Sangita P Menon Malhan: Versatile personality, yet feet firmly grounded
The Delhi-based pilot turned journalist turned author and a polyglot, who strives hard to make her life more meaningful, despite fighting back cancer, Sangita P Menon Malhan had a colourful and interesting journey so far, though often times treading through tough terrains. Right from graduating in political science and history from the University Maharani College in Jaipur, from being a successful glider pilot to commercial pilot, dabbling in journalism, writing four books, travelling across the globe, passionate about music and dance, especially Salsa, Sangita P Menon Malhan is also a polyglot, having command of ten languages!
Daughter of a Malayali father and Punjabi mother, Sangita had drawn strength from her mixed parentage and had chartered a course not many would dare to tread. Let’s get to know her further.
Sangita P Menon Malhan (before marriage Sangita Padmanabhan Menon) also known in her friend circle as Sangita “Phenomenon” Menon, the child prodigy, was born in Kottayam in Kerala. Sangita’s father, Kenath Padmanabha Menon, hailing from Palakkad was a nationally known senior journalist, working with the news agency, the United News of India. The late Menon had set up Bureaus for UNI in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu before relocating to Rajasthan. Menon started off his career in journalism from Delhi, where he met his life partner, a Punjabi girl by name Ramindar Dhiman, then working for Oberoi Hotels.
Sangita was born to a Malayali journalist father and a Sikh mother from Amritsar. The family moved to the then Bombay (now Mumbai) in Maharashtra and to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, when Sangita was still a child. So, effectively, the young Sangita had a childhood in Tamil Nadu, a wonderful childhood at that. There were books in the house. Sangita and her sister (younger sibling by two years, Sarita P Menon Rao, who who has computer programming background and administration and married to an Ex-Merchant Navy Engineer from a Telugu family now settled in Hyderabad) is extremely hard working super manager, had never lied in her life and she is as tough as nails.
The sisters also have an younger brother, Nishant P Menon, his wife, a Professor of Mathematics from Indore and son are living in Jaipur with his mother. Nishant is the last brother who was an ex-Merchant Navy professional now in Tech Support. The siblings were handed down a solid value system and were raised very well.
The Menons were liberal, progressive and they were very vibrant people, who taught the children the importance of discipline, dedication and determination in life. They also let the siblings do their own things and they made a life for themselves. KP Menon was a very interesting personality. “Our father was a natural story teller, regaling us with stories. In fact he is the reason I am who I am because he brought me up to be very bold, courageous and daring and he asked me to be completely fearless. So that helps, you know, when a father does this to his daughters, then they are set for life. Then they are enabled and empowered”, says Sangita.
Remembering her father, Sangita says, “My father was strong, popular and quite a terror wherever he was in the media circles. I remember the part in Jaipur because I was grown up a little by then. The Chief Minister would walk into the office of UNI Jaipur to meet him. The chief secretaries would come home to have conversation with him or to exchange notes with him. When he walked into a conference hall or an auditorium, eyeballs would turn. That is the kind of personality he had and he was. For 70 years of his life, he remained fit. He was a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker. He didn’t exercise much. He would stand on his feet a lot. But he didn’t walk or run or play a sport and not at that point. And yet, he was very healthy and he had a baritone voice. People would tremble, if he ever got annoyed with them. He was that formidable.”
Boredom pushes him to be sick
But at age 70, Menon had just finished his last project. “I forgot the group, it could have been Dhainik Bhaskar, which was launching in Rajasthan. Those guys, from what I hear, what I heard from him, they were unjust to him. They got him to do a lot of work in terms of connecting to the political establishment of Rajasthan to try and get into a sphere, where Rajasthan Pathrika was dominating. My father helped them in acquiring land and setting up office in Jaipur. My father may have fought and he would probably have a freelance kind of editorial position with Dhainik Bhaskar. He did do some work for them for a while. But, I don’t think it worked. And that led him to spend lot of time at home and that didn’t really suit him because he was very disciplined. He would get up in the morning, finish his routine and heads for office. He will come back in the evening and he would be home sometimes for a bit in the afternoon. Nevertheless, he had a scheduled life. Very flexible, but definite kind of schedule at the same time. So, when he had to be home at around 7.30 PM or 8.00 PM, that is when his health took a hit. I think his health got affected more out of boredom. I was not in Jaipur for a long time. And he really missed those conversations we would have and he used to tell me this. At 70, he had some kind of heart ailment and then we brought him do Delhi.
