I write to keep my sanity in a world that is so chaotic. I have always had this retreat from life. I remember, as a child I was a misfit in every sense of the word. I was that painfully shy, awkward, mousy girl with no friends. I tried to fight that by being aggressive and picking up fights but that resulted in even lesser acceptance. In the end I simply turned inwards, started writing on bits and scraps of paper and retreated from the world. I found great joy in the little world I had created for myself. I told no one about my writing. Not even my family because I did not want to be laughed at. I did not want to be judged anymore.
To this day I write to keep my sanity. I love the act of sitting down with a pen and paper or at my laptop and being by myself. The act of writing calms me, quietens me and takes away the stresses and strains of having to deal with the mundanities of everyday life. I write when I am angry, when I am sad, when I am restless…And when I am done writing, there is a feeling of lightness, a high that carries me for the rest of the day.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Gifted is a collection of inspirational stories from the lives of people with disabilities.The two books that I wrote before this- Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India and Legacy, a collection of letters from eminent Indian men and women to their daughters, were about the lives of super successful people and their journeys. The books were very well received by readers but in my heart I felt that I had not been true to myself. I come from an ordinary, middle class background and had to struggle to find my place in the world. I felt this great desire to write a book about ordinary people like me who have survived insurmountable challenges and become role models to others. When my friend, V.R.Ferose, the founder of the India Inclusion Summit, a platform that lobbies for an inclusive world for differently-abled people, suggested the idea of co-authoring a book on the lives of this marginalised section of society, I was more than happy to do it.
As I met and interviewed the people in Gifted, each of them with an inspiring story from which each of us can learn precious lessons, I was awed and humbled by their undying spirit, their positivity, their commitment to their chosen path and their great ability to make the best of whatever life has handed them. Never again will I assume that a person can’t do something because he does not have the abilities that we normally-abled people have. The people I met during the writing of Gifted taught me that it is possible to have a rainbow- coloured view of the world, even if you can’t see. It is possible to run, jump with joy and conquer the world, even if you can’t use your legs. It is possible to paint a large canvas of possibilities for yourself, even if you don’t have your arm. It is possible to listen and speak with your heart, even if you can’t speak or hear. It is possible to give someone life, even if you have spent your entire life in a wheelchair. It is possible to wander in the wild and walk with tigers, even if you can’t really walk…..
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Am not sure what writing aesthetic is:) But if you mean the small rituals that writers often adopt, then mine is simple: My best writing happens when the rest of the world is still in slumber and I am free to write in peace. I wake up at around 3 am, make myself a cup of ginger tea and settle down at my work desk by the window. There is something about the peace and the quiet in the pre-dawn hours that unlocks my creativity. It is almost as if the words are waiting to rush out, as if there is a tap waiting to be turned on. Sometimes when I have written for a couple of hours , I put on my shoes and walk in solitude in the quiet of the gated community in which I live. It is magical to be able to do that and have a communion with the sky as it lights up.When I have written like that , the rest of the day seems like a dream …
Who are your favorite authors?
Maya Angelou and Alice Munro for their deep understanding of human relationships, P.G.Wodehouse for the instant happiness and laughter that he brings into my life on the days I’m down and out, R.K.Narayan and the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy just for the magic in their worlds, Sashi Deshpande, Jerry Pinto because they write from their guts and I identify with their stories at that level.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
For a couple of years now, I have been trying to write the story of my father’s life. It is an extraordinary story of a young man who left , penniless, from his village in Kerala in search of livelihood and went on to become one of the most influential labour leaders of his times. At the peak of his career he steered the largest workers union in the country- that of railway workers. The Indian Railways, incidentally, is the largest employer in the country. There are union leaders aplenty but he is one of that rare species, an incredibly honest and committed man who put his calling before everything, even his own family. At 83, he continues to be an inspiration not just for his family but the hundreds and thousands of railwaymen who grew under his loving leadership.
I have written about the lives of so many eminent men and women and I have found it so easy to tell their stories but with my father’s story, it is just impossible. I simply can’t find the emotional distance or the words to describe his journey. I either end up writing in a sort of sterile , impersonal way that takes away from the influence he has had on me and on his peers or I just end up writing a few paragraphs and switching off because I can’t see through the tears that well up continuously.
What’s your idea of bliss?
A month of not having to worry about earning a livelihood and just being able to stay someplace surrounded by mountains and read all the books that have piled up on my book shelves. If there is a steady supply of ginger tea and cake to go with it, I would be much tempted to just stay there and not return to real life.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
At an event the other day, I was approached by a man , possibly in his early thirties who introduced himself as a fellow participant in the workshop. We came around the usual topics.”What do you do?”.
‘I’m an author,” I said.
“What sort of writing?”
“I write non-fiction, largely about women and their journeys.”
“What does your husband do?”
“He is in the IT sector”
“Ah, The bread winner.” He s aid, face breaking out into a wide smile.
“No. I earn my own bread,” I said, suddenly not liking this man very much.
“Oh. How come?”
“I earn a livelihood and I look after my own needs,” I said, walking away quickly, putting as much distance I possibly could between him and me.
This is what makes me really and truly mad. This constant presumption that a woman needs a man who will earn the bread, bring home the bacon, be lord and master and chief provider. I have worked since I have been 20 and have looked after myself since then. I cannot even begin to understand this sort of stereotyping. From which world do these people come?
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Citadel, A Suitable Boy, The Dram Shop, The Colour Purple, Gone With The Wind, Dr. Zhivago, my father’s entire collection of Russian classics and P.G.Wodehouse, Lean In and a few autobiographies….
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
If my husband and daughter are safely out of harm’s way,I would definitely grab my laptop.It has a few works in progress that I would hate to lose.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Dream big dreams, work hard to fulfil those dreams and be there for the people who trust in you.
Sudha Menon is an author, a columnist and a writing coach. She is the author of three non-fiction books, Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India, Legacy: Letters to their daughters from eminent Indian men and women and Gifted: inspirational stories of people with disabilities.
Her books have been translated into Marathi and Hindi and are available in bookstores as Waarsa (Marathi), Viraasat (Hindi) and Aaghadiche Mahila Netrutva (Marathi).
Sudha was born in suburban Mumbai where she completed her studies before pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a journalist. After putting in over 20 years as a journalist at The Independent (Bennet Coleman), The Hindu Business Line (Kasturi & Sons Lt) and Mint ( HT Media), she decided to follow her other dream of writing a book.
Sudha is founder of ‘Get Writing! , a writing workshop that helps people kick start their writing journey and ‘Writing In the Park’, an initiative that she started to get people to explore their creativity while being close to nature.
Last year she started ‘Telling Our Stories’, a voluntary initiative where she works with senior citizens to help them write their stories and thus capture the legacy that they will leave for posterity.
“I draw inspiration from the most ordinary people and their extraordinary courage in the face of life’s knocks.”
Sudha is also a motivational speaker who has conducted numerous inspirational workshops and women’s leadership sessions for various corporates, educational institutions and NGO’s across the country. She was also a speaker at TEDxPune 2013 edition.
Sudha lives in Pune with her husband, an IT professional and daughter, a pastry chef.