Sudha Menon’s new book Devi, Diva or She Devil has insights from women in different types of careers about the strategies they have adopted to live the lives they want. She interviews icons like Mary Kom, director Farah Khan, banker Manisha Girotra, actor Lilette Dubey and image management diva Rohini Iyer. Her book is funny, real, and thought-provoking, with anecdotes from the lives of these women. She likes to think of it as every woman’s Little Black Book of home grown wisdom.
We speak to her about balancing family and career, writing, and more.
What do you want the reader to take away from the book? What was the idea behind the book?
As a young woman who loved her career and juggled that along with raising a child and keeping the rest of my world in relative good shape I went through a gamut of experiences that each of us women undergo. There was guilt that I was not being the domestic goddess that we women are expected to be and nor was I the arm candy wife that we are expected to be.
I drove myself around the bend for years by trying to be the best at everything and failed miserably because the truth is that it is simply impossible to keep so many balls in the air and not drop some of them!
You have only one life and you owe it to live the way you want it. I realised also that we can make it a lot easier on ourselves if we stop chasing that elusive dream of perfection in everything.
I wanted to understand how other women deal with the daily pressure, cope with the judgements galore that we are subject to and how they manage to get past the intimidating wall of societal expectations and stereotyping of women, and manage to live fulfilled, contented lives.
What advice would you have for women who want a career but who think it is too late to build one or go back to one?
It is never too late to get oneself a career or something to do that fulfils us. The biggest barrier as we try to get back to a career or to start something new, is the one inside our head: the fear of the unknown and the fear of failure. It is important for us women to constantly remind ourselves of our worth and value. Also, it is a good idea, even if we are swamped with our domestic stuff, to keep learning, picking up new skills because this makes it easier for us to get into the workplace.
Three years ago my 67 year old mother, who never got the opportunity to pursue her career decided it was time to become an entrepreneur. She is a passionate cook and started off her business by using the lemons in her backyard to make all-natural, heavenly lemonade, fiery Kerala mango pickles, sambar masala and the famed gunpowder chutney that perfectly complements the breakfast staple of dosa and idli.
Which story most resonated with you?
Mary Kom’s story resonated the most with me because it is the story of a middle class girl living in the hills, fighting misogyny from the earliest years and going on to become an icon and a role model for every woman in the country who has ever had a dream for herself. It was not easy for her to leave her children to go to training camps around the country.
How did you choose the women to interview?
I was looking for women with riveting stories that would resonate with women all over the world. They had to be from a cross-section of society and yet they had to have different narratives.
Almost all the women in the book deal with some form of guilt. How do you think women can combat the guilt that they face?
The guilt comes from generations of social conditioning. Women have been told for ever and ever that we have to put everybody’s needs ahead of ours.
That guilt will only fade away with support from those around her and with the awareness that she has the right to nurture herself, her dreams and her aspirations. She has the right to choose and make decisions about the way she wants her life to be.
Which are the women who have been your personal role models?
My mother inspires me the most. Married at sixteen to a man who was wedded to the cause of bettering the lives of railway workers, she single-handedly raised us. She made sure our school fees were paid, even our socks and shoes were sometimes ragged and we had to share our water bottles in school. She never lectured us on women’s rights but she made sure her girls studied hard, encouraged their passion in the area of their choice and is even today the one to cheer us the loudest when we achieve something.
Can you tell us about your Writing With Women workshop?
In my Writing With Women (WWW) workshop where I bring women from diverse backgrounds together to share their experiences and write about them. When women write down their stories, it is not just about them. Through their stories we get a peek at social milieu of the times- family structures, gender equations….Unfortunately, far few women think of documenting their experiences. In the old days women lived in large families, interacted more with other women at work, during festivals and family get togethers. They reached out to one another more.
Given the high pressure lives we live today, most of us lead largely isolated lives. Our thoughts and feelings remain within us, unexpressed. Unlike earlier times when mothers and grandmothers wrote letters to us, we don’t even have that precious legacy in the sms and watsapp world that we live in.
Now, more than ever, I think it is important for women to share our experiences and write about them because if we don’t, we are in the danger of losing the stuff that our future generations, especially our daughters, can learn from.