My husband, Captain Tejinder Singh Malhan, a senior pilot with Air India, insisted that he be brought to Delhi. My father stayed with us and we got him operated. Then he went back to Jaipur very reluctantly. He was very happy to be in Delhi because my husband became great friends and the three of us share common interests, lets say, politics, music and talking about the value systems, discussing about films and generally talking about character traits and attributes in human beings. My father also had lots of stories to narrate from the South, stories about Kerala and stories about the Kenath family in Palakkad. So, these two men, both very interesting men at that, they would have these conversations for long hours over drinks and they built up a wonderful rapport.
When the surgery was over, my father had recovered and he didn’t really want to go back to Jaipur to that sedate kind of life. Gradually he started losing interest in life because there was nothing very challenging happening to him and that is what kind of impacted his health.”
Parents shaped our values At age 75, Menon had another huge crisis and found difficult to breath. He must have told his parents that he was fed up with his life and wanted to join them. “My father was an atheist and didn’t believed in God or religion or any of these things. He prayed to his parents. He was was that pure. That’s all. He had a photograph of his parents and after his bath, I remember he would always stand in front of them and pray and that’s it. So, he must have told his parents, “Call me, enough. I have had enough.” I think he was disappointed by the indecency in human beings by the duplicity in human beings by the negative traits in them because he was a clean man. No games. He was very clean and direct and that doesn’t really work in positions of power you have to be a little twisted or crooked and he was not that. That really saddened him. He was really upset with that. And then he must have said you know, “I would like to move on.” And therefore, he moved on. It was the most difficult day of my life when I heard one morning that he moved on and he had gone. But I had decided that I am not going to mourn the death of this this wonderful human being as always I am going to celebrate him, which I had continued to do, which I did even when he was alive. He knew how much I loved him and how much I respected him and how much I owed my personality or my makeup to him and I told him that I am grateful that I did that. I am fortunate that I am able to tell my father what he meant to me. So he will always remain the most important influence in my life. But for him I wouldn’t really be the person I am because parents shape your values and shape your personality by telling you who you can be and letting you become who you eventually do and who you eventually become. If parents become your stumbling blocks, then you are doomed for life. You are affected. You are scarred. Therefore, my eternal gratitude to my parents which includes my father of course. So, wherever you are pappa…remember that I am paying this ode to you and I will always love you and thank you for the person that you are.”
“My mother is equally amazing”, says Sangita. “She is a bold, daring and adventurous woman with excellent communication skills. That way, both my parents had excellent communication skills. Mother never imposed any rules or restrictions on us. And we were fed with such a heavenly food you can imagine. I remember relatives coming over. My father’s relatives particularly as we were in the south, a lot of people would turn up just to eat the food she made. She was so popular. Also because she was fun to be with.”
Sangita’s mother’s name is Ramindar Dhiman, hailing from Amritsar, Punjab. Imagine the 1966 India, where inter-caste marriages are rare or unknown. There is this gorgeous and absolutely exceptionally good looking Sikhni in Delhi, working for the Oberoi Hotel and she bumps into this very impressive looking and handsome Malayali journalist and they fall in love. Dhiman decides to get married to Menon to leave not just Delhi but her family. Sangita’s mother’s family were opposed to the marriage. Obviously, a Sikh girl marrying a Malayali boy was quite unheard of. “I am sure in those years, in that time, she ticks off and decides she will marry him against the wishes of her family. She is that daring. And solely based upon the commitment made by this young man, she goes off, she flies. In fact, she takes a flight from Delhi and lands up in Kochi where they were. And they were alive. She is that daring. She did not know the language, she knew nothing about the culture or the customs and rituals of the south and yet she made a success of it”, Sangita says with a glint in her eyes.
Everybody loves Ammayi (uncle’s wife aunt in Malayalam), or Remi as they called Sangita’s mother. Menon’s sisters, brothers and the extended family loved her. She was genuinely comfortable to be with. Dhiman had great communication skills, a trait, Sangita too had inherited. The young Punjabi Bahu will crack jokes and she is a happy person fundamentally and she would get into the kitchen and make something. She learned how to cook south Indian food. She did not know cooking at all before marriage and today, she is a phenomenal cook. Not just that, she would do great things like venturing out as she loves to travel, loves to see places and loves to meet new people and that is what Sangita’s mother is.
