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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Former ‘Femina’ Editor Sathya Saran On Fighting To Keep Sexist, Degrading Ads Out Of The Mag

  • IWB Post
  •  February 7, 2019

Femina, the first and most read women’s English magazine of India, has been capturing the ethos of Indian women since 1959, and senior journalist Sathya Saran served as its editor for more than a decade during the 26 years of her association with the magazine.

A writer, both by vocation and avocation, Sathya believes that we are just as good as our last story, and the only way to go about life is to not take it for granted and keep working on all the chapters. Also skilled in folk dance and theatre, she loves going on treks, spending time with family, and her childlike excitement on the mention of ‘books’ is bound to leave you infected!

Excited and a tad bit nervy, when I called her for an interview, she told me, “I’m at the airport, but shoot your questions, I’m all ears before I hop on the driving seat and ride back home,” and with that geared up our conversation.

Excerpts below:

Sathya Saran

Twenty-five years as Femina’s Editor, how would you describe the feminist milestones that your career saw?

I didn’t look at them as milestones, it was more a way of telling women that you don’t have to be only a wife and a mother. It was to help them find their identity. And the message did reach out to women, as they did realise the situation and began to work on themselves. But this discovery made the men feel threatened of women’s voices, and sometimes there was backlash. And though changes have come, but the overall situation hasn’t changed much, in fact now I see that women are more confused.

Was there any instance where you felt a conflict between the editor-you and the feminist-you?

Never. Though with advertisements, I had to fight sometimes. Like with Fair & Lovely, and other advertisements that would have lines demeaning to women. Many times I won, but many times I also lost, learning that that’s how the world works. 

‘Moments of courage’ that you can recall?

Ah, moments of courage, she repeated. One was surely when I accompanied Sushmita (Sen) at the press conference after her ‘Miss Universe’ victory. The moment I entered the room filled with reporters, I was like, “Oh hell, this is how I look when on the other side of the table!” Back then I really feared public speaking.

Sathya Saran

And the mention of ‘courageous moment’ further reminded her of the time when she and her friends got marooned in Uttarakhand, in the middle of the North-West Himalayas, once. From where they had to be rescued by the Army. 

Ah! And do you remember the first Femina cover under your editorship?

Well, I don’t remember my first cover, but the one cover that I can never forget was an Independence Day special. It featured Arpan Kaur, Jaya Bachchan, and Leela Samson, and was a very meaningful cover. These women excelled in their respective fields, and I respect them a lot. Another one was the cover featuring one Miss Universe and two Miss Worlds together, that was a unique occasion.

Wow! And speaking of them, what inspires you in modern Indian women?

What inspires me, hmmm! I think modern Indian women are more confused, they need to work towards developing their understanding of “modernity”. But having said that, there are women who are well-educated and driven, and by keeping a balanced approach, have successfully found a place of their own.

Your thoughts on the direction the ‘women’s empowerment’ movement/campaigns should take now?

I think we should foremost empower ourselves for safety. Personal safety is huge. Health being another area, women have always ignored their health, keeping themselves last in the priority list. And also, education in the right way, read more books and newspapers, don’t restrict yourself to Google and the internet as the only source of knowledge.

Sathya Saran

I once read in one of your interviews, where you said, “I think I am a good writer. That’s the only skill I have.” Which was undoubtedly very humble of you, but may I ask for some of your hidden talents?

Ha-ha. In the present phase, I think writing books. And other than that, I love dance and theatre. I have never had to experience stage fright. (Wow!)

Which article is preserved as ‘the most emotional piece’ in your memory?

There must be quite a few. The first ever article I wrote for Youth Times, about the lives of the blind, has to be one. Interacting with them made me understand their life struggles, and I wrote out my honest experience in the article. It was my first national piece, and the editors didn’t change a word.

You’ve written biographies of three learned creative men, would you share with us the life lessons you derived from writing about them?

While writing Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey, I got to learn a lot from Abrar, the ace writer of Guru Dutt’s team. He always remained in the shadow of a big creative person, but the clarity of thought he had, he never let ego come in the way of learning. His life experiences made me realise the importance of having the knowledge of when to take the second seat, and keeping in mind the larger picture.

Sathya Saran

From R.D. Burman’s life stories, I gathered that it was his passion, dedication, and patience for music that took him where he reached. So my takeaway from Sun Mere Bandhu Re was that getting sidestepped is a part of life, and the bottom-line is always about maintaining the focus. Needless to mention, music and cinema have forever inspired me.

Your upcoming book is titled How to look like Miss India. I’m curious to learn about your philosophy of beauty not restricted to looks and skin alone?

Yes, and I’ve written about it in the book, too. It is the trait of being honest with self that brings out true beauty. If you remain true to self instead of wearing a façade for the outer world, you are beautiful. It is never your looks and features that alone can make you ‘beautiful’.

Editor’s Note: The book has now been released.

A woman role model you’d pick from amongst the contemporary icons? 

I really admire Vidya Balan, she stands her ground, and believes in who she is. And from sportspersons, it has to be PV Sindhu. I admire her for the way she has grown; throughout in the shadow of a famous personality, she went on to make her own place under the sun, never letting any factor tiny her.

Sathya Saran

And now a curiosity-driven question from the book-lover-me, is your 2018 ‘Reading List’ prepared yet?

Oh, I read a lot, and buy a lot of books. Recently, I picked two translations from Goa. One is of Sara Joseph, and the other is A Legacy of Spies, by my favourite author, John Le Carre. Sara Joseph’s son is my friend, and though I had met her before, reading her stories evoked a new emotion in me. I even told him that I wanted to touch her mother’s feet; what an amazing writer she is!

Is there any chapter of your life that you’re still editing?

Every chapter of life, she exclaimed. Talk about marriage, it can never be taken for granted; I’ve been blessed with the best husband, but you ought to keep working at it every day. Ditto for children, and work, too. Keep working, that’s the only way, for you’re just as good as your last story or book!

And lastly, please describe for us – ‘Sathya and…’

Sathya Saran

Me-time: I read, I write, and these days I’m also learning music. I walk a lot, some time back I had a sudden realisation that I wasn’t even walking a few hundred steps in a day, and so I made it a point to walk a minimum of 1,000 steps in routine. And if nothing, I like to sit by myself near the window, it brings me peace.

Family-time: Dinnertime is family time for us. We try and sit together then, or sometimes watch TV together. And on Sundays, too, I spend good quality time with my family.

Travel-time: I travel for work, mostly. But we take one family holiday every year. We have a house in Pondicherry, and once a year, either with my husband, of with the entire family, I go there. And I also love going on treks, which I learnt at the age of 45; it gives me immense joy!

Sathya Saran

This article was first published on December 18, 2017.

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