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BW Businessworld

'We Women Hold Up Half The Sky'

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When and how did the idea of compiling such a work hit you?
Legacy is largely a product of my concern that we are no longer connected to our children in the way my generation used to be. There are no more shared meal times, no more chatting in the evenings, only very rare vacations together and no real time when fathers and mothers get to talk to their kids about the simple but important stuff. We grew up observing our parents and their equation with the community around them, we watched our parents and learnt about respect for each other, the people around them, we imbibed the high premium they placed on integrity, honesty, a work ethic, the need to be dignified at all times and to share whatever we had. There is always someone who is needier than us and we have to share with them, my father showed us by example,  and to this day, each of his children live that belief.

We no longer also write letters to each other in the frantic world that we live, in which post-its and illegible , horribly stunted text messages tell us the stuff we need to do. No 'I love you' messages only xoxo, and that too if the kids remember to say even that!

I decided one day that instead of nagging, I could still tell my 21-year-old daughter the important stuff, if I could put it all together in letters, in a book. She loves reading and in putting the combined wisdom of so many contemporary icons inside the pages of this book, I am hoping I have been smart because she is already reading the book and loving it. I am hoping also that every parent, every child and every person who ever wants to raise a child, will read this book…

How difficult was it to put them together?
The most difficult part was to get access to the people in the book but once that was achieved, getting them to talk was not so difficult. I was not asking them to share trade secrets or discuss the state of the world’s economy. I was talking to them on a subject that is close to every parent’s heart-their children, especially their daughters.
Often I went for a meeting with the promise of just an hour of promised face time but when we finally finished talking and exchanging notes about raising our daughters we would realise it had been a lot of hours! Business affairs can be attended to in a half hour or one but where children are concerned, it is a universal subject and we all want what is best for our children. So time was not an issue at all for me.
Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to Their Daughters
Sudha Menon
Ebury Press (Random House India)
Pages: 272
Price: Rs 399
Can you elaborate on why did you choose letter for only daughters, not sons?
My writing will always largely be about women and for women because I do think there are too many management books written with male CEOs as the target audience and celebrates male success with a lot of how-tos and what- not-to-dos. There is very little on offer for women and for our daughters who want to grow up and get a decent chance of pursuing their dreams and getting to their destinations.

We need to give women as much motivation and inspirational stories as possible so that they know that their dreams are attainable and that other men and women have made it happen with a lot of hard work and determination. We women hold up half the sky, don’t we?

Can you share with us a few interesting anecdotes or instances you have comes across while researching the book?

I went in to meet with the eminent people in the book with the worry that they would not let down their guard with me, would give me talks full of jargon, the kind that has no place in a book of letters written by parents to children. But I was charmed and humbled by how much each of them shared with me. Part of it is because in the end, no matter who we are and what our designations, we are all concerned about the same things, such as our children, our ageing parents, our relationship with the outside world…

After every meeting with the folks in the book, I walked out enriched and with fresh hope and faith in my heart. I learnt that even a Narayana Murthy struggled in the initial years with his career and inadequate time to raise the couple’s children and that made me less guilty about having chosen to continue working while my new-born was tended to by my mother and my younger sister.

I felt infinitely better about my dogged determination to work hard and long hours when I met Renuka Ramnathan who initially had no choice when her husband was killed in a road accident, leaving two young children in her care. The need to become both the mother and the father became the guiding force for Renuka who has, in the years since then, become one of India’s leading financial divas. “At each stage of my life, I have set my own internal benchmarks for achieving my personal goals. I have been inspired and motivated by other people, but my standards of what constitutes excellence have always been set by me”, she writes in her letter to her daughter.

What according you are the key changes that Indian parenting has gone through in the past few decades?

It is a reflection of the fast-paced, frantic lives that we lead, that families no longer eat together, vacation together or even sit with each other long enough to exchange simple pleasantries. Dinner together was a time for great learning by example from our parents when we were growing up. My husband and I still eat together but to the backdrop of the gentle clicking sounds of our daughter’s phone as she eats with us but also simultaneously texts her friends, the phone hidden beneath the table. Depending on my mood at that moment I either lose my cool or ignore the texting.

We no longer write letters to each other or spend time lounging on the family sofa, as we used to when we were growing up, talking about random things about the times gone by or tales of errant family members who scandalised the clan with their behaviour. Summer afternoons my mother kept us busy with chores and we sisters picked up a lot of simple truths about life by just watching the hard-working housewife try and maximize the resources at her disposal. We no longer have that “face time” time with our kids and if we push it and nag them, be prepared to be told to “talk to the hand”….

Tell us about your parenting experiences. Had you been asked to write such a letter, what would be the most striking aspect you would focus on?

I mourn for the lack of time with my only daughter. I would have written to her and told her that we live on this earth just once and that our parents have the tendency to grow old and pass from this earth and we will then find ourselves alone, without the welcoming haven of their unconditional love. I would have told her to cherish the time she gets with her grandparents and utilise her many talents better instead of spending so much time tracking the lives of nameless “friends” on Facebook and staying awake night time so that she can ‘watsapp’ with someone in far-off USA. I would have written to her that there is nothing more rejuvenating for the human mind and spirit than getting a good night’s sleep and waking up early to go for a walk so that she can get in touch with her inner self. I would have told her you have surrounded yourself with so many gadgets and so much external noise that you have forgotten to hear what your soul is saying to you…

I would run the risk of being called an uncool mother but I would rather be that than a mother who did not have the conviction to tell my child of the important things in life.