Reminiscing about the good times she had with her mother, Sangita says, “I think I got the wildest and the daring trait or the sense of adventure from my mother and of course the courage from my father. Mom has been like that over the years. In the south I remember, she still maintained part of her identity. She is a north Indian and one must remember that. She would take us every Sunday for Hindi movies. The cycle rickshaw boy, who took us to the school those days would come up and take three of us, my sister, I and mom to the theatre. We will go and see the 3.00 PM show and there were lot of fun films like Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Sholay (that era), we got see great films. So, mom did these things and she maintained very good relations with the people in the community, people from the family and she was the member of the Lion’s Club. She was very popular even in Jaipur when we moved up north. So that is the kind of person she is. You walk into the house and mom will always have something on the table for you. My friends, when I was flying, so many of my friends who were pilots and engineers who come all the way down from the airport just to eat what she made. She continues to be like that. She lives with my brother in Jaipur and there too, his friends do drop in regularly to taste her food. My mom is a wonderful lady and may her tribe prosper.”
Growing up and Relocation
“Growing up, we were very comfortable and we did have a disciplined life too. There was discipline in the house. My dad was strict. There was a structure in the house. We had to do x at x time, for instance. There was time for study, there was time for leisure reading and there was time to play and we definitely had to go and play.
So, there was discipline, there was structure and within that structure, we were allowed to flower and bloom. So, we pursued our interests. I love to read, I love to sing and I would go out and play with boys (laughs) and I was a Badmaash. My sister was passionate about drawing. Very homely person that she was, Sarita loved to paint, sing and make wonderful handicraft items, while I was naughty, always up to some mischief and my uncles and cousins (the men in my father’s family) love me for this very thing. They were wary of me, nevertheless they loved me. My aunts and elderly ladies, they were good to me, but did not know what to do with me because I was really naughty. And as a I child I didn’t have any idea as to what I am going to become. I wanted to be any number of things, but they have all to do with authoritative figures you know. I wanted to sit in a corner and do nothing. I either wanted to be a police woman or I wanted to be in the Navy, I wanted to be a horse rider, I wanted to be a lawyer….I wanted to be super hero (laughs)..and since my father had told me that as a person just about anything I knew that there was going to be no problem. I could do anything I wanted to and he was willing to wait to see how life would kind of shape up. And then when I was about 12, a big change happened and we moved from Madurai to Jaipur in Rajasthan because my father was setting up a Bureau for the UNI in that city. This move, I did not know at that point that this move was going to change my life. You know, so many new things came into my life. I was also exposed to a different sort of culture. In the south, we were comfortable and people were very mild and soft spoken. In the north, there were little more aggression. But that also helps because you learn different skills and absorb different skill sets. In school, I indulged in small little things like playing volleyball, while the other girls would be standing and chatting in a corner during the break and I would be at the volleyball court and trying to hit the ball hard. So, that was how I was. What is more, I was naturally built like that to try and do the odd things. As far as my schooling in Jaipur was concerned, there was nothing uneventful and nothing very spectacular happened to me. And people remember me for my language skills.”
“Now they tell me, my batch mates who meet me now 30-35 years down the line, they tell me you were always good at languages: English, Hindi, Sanskrit, which is fantastic. I love languages. I am currently studying my tenth language. The tenth language is coming to my life. But when I entered college something very dramatic happened.”
One day, Sangita saw this poster which said, “Come and join the NCC and learn to fly. Join the Air Wing. Young Sangita was so excited and she immediately jumped at it. She asked her father who readily agreed to her suggestion. You know, that’s how he was and our father wanted us to try new things, fail at them, succeed at them and learn from them, but do our own thing. There was no embargo at all. So, I joined the NCC and because I was like this and I was made like this made to do..I was happy to do leadership activities. I went and requested the commanding officers that I be trained as I wanted to learn to fly. And they put me through an aptitude test and I scored 100% marks (laughs). I was trained to become a glider pilot.”
“A glider is an aircraft with a cockpit sans engine. You fly with skill. You need to have super skill. And so I was trained and was trained very well and I had lovely instructors at that time. Fantastic instructor at that. And that I was also prepared to participate in a national gliding championship that was going to happen in Rajasthan in the October of 1986. So I spent a lot of time at the Sanganer Airport in Jaipur. I would leave very early from my house on a bicycle and then I would park it in my college and then I would take a bus from right outside the college and go all the way to the airport and sometimes drag the glider out and there will be lot of flying, take off and landing. I don’t really remember studying (laughs) anything else except flying. And when the competitions happened, I did win it, I won a gold medal. We had to make a bulls eye landing. From up in the air, we had to spot the circle, within the circle and the wheel of the glider had to hit that smallest circle, which happened. So, I won the gold medal and that was a big day in my life”, Sangita says with a sense of pride.
