They say incredible things happen when women support each other. Sudha Menon, journalist and the author of Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India, and Legacy, has written about the journeys of many successful women. Today, she writes about her own journey and the incredible women who were there to support her at every step of the way.
Sometime in mid-2009, during the writing of my debut book, Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India, a petite, soft-spoken, Khadi-clad woman said to me: “I believe women are future of our country, if they can just take themselves seriously, value their own worth a bit more, and leverage their collective strength to make this country and indeed, our world a better place to live in.”
That woman was Elaben Bhatt and she, more than anyone else, should know about the collective strength of women. In 1972, she founded the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for poor, marginalized women working in the unorganised sector that has over 1.30 million members today. These are women who lived their life at the mercy of the men in the community till Elaben helped them discover their self-worth by giving them livelihood skills and an identity of their own. SEWA went on to set up, among other things, a cooperative bank by and for women that helps women create assets, funds their enterprises and helps fulfil their dreams. The SEWA model is now replicated across many countries and she has become a formidable voice for the empowerment of women and their collective strength.
I will also never forget what former chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board, Amrita Patel, told me that very same day: “Educated women from the cities are letting their village sisters down by not participating in their development….We need many more learned women to drive this change.”
Looking back, my own journey could not have been what it is without the kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness of so many women, some of them my very own and some, rank strangers who reached out, held my hand and allowed me to walk with them when I needed support the most.
I shall not forget the impact their generosity of spirit has had on my universe and I now strive to help other women who are in need of the same support.
My life would not be the same but for the faith and confidence that my mother had in me. At barely 17, I was ready to leave home and go to another city to study journalism. It was not easy for amma – emotionally or financially – to let me go, but days after I had verbalised my dream, I was in Pune, studying journalism. Years later I learned that the Rs. 600 that she diligently sent me for my monthly expenses was almost one fourth of her entire family budget to raise my 3 siblings and also take care of ageing parents.
Fast forward to when I was a new mother and an ambitious journalist – it was my mother and my kid sister who stepped in generously, becoming substitute mother to my new-born, nurturing her with a love and commitment that I suspect even I would be incapable of. To this day I have an image in my mind of my daughter being gently rocked to sleep on my sister’s lap as she studied late into night for her Master’s Degree.
My first break in journalism came from my best friend, Usha, who connected me to her father, KNR, the formidable news editor of Mid-Day. When I think of my transition from journalist to author, I have to thank dozens of women who helped me take that first step. Former Thermax chairperson, Anu Aga, who connected me to the first set of women who I wanted to feature in my book and they, in turn, opened their homes and hearts to me, telling me about their lives and dreams with a rare honesty.
Six years later, many of the women in the book continue to be engaged with me and are forever ready to cheer me on when I do something new and exciting. I will also remember with gratitude the infinite generosity of journalist colleague who introduced me to a line-up of publishers when my second book was ready. She believed in the book and so did the editor who snapped up that book in a matter of minutes. Shefalee Vasudev, Milee Ashwarya, I am grateful.
My life would not be the same but for the women who have stood by me, helping me weather the storms that I have withstood at various times. When my marriage to my college sweet heart ended, they lent me a shoulder to cry on and pampered me rotten with food, surprise gifts and just their presence. And when some time had passed, they helped me understand it was nobody’s fault and that sometimes, things happen. My mother and sisters impressed upon me that we both continued to be two good people who had merely branched out separately and that we still had to respect and be there for each other and for our daughter. I am grateful for their wisdom.
The women in my world have been with me in illness and in good health, in joy and in grief. They celebrated my successes and have been there when I weathered setbacks.
Indeed, they have wept with me when I took some hard knocks and I think it has helped make me a stronger person. When my mother went through a period of intense depression a few years ago, feeling worthless and irrelevant, my sisters and I set her up in a small enterprise that she loved: making her signature nimbu paani from the lemon tree that stood in her garden. My friends, who lapped up her divine lemonade, could not stop raving about it and amma was soon back to her cheerful self.
It takes a woman to understand another woman’s dreams, her highs and lows. We women create a community, a sisterhood based on love, empathy and our readiness to be there for each other, no matter what.