A journey to Gifted

Sudha Menon is currently a columnist at Mint and also the author of two best-selling non-fiction books namely Leading Ladies-Women who inspire India and Legacy. She is also a former journalist who has worked for The Independent and The Hindu Business Line. Menon is a TEDx speaker and often speaks at educational institutions and corporate campuses about women's leadership and diversity issue and has participated in motivational events in corporations such as: IBM, SAP India, Cummins India, and Zensar Technologies.

Journalist and writer Sudha Menon and VR FeroseVR Ferose is senior vice president and head of globalization service for SAP AG and former managing director of SAP Labs India. He founded the 'India Inclusion Summit' a unique platform that focuses on the need for inclusion in our lives. He is a director on the board of specialist people foundation, a non-profit foundation with the goal to create one million jobs globally for people with autism and is on the panel of The Vision Group on Information Technology, Government of Karnataka.

Ferose was named 'Young Global Leader' in March 2012 by the World Economic Forum. In 2014 Ferose was chosen as one of the leaders in "Indians Top 40 under 40" jointly by The Economic Times and global search and consulting firm for top-level executive search and leadership consulting firms Spencer Stuart, Ferose was selected as 2014.

Menon and Ferose talk to Swetha Amit about  Gifted, their book on true stories about differently-abled individuals who have overcome their challenges to shine in their respective fields.

Gifted is a special book with a special theme. What was the inspiration behind this?
Menon: As a young mother struggling to raise my daughter while simultaneously trying to run my home and being a good journalist, I constantly looked for inspiration so that I could play all of my varied roles in the best possible manner.

When I met Ferose the first time, during the launch of my debut book, Leading Ladies, and later, for the launch of my second book, Legacy, I discovered we shared a lot in common about the way we perceived life and its many dimensions. When he broached the subject of writing a book together, the topic touched my heart and the journey to Gifted began. I am constantly on the quest for inspirational stories that can feed our souls. And the people in Gifted have stories that can inspire each one of us.

Ferose: I was personally inspired with the journey of several of my friends with disabilities. I got to know them closely over many years and felt the urge to bring their stories of courage and hope to the forefront. My personal family situation drove me to write the book [Ferose's own son has autism - Editor].  

In this book, it is mentioned about how children despite being differently-abled have managed to get past their miseries and find happiness. However there are others who do not face such challenges yet remain in constant misery. Why do you think this happens?
Menon: Happiness and contentment is very much a thing that we can largely control. I believe that you can either spend your life in misery by constantly focussing on the negatives in life or you can take all of those negatives in your stride and make the most out of what life has offered us. I know this sounds too clichéd but I have seen this work, especially in the case of people who have little in life but seem to live life to the fullest. I think we can pave the way for much happiness in life if we are able to appreciate the small blessings in our life and are grateful for the smallest thing that we have been given.

GiftedIf too many people seem to be miserable and unhappy with their lot, I believe it is because they have not really seen what it is to want for anything and also because they have no sense of gratitude for the gifts they have been given.

Ferose: It's a combination of the right attitude, upbringing and values instilled. Different people have very different response to the same situation. While some are not only able to overcome a very difficult situation, they are in fact able to derive the best out of it. While on the other hand, many succumb under pressure, become negative and give up.

Such children often have to endure taunts, jeers and rejection from their peers.  How do you think they manage to overcome such hurdles and develop their self-confidence and overall personality?
From the special people that we interviewed for Gifted, I came away with the distinct feeling that each of them had a special inner strength and maturity that normally abled people don't have. Maybe it is nature's way of compensating for taking away something from them. But in addition to this special strength, I also believe that these specially-abled people move ahead in life relentless because of the support of all the loving people around them! Each of them had a parent, a friend or a confidante who completely believed in them.

Ferose: One of the themes in the book is what I call as ''permission to succeed''. Every person with disability had someone who believed in their abilities more than they did themselves. It could be parents, teachers, friends or mentors.  It is very important for them to build a support system from an early age.

As in the story of Ankit who was visually challenged, he was rejected many a time due to this reason. Do you think there are better facilities for such individuals today in terms of vocation, education and sports which will help in boosting their morale?
Menon: Yes. It is a lot better now than from back in my childhood when I had seen how challenging life could be for people with disability. A child born with disability had little option but to spend his / her entire life confined to the four walls of his life. Today things are much better in terms of better infrastructure for their mobility, better health and support systems, technology that empowers them and makes them more independent etc. But still, things can be infinitely better.

Ferose: We are no doubt in a much better situation than before, primarily due to better awareness. Unfortunately this is limited to the metro cities and there is a lot that needs to be done across the country.

When a person is differently abled, it is generally believed that they are blessed with an additional gift/talent.  How does one discover that talent and bring it to light?
Menon: Talent in general is like mining for a diamond. It is only when we go deep inside ourselves that we can unearth our potential. It is important to expose ourselves to varied experiences and one day our true calling will emerge from one of these experiences.

It is important, therefore, to have an atmosphere of support around us so that our talent is nurtured and this can be crucial, especially for people with disabilities. In our country it is not unusual for people with disabilities to be a forgotten part of our family unit. They often spend life at home, shorn of all experiences that can potentially enrich them.