Commercial Pilot Licence
At that point Sangita wanted to try commercial flying as well. But during this process, some cadets were also selected to go and participate in the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi in January 1987. So, one came to Delhi and I was the demonstration pilot during the Prime Minister’s Rally, which happens after two days of January 26. On January 28, the Prime Minister came and I made a perfect landing, which I could do earlier. Apparently now, I don’t think that happens because of security and safety reasons. So, you land and get out of the glider and run up to the Prime Minister and welcome him. So, all those things happened. Those were wonderful days, when Doordharshan also recorded the whole thing and it was telecast. My relatives from both father’s and mother’s side had seen this and I suppose this must have been quite a moment for everyone. You know, there is this girl who was so naughty and then now daring to do these acts. It is nothing but natural development and an extension of who she was. And then, out of 3,000 cadets, some were selected and sent to Canada on an Youth Exchange Programme. That again was an interesting six months, so we spent half of it in Canada, again being exposed to, at age 19 to be exposed to something completely different from who you are, a new culture and we were also trained and a de-briefing a 15-day de-briefing in French because we were heading to Quebec, the French side of Canada. So that was the first introduction to a foreign language and I was reasonably good at it although I don’t remember that phase very well. I used to be a back bencher, but, apparently I picked it up.
I got back from Canada and decided to continue the training, but, this time it was an engine aircraft and I was going to be trained to become a commercial pilot. I did the training for more than a year. I got my private pilot licence, but never had the need to take up a job in that segment. Destiny had something in store for me then. There were lots of examinations to be given. So, I would study and I was giving examinations even before I started flying because I was flying at the Rajasthan State Flying School in Jaipur and sometimes we used to have crisis situations as there weren’t enough aircraft or the instructors and they did not have enough staff to manage so many cadets. So, somehow, the theory part was getting done but the practical wasn’t keeping pace. So by the end of 1990 and early 1991, it didn’t look like that I will be able to finish all my physical flying training, although the examinations were happening and they were being cleared. Most of them. So, in 1991 I had to take this painful, but in retrospect, maybe, wonderful decision of moving on to a new career.”
“Writing as a career, before choosing, by then I had met this wonderful man who is now my husband (laughs). He was already a pilot with Indian Airlines. I would write love letters to him. Tejinder said I write well. Why don’t I give that a shot and I really lost my head with him. But he was right and I did write and so thought ok may be I will try journalism. I kept writing small little things in Jaipur for a while. But, there weren’t many English newspapers in those days in Jaipur. So, my articles would get published only once in a week or so. So I decided to come to Delhi, again a big decision in my life. So, I come to Delhi and began sending articles to Sunday newspapers and they got published. Some of the paid me and some did not.
But I am a very aggressive person in my head, if I have to achieve the target, I will achieve it. So, my target was to join the Times of India one day as it is a biggest newspapers in the country. I started with Delhi Midday, which was a small tabloid, but had very aggressive bunch of reporters and journalists. I got a great grounding there and learned journalism from there. I got to write on various issues…on politics, health, crime, music, books and I was given a free hand.
We had a wonderful editor, who wanted us to be lean and mean and work hard and we did that. In a year, I moved to the Asian Age and thereafter very soon to the Statesman and then I joined the Times of India, which was my dream. I became an Aviation Correspondent few years down the line. I also did some crime and court reporting initially. It was wonderful. I was finally living my dream. I had a great time as a journalist.
I was happy to be an investigative journalist. I like that part. I like covering crime and getting a scoop and exclusive reports on the shady side of life. I was there with TOI for seven years. At the end of that journey, I somehow felt as why this organisation which is so successful and I was curious about how it became this successful. To learn about that I decided to write a book. Also I felt that I couldn’t stay within the organisation and write impartially. I decided to take a sabbatical. I just moved out and started working on that book in real earnest travelling across the country, setting up interviews with past editors, past managers and this process took a while of about 3-4 years.”
Meanwhile, Sangita had also decided to use her time judiciously and firmed up her mind to pick up some foreign language and the first thing that came to her mind was French. So, she joined the Alliance Française in south Delhi and started learning French. In the very first semester, Sangita realised that she was good at languages. So there was no stopping her after that and Sangita decided to complete the entire three and a half years of study. Furthermore, she also continued writing on the TOI book and pursuing French in tandem. Sangita finished the advanced diploma in French. And then, there was a bit of a stumbling block.
“The book that I had put in so much work into somehow, after having spent four years, it wasn’t coming well together and the publisher who had seen it was also not very confident about whether this work, because it was Times of India. By then I was already tired and I just chucked it and forgot about it. I went back to journalism and did that for another year.
