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Sudha Menon, author of Feisty at Fifty, on the importance of writing for and about women

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.

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Sudha Menon, author of Feisty at Fifty, grew up in a little cottage by the railway tracks in a suburban Mumbai town in the late sixties. “My father was a kind, honest railway employee who dedicated his entire life to the welfare of lakhs of casual labour in the railways, a completely exploitative system which gave them no rights or privileges. We had nothing much in terms of material comforts but he and Amma made sure we grew up in a house that was full of books. We had only two sets of clothes each but every month he bought us books that kept us engaged, interested and got us thinking about stuff that kids don’t usually even know about. By the time I was about 12-13 I was reading the Russian and American classics and about revolutions and the struggles of people to liberate themselves from oppression,” she says as I ask her about her growing up years.

On always being ‘bookish’ she says, “I was a painfully shy girl with almost no friends and no self-confidence. Books were my retreat away from the hurt and rejection of the world and it is through my love for reading that I eventually discovered myself. All those years ago I dreamt that I would one day have a book that had my name on its jacket as the author but I never told anyone about this because it was too audacious a dream for someone in my circumstances. At 20, I moved out of home to study journalism in another city and a year later I had found my voice and my self-confidence as a passionate newshound.” Sudha worked as a journalist for over two decades before turning an author ten years ago. “I wanted to do something nourishing for my soul, create something more enduring, even if that sounds clichéd,” she quips. Her debut book, Leading Ladies, Women Who Inspire India, she thinks “captured all of the passion as I wrote about the journeys of some of the country’s most accomplished and admired women and continues to tug at heartstrings so many years after I launched it. I have never looked back since then and sometimes, in the still of the night, when the world sleeps, I get this feeling that all of it is probably a dream. It is surreal, the way my life has panned out. The girl from the wrong side of the tracks, with no money, no friends and no prospects has been lucky enough to live her dream!”

 Sudha Menon, author of Feisty at Fifty, on the importance of writing for and about women

Sudha Menon, author of Feisty at Fifty

So how did the idea for a book on women over fifty come about? “The idea actually came from my younger sister, Sangeeta, who said to me one day that she and a whole bunch of her friends found my weekly column in Pune365.com — a digital platform for all things in Pune — hilarious. She said I should make a book out of the columns. It flummoxed me because all I was doing was writing about the stuff that was happening in my life. I was hurtling towards the Big Five-Oh and life was almost a circus with my diminishing memory, my mood swings, my forever missing spectacles, my non-existent libido and my adventures with trying to find a red lipstick and clothes that fit comfortably over the jelly on my belly. I was also writing about the stuff I did not understand — why should a fifty-year-old not wear red lipstick? Why should she not colour her hair if she chose to? Or wear a li’l black dress and go out dancing? Why should she slow down and prepare to give up her career to look after the grandchild? I hated the messages that society was throwing at me and I decided I would get back at them by writing about it. Through the run-up to my fiftieth birthday, I vented about all of these but I discovered that the stories that were coming out of me were humorous and full of fun. I never knew I had a funny bone but once I started writing about the adventures of the 50-year old me, there was no stopping me. I am glad I listened to my sister and decided to put those stories in a book because it has found me love and adoration by the truckloads. I cannot tell you how many women – rank strangers – have read the book and written to me about how my stories are exactly like their own. They have sent me pictures of them reading the book on flights, in hotel rooms or in a cab even, send me gifts and have gifted the book to other women like them.”

Women above fifty are invisibilised in many ways. Just the idea of being 'feisty' at fifty is “categorically political,” according to Sudha. “That is why I wrote the book. I can’t understand why so many of us, hardworking, ambitious, well-read and productive women have to put up with so much prejudice and bias. Sometimes I walk into a coffee shop with a couple of friends and the café goes silent because most of the other occupants of the place are eighteen something guys and girls and they can’t figure out why aunties like us are invading their space. I still continue to wonder why women like us who make money and like to treat ourselves to good things occasionally, like a good pair of denims or a nice dress, are neglected or ghosted by the retail industry. Time they realised that it is women like us who have the moolah to splash out on their Rs 5,000 pair of jeans or the Rs 6,000 pair of walking shoes and not the glamorous teenagers they endlessly woo. Unless they are using their parent’s credit cards that is.”

For Sudha, turning fifty has been liberating in many ways. “I no longer care about what the neighbours say, don’t worry about being judged and am comfortable doing exactly what my heart tells me to do. I am full of joy and hope for the future and am looking forward to living life on my own terms, bonding with my friends and hanging out with my two sisters, Amma, my daughter and my niece. What more can a woman want?” she asks, and continues, “And oh, by the way, it is time the guys who come around periodically asking us for our votes, realised that we are a good number of us women in this age group and if they want our votes they better pull up their socks and show us some love by bringing in policies/regulations that will ensure that we get our due at the workplace, in society and at home. Like I said, women in this age group no longer shy away for asking for their dues or from showing our displeasure.”

Talking about the struggle that is publishing a book and trying to build a career out of writing, Sudha says, “I never imagined that I would someday have books published by the heavyweights such as Penguin and Pan Macmillan but dreams do come true. Having said that, I think the publishing industry is not the best bet if you depend on your writing to pay the bills. With five popular books in the market, I can safely and with much authority say that if I had to live on the royalty and advances I get from the publisher, I would probably have to live on just dal rice and a cup of tea. I am able to sustain myself because of my speaking assignments, my freelance work and workshops. Not to forget the spouse who largely pays all the bills.” Getting a book out in the market, she says, is hard work “and time-consuming too, especially because my books are largely based on interviews with people and tracking them down takes time. From concept to launch my books take between 12-18 months.”