Ferose: I fundamentally believe that ''Everyone is good at something''. However, when a person is disabled, we tend to view only the disability. However, it takes a person with immense character to see beyond the obvious. It's not so much about the absence of ability as it is about the having the foresight to see the abilities (many times, it is beyond the obvious).

Films like Taare Zameen par, Iqbal and Yellow have dealt with sensitive subjects with the protagonists being differently-abled. Do you think such films and your book will alter the mind-sets of the society and minimise the discrimination towards such people?
Menon: Absolutely! I don't know how many people knew about dyslexia before Aamir Khan spoke so eloquently about it in Taare Zameen Par. Likewise, Gifted is already spreading awareness about differently-abled people and their inspirational lives. It is for a reason that this book is a best-seller just three weeks after the launch even when it is not a ''viable'' publishing subject for the industry. We just got lucky that the publisher supported our dream for this book despite it being perceived as a book that would not appeal to everyone.

Ferose: I strongly believe that we need to mainstream the topic of ''disability'' to really build an inclusive India. And to do that we need to use popular mediums like movies, sports, literature etc. Spreading awareness is the key. The more people are aware, the more they become sensitive. The more people are sensitive, the more they will ACT. At the end of the day, ''Hope is not a course of action''. We need to people to stand up and make a difference!

The stories in your book emphasize on determination, will power and achievements of those individuals despite them being differently-abled. Do you think the only disability in life in a bad attitude?
Menon: Physical disability is debilitating but I am convinced that a negative, self-defeating attitude is the worst disability to have. What makes it worse is that you do it to yourself. You are not born with it. The only barriers to getting to be the person you want to be are the barriers you create in your mind.

To my mind, all of these gifted people in the book overcame their disability because of the unstinting support of people who love and support them unconditionally. So, to not have that great support system in itself could potentially be a disabling factor.

Ferose: Absolutely. At some level, we are all dealing with problems - be it professionally or at a personal level. It's the attitude towards these problems that determine who you are and who you end up becoming.

Meeting such individuals with inspiring stories can be a life altering experience. How do you think, writing this book has changed you as a person?
In many ways meeting with the people in Gifted was transformational for me. I had never really come in close contact with anyone with any significant disability and so I had no exposure to how life was for someone who lived on the fringes of life in our society.

When I went to do the first few interviews, I would always worry that I would say or do something that would offend our subject or hurt them but gradually, as Ferose and I met more of them, I realized that these are people with much more maturity and empathy than the rest of us. They live their lives with amazing grace and are happy to reach out to you, if you let them. You will be surprised how much in control of their lives they are.

Meeting them and hearing their stories has changed me forever. After seeing the impact a positive attitude has brought about in their life, I too have started living my life with a more positivity. I am more grateful today and more appreciative of the small things in life.

Ferose: Every interaction is an emotionally draining experience. But it is also very inspiring and fulfilling. It makes our own problems look small and trivial, compared to what the 15 individuals have overcome. The book at the end of the day is about hope. I remember Ashwin Kartik in one of the book launches mentioned ''my mother believes that one day I will be able to walk on my own, and I am convinced, I will''! In many ways, the book is about the triumph of the human mind over the body.

What is the message that you would like to give through Gifted?
Menon: That it is possible to live the life we want if we just dig in our heels and refuse to allow life and its setbacks to pull us down. There is no bigger tragedy than not getting to be what we want because we were too scared to try or simply gave up on ourselves.Having said that, I must admit that the message each person can take from this book can be different, depending on his or her circumstances.

Ferose: We consciously did not want to give any specific message. Everyone can find their own message from every chapter, from every individual and from every journey.

Are your planning on writing another book jointly ?
Menon: Ferose and I plan another book at some point but in the meantime I am already working on another book in the genre I adore: inspirational stories.

Ferose: I must admit, I am tempted to write Vol. 2 of Gifted, as there are so many stories that need to be told.

For now, Sudha and I want to spend the next six months promoting the book and then the book will have a life of its own. We are glad it has gone for the 3rd reprint and has become a bestseller in less than three weeks. Meanwhile, I want to complete the leadership book Defining Moments that I had started three years back. It's been on the cold storage since I started Gifted. I want to finish that first.

Book Excerpt (From the chapter on 1995 Arjun Award winner for para-athetics, Malathi Holla)

In 1979, when the government of India made a rule that barred all differently-abled sportspersons from being even considered for the Arjuna awards, it made me very angry. Physically challenged people have to work doubly-hard to get anything in life even though we put ourselves through the most daunting physical and mental challenges to bring laurels to our country.

I found a very unfair and did not think twice before challenging the preposterous rule. It took a lot out of me to stand up against the powers that were but when I won, it was a victory for not just me, but all the differently-abled people in this country. Decades later, when my name was announced as an Arjuna award recipient in 1995, it was time for a second celebration - I had proved my point beyond doubt!

I have come a long way since those days when a flight of stairs seemed a formidable challenge to me. What has helped me along the way was the fact that I discovered the therapeutic value of sports, a world where I could escape the pain of my everyday life. In the decades since my college days, I have become a wheelchair athlete of repute, a Paralympian who is known all over the world.

When people tell me they look upon me as an inspirational, motivational figure, I think of all the struggles along the way, the mind-numbing pain, the cynicism, the indifference of society, as I struggled to make a niche for myself. Not many would believe it today if I said that I earned most of the 300 national and international awards in my kitty using a borrowed wheelchair. That was how hard the struggle was.