Foray into Teaching
Then, one day Sangita decided, “ok let me be my own boss.” “Let me start teaching French. Now, let me begin an enterprise where I could offer French education to the Delhi students in addition to imparting training on creative writing in French. So, that was what happened in 2008 when I started the enterprise called Francophile (Lover of French Language and Culture) and for the last ten years I am teaching French. ”
In 2009, even more amazing things happened to Sangita. In fact, spectacular thing happened to her, as she started writing short stories and she was really enjoying them. “I kept writing for a ten month period and sent the manuscript to Professor P Lal, who is extremely respected personality, who is a writer himself and a teacher in Kolkata. He is also the publisher of the legendary publishing house, the Writer’s Workshop. After seeing my manuscript he liked it and told me that he would publish the book. So that book was published in 2010, titled: Rastapherian’s Tales. And somehow by some miraculous coincidence, I was also keen on writing poetry (I am fond of poetry even now) and I was reading a lot of Urdu poetry in 2011 and suddenly I started writing Urdu poetry and again throughout 2011 I worked on the book of poems and on July 15, 2012 my second book, titled: Nusrat-e-Gham was released at the Indian Habitat Centre, New Delhi.”
About the letting loose of her creative juice, Sangita goes into philosophy mode, “This is life. Things happen. If one is ready to accept life for all its pluses and minuses, things will things will come to you. So, that book comes out and then I meet up with Harper Collins and they published this non-fiction: The TOI Story: How A Newspaper Changed the Rules of the Game. You know, I couldn’t forget it because I had put in lot of efforts to finish this book. My best friend, Kanwaldeep Singh Ex-TOI journalist and Cambridge Scholar and now working with Maruti Suzuki, had put in lot of effort by going through the whole draft, he cut out so much portions and he told me how to do it and what to do, he was phenomenal. Without him, this book wouldn’t have been a reality. He has guided me from the first day when I started embarking on writing the book on TOI. So, we redid the book together and it was finally published. Moreover, the book also won Asian Publishing Award in 2014. The book also got translated into Hindi and Marathi. It was fantastic feeling I had because I had pursued the dream for 12 years. I am made like that. I am made to do these things that are tough and I like doing things that are challenging. In 2014, when we were about to go to Spain on a Holiday, I decided to sit down about four weeks and just learn Spanish on my own. I fell in love with that language as well. So, we came back from Spain and then I was stopped in my tracks in June 2016 when the cancer happened. By then, I had acquired a Diploma. Meanwhile, I had started picking up Bengali and revise my Tamil and of course polishing my Malayalam.”
More creative juice
In 2016, Sangita was diagnosed with cancer. Unmindful of the ailment that had afflicted her, Sangita, during the chemotherapy session did two interesting things. One, she picked up Gurumukhi, the script for Punjabi just out of curiosity. Secondly, she also started working on another book of short stories. “I had been writing short stories all these years, from 2010-2018. I had continued writing throughout these years. I kept writing more on that year and I sat down during that phase, I put the whole collection together and in 2018, the book titled: Muchchad Gadh and Other Stories, published by Vitasta was released. And in the same year, I also had firmed up my mind to pursue a course on German. So, have started learning German as well. So that adds up to the tenth language that was coming to my life. I am grateful for the kind of things that happened to me”, she says.
“In 2010, I picked up guitar for the first time and over the course of the last seven years, off and on (as I took a huge break or almost a year without guitar) and six months with it, but I picked up guitar and started playing that. I also love riding the bike around. I will try it. I love art and huge art enthusiast. I want to see all the great art paintings in the world and all the great museums in the world. I love to sing and I love to dance and I picked up the Salsa. I will new things because that excites me. Leading an ordinary and boring life is not my cup of tea. I will take the risk, come what may, as it may or may not good for me, but I will definitely give it a shot, try it and then take that decision whether to continue or not. Therefore, my life has been extremely interesting so much fun.”
Fun Loving Family
Talking about her family, Sangita signs off with a hearty laugh, “I have a wonderful husband in Captain Tejinder Singh Malhan. He has encouraged me from the first day and he is happy to see me do whatever it is that I do. He is a pilot with Air India and he is a fantastic pilot with 30 years of flying experience.
We have got even more talented son, Avil Amritesh Malhan. He is brilliant at whatever he does. He is an excellent footballer, a superb musician and a great guitarist and music composer. We are similar people, very quite, doing our own things, focused and we won’t really squander or waste time. We live simple and meaningful lives and hopefully in the future as well. I will get to do something phenomenal. I will get to test my own limits. I will get to invite something wonderful, something as wonderful as everything else that has come to me into my life. And you know if you feel it something, oh come on we will just give it up and try something else. That has really never been the end of the road. So, this has been my journey and it has been phenomenal, truly splendid and let’s see what the rest of my life brings to me.”