Feisty at Fifty

Feisty at Fifty

Writing Feisty at Fifty, Sudha says, is the most fun she has had in the longest time and it was therapy too because “writing this book has helped me resolve lot of issues, it helped me heal and rediscover the amazing people in my life”. But, she adds, “it was also not as easy as it sounds because the book features a lot of people who are family and it is not easy making the decision about how much of their lives I could share without them booting me out of their world. But I decided to do it anyway, hoping that they would find the humour in my book and love it. Miraculously, they all love the book including my gentleman spouse who swears he can see pity in the eyes of his friends because they can’t imagine him having to live with a woman who has poked fun of him in a book.”

Sudha’s advice to those embarking on non-fiction writing is simple: “create a platform for you much before you even start writing the book. Publishers look for subject matter experts when they commission/buy a book and you need to prove to them that nobody could write on a particular topic better than you. Research, research, research. And finally, write so that you express yourself and not to impress someone else.” On writing for and about women she says, “I am often asked why I write largely about women, success, leadership and the journeys of women and my answer simply is that we are half of this world and yet, so little is written for and about us. We women need to tell our stories because our voices are important and should be counted too. Which is why I started my now popular ‘Writing With Women’ workshops where women from diverse backgrounds come together, share their experiences and write about them. It is a powerful way of expressing our concerns and finding ourselves and our voices. Having said that I often find women writers or authors writing about women’s subjects are not given their due and are often the subject of derision. Big mistake. It is through the stories of women that we come to know about the developmental stage of a society, the status of women in that society, gender dynamics and her status in her own family.”

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Excerpt from Feisty at Fifty

My FOMO seems to be getting worse by the day. In the last few months the list of things I want to do has grown really long. To begin with I want to be a radio jockey. I know a couple of them personally and they have the best lives, meeting with all sorts of interesting folks and having half of the city clamouring to be invited on their talk shows. I also want to become an actor. For as far long as I can remember I have dreamt of being on the silver screen, singing soulful songs with Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra for some time, then Kumar Gaurav, followed by the love of my life, Shah Rukh Khan. It is altogether another matter that these days that dream has been considerably downgraded. I am now willing to even play SRK’s sister. But, no, I will not play his mother. Even fift y-year-olds have their dignity. And while we are on the topic I would like to be Kangana Ranaut too. I like how sassy she is and how her newsworthiness goes up exponentially with every outrageous new disclosure she makes. When I say outrageous things, even if they be God’s truth, I only get shushed by the daughter and the spouse. ‘You don’t have to verbalize everything that comes to your mind, Mom,’ the daughter says and Hassled Harry nods in complete agreement.

When I get time off from being actor and RJ, I want to try my hand at pottery. And I think I can be the best Latin American dancer on the subcontinent (when I am home alone and bored to death, I stand in front of the mirror and pretend I am one). I want to be a singer too, and when I see pictures of women who abandon the chaos of city life to live in splendid isolation in the hills, where they hold the most exciting literary salons, I want to do that too. The other day I read about a woman who wore her great-grandmother’s wedding saree for her own nuptials and I roundly cursed my mother who, in a fit of mad decluttering of our home, sold her wedding saree to the kabadiwallah for five hundred rupees. Since I have taken the marriage vows twice in the last thirty years, I felt doubly cheated out of the opportunity to be known as the diva who is a restorer of antique sarees.

Then there are full-length articles about India’s most-followed celebrity writers who move about in charmed circles with similarly privileged writers and publishers, live in picture-perfect homes where they host their ilk with wine and cheese, and discuss the state of publishing, the next big author they discovered, r the rare talent of one of their sons or daughters, a literary protégé in the making. Or, there are write-ups about high-profile authors who got together to bring out anthologies that they talk about in a tone that clearly implies that if you are one of the miserable ones who did not get invited to contribute to it, you have no business being in the business. Go disappear into your hole is what they want to say.

Newspapers and the media have a social responsibility. If the first thing their product does to unsuspecting readers in the morning is to pull down their spirit and make them feel persecuted and unworthy, they should do well to change what they put in their publications. I begin most of my mornings eating humble pie because I fall into none of the above categories. I am not rich and while I am mildly famous in my own city, I am nowhere near as famous as the folks who flock together for cheese and wine soirees. I am in no anthology or at the cocktail dinners of powerful publishers and authors, even though I have written a clutch of popular books that resonate with readers. I am tired of being the author
with no connections with the big bosses of big-ticket lit fests who will not give me the time of the day, leave alone a chance to speak on one of their panels because I am simply too small-town for them.

But heck, I am also the one who gets emails and letters from readers who write to tell me that my books have magically transformed their lives, given them the motivation to carry on despite the hurdles, and taught them to be more compassionate, loving, and positive. I feel grateful to be in their good books, even though I am not in the pages of the newspapers, trying to shoulder my way into a P3 picture. I might not be able to post Insta or FB images of receiving awards, sounding off on the telly, or breaking bread with the bold and the beautiful but I have the pure joy of women approaching me at bookstores, airports, or the neighbourhood mall and telling me they are awaiting my next book so that they can gift it to a beloved daughter, sister, or wife. ‘Ma’am, when I read your books I feel you have written it just for me. Your books gave me hope at a time I was really struggling with self-doubt,’ one young techie told me some time ago after reading one of my books.

Meanwhile, since I am not busy doing one important thing after the other, I can hang around and enjoy my time, and occasionally watch my pastry-chef daughter bake the most gorgeous cakes and pastries.
Speaking of which, where the hell is my phone? I have to post an image of that cake on Insta. Right now! Mothers get bragging rights, don’t they?

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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2019 11:40:55 IST