A common theme in these letters is 'values'. Do you think today's parents are not trying enough to create values in their children? Have they got busy or are they just lazy?

Not lazy. No. I don’t parents get lazy about their children and their upbringing but the demands from parents have changed and I often think most of us are not prepared or able to cope with the new paradigms. I am nowhere even close to even understanding the new rules of parenting but I know some of the old rules were good rules and hold true even today. We simply need to find newer ways to connect with our children. I am hoping my daughter and indeed, other daughters and sons read this book because it has infinite life lessons in them.

Do you think today's parent are not sharing enough with their kids? Especially bits about their past, experiences etc?

Today’s parents want to share with their kids. Parents are always wanting to tell their children about their lives, their growing up years, their experiences. We simply need to find ways we can do it in a manner that is “cool” and not looked upon as a lecture, by the younger generation. Narayana Murthy writes in his letter to his daughter , Akshata, about the need to narrate stories of the valour, struggles and courage of their ancestors. It is only through these stories, he tells Akshata, that her own children will know about the roots and be inspired to be like the courageous , hard-working people that their ancestors  were.

India Inc has seen of late several legacy issues, succession disputes and similar events. Which India Inc personality is your ideal parent? Or are there more? Give us a few examples.

I don’t think there is anything like an ideal parent. That is just as much as a burden as being expected to be a perfect child! But any of the people in Legacy could qualify for that unattainable “ideal parent” tag. Narayana Murthy , K.V. Kamath, Renuka Ramnathan, Zia Mody, Kishore Biyani, each of them allowed their children to go out and explore the world on their own, make their own choices in life and then live the life that they dreamt of.

Akshata lives in America and works not in IT but has her own enterprise that is working to promote Indian textiles and handicrafts abroad. K.V. Kamath’s daughter Ajnya chose to give her career a miss and is raising three children in a small town in America and he has the conviction to allow her to do that. Remember, Kamath is known to be the person who is responsible for mentoring some of the most successful women in Indian banking and it is possibly ironic that his own daughter has chosen to be a home-maker instead of taking up a career.
Can a great parent also become a great manager/executive? What are the management learning, according to you, one can gain from parenting or raising kids?
As a parent you learn to grit your teeth, lock your jaws, pull up your socks, push up your sleeves and get down to doing the hard and often thankless jobs that parents usually do. You learn to hang on even when the going gets very tough and keep hoping that one day there will be results and a turn around and a fat bonus. You will be lucky to get any or all of these and you have to love your job really well to hang on. Same applies to the lives of most executives.

Parents learn to take criticism on the chin and never show their hurt or anger or humiliation during interactions with their children. Ditto for the executive who wants to keep his job. You don’t cry or break down in front of your children and neither would you do that at your workplace or shout at your colleagues or boss would you? Parenting teaches you the merits of building up your reserves, keeping a lot of your opinions to yourself and saying the rest with a lot of sugar coating.

While compiling the book, what were the most striking elements in these letters that caught your attention, and why? For instance, it could be lessons of diginity, self esteem...
The most striking lesson was that most of us are concerned about the same things in life such as honesty, self respect, the need to live our lives with dignity, without compromising on our basic concepts of right and wrong. Most of us have been told by our parents about the power of prayers and spirituality and I discovered that almost all the people in this book have the same principles on which they live their lives. Zia Mody tells her three daughters that the most important thing is remember that there is a superior force watching over us and that faith in that force, God, alone has the power to move a lot of things. Nothing that compromises your conscience or a good night’s sleep is worth the while, she cautions them. Capt Gopinath tells his daughters that it is important for every woman to find herself a meaningful occupation and also follow a few other passions. Keep yourself interesting and be interested in what is happening around you, he tells them. These instructions could be  simple ‘isms’ for any or all of us.

What is your energy drink?
I would spend my lifetime drinking copious amounts of Horlicks or Complan. There is something comforting in those drinks that remind me of my childhood. But better sense having prevailed, my favourite go-to drink when my energy flags is a good cup of ginger tea. I have also recently discovered the refreshing quality of a tall glass of fresh lime soda.

What according to you is the hardest part of being a writer?
The hardest part of being a writer is the ability to find the discipline to sit down at your desk every single day and just put your nose to the grind. You don’t become a writer by getting a degree, you become one from putting pen to paper or typing out your stuff on a laptop. Being a writer often means that you find yourself writing about life and stuff sitting at your desk while your friends are out at lunch or shopping or watching films. But in the end, when you see a chapter finished or hold the published book in your hand, it is more than worth all the stuff you missed while you were writing.

What are you reading now?
SEWA founder Ela Bhatt’s book, We Are Poor But So Many.

What's next?
Am working on two other non-fiction books. In the back of my mind is this nagging feeling that I have to get around to picking up my novel in progress that has been languishing for a couple of years but the pull of non-fiction is so compelling that I just slap away the need to reach out for my fiction.

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