading my book has been the catalyst for so many young people to reach out to their parents. Just this morning I was on Skype with a book club comprising young women and one of them told me that she read the book and actually reached out to her father and told him of her need for more bonding with him. She said she had never before told him how much he inspired her. That revelation, she said, has brought them closer than ever before…
For me it is not the royalty that comes from selling a few copies more that matters. It is the fact that I am able to bring some positive change in the lives of people.
How did you decide about the people who you were going to include in your book? Was there any criteria?
The only criteria was that the parents would have to be people we all respect and people who have impacted the way we live our lives. Each of the men and women who have written in the book have first changed their lives through great struggle and have gone on to apply the lessons they learnt during that journey to bring about change in their area of work.
The journey of writing this book in itself was a great learning experience for me. While I had always watched the growth of the splendid men and women in this book from afar as a business journalist, meeting them and discussing their personal journey was a journey of startling discoveries. I discovered that behind the larger-than-life public persona are people like you and me who have the same preoccupations and concerns that we do. They care about their families, worry about their children and take joy in the simple things in life, just like us. Most of them came from modest circumstances and getting to the positions that they are in would have been an unlikely dream but what differentiates them from ordinary folks is their ability to get up and keep going every time they fall and hurt themselves. They know only one way to go and that is up, in pursuit of their cherished goals. But that does not make them less human than we are. Only more determined.
Among the letters that charmed me immensely are by Mr. Murthy, legal eagle Zia Mody and Finance maven Renuka Ramnath.
How did you go about convincing people to write letters for your book or part with their private thoughts? Any interesting anecdotes?
Convincing a few of the parents who have written in the book was initially a challenging task because many of them are intensely private people who live their lives away from glare of the media and the public eye. Also, the bond they share with their daughters is a very sacred, private space but once I convinced them that a book of this kind would be a kind, guiding light for their own daughter and for thousands of others like her, they opened their hearts out to me, literally wearing their heart on their sleeve!
The renowned painter Jatin Das, for instance, gave me a sound ticking off, for requesting him to write a letter to his daughter because he said a letter is a private thing and cannot possibly be in a book. I literally begged him to reconsider and it was only after his daughter, actor Nandita Das, requested him on my behalf, that he agreed to write a note to her. Not a letter, mind you. That letter, as it turned out, is one of the most charming parts of the book!
Who are the authors who have inspired you over the years?
Maya Angelou, P.G.Wodehouse ( reading Wodehouse is the best pick me up on a day I am down and out), Harper Lee, Emile Zola, Sashi Deshpande, Alice Munroe… there is something that I learn from every book that I read . Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Jeffrey Euginides, the list is endless.
What kind of books do you like to read?
All sorts of books. I have read everything from my father’s copies of James Hadley Chase (he forbade us from reading it so we sneaked his copy into the bathroom and read it when he was at work. I have read everything from the Russian classics, to A.J.Cronin’s The Citadel to some of America’s big writers…Fiction, non-fiction, crime novels, thrillers, comics, the written word was the bible for me.
Even though it is fiction that gives me a temporary escape from the real world, it is non-fiction that captivates and consumes me. I think non-fiction does not get its place in the sun.
Strangely enough, now that I am an author myself, I find very little time to read and that makes me a dissatisfied soul. My prefect year would be one in which I just read the hundreds of books that I have wanted to read but have not found the time to…
Your favourite book of letters?
Maya Angelou’s Letters to My Daughter. It is full of the wisdom of a woman who has lived life on her terms and wants that for her daughter too. I have a daughter and someday I hope she will read by dog-eared copy of that book .
What do you plan to write next?
I have had a novel in progress for four years now but somehow I have never gotten around to picking it up and finishing it. Non-fiction and the real life stories of people captivates me so much that I am working on 2 non-fiction books currently.