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Stellar series (3)

Meet Sushi Das, Award-winning journalist and author

For Sushi Das, award-winning journalist and author of the memoir, Deranged Marriage, there’s no simple answer for how she achieved success in her career. “I don’t think there was just one thing, it was a variety of factors that helped me to get to where I am.”

“I had a natural curiosity about the world and the human condition, so that’s where my love of reading came from. I also felt a keen sense of injustice as a teenager, that’s never really left me. I believe that it’s important to try and create change wherever you can, but to do so with empathy,’ Sushi says. Laughing, she stands up and gestures to the white text on her black T-shirt that reads, ‘in a world where you can be anything … be kind.’

In this third feature of the Australian Stellar Women series Daizy Maan Kaur, Co-founder of the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC), sat down with Sushi Das, to celebrate her contributions and achievements within the fields of journalism and writing.

Honest, funny, self-aware, and incredibly direct, Sushi is a breath of fresh air. Sushi generously and vulnerably shared her reflections of her youth growing up in 1970s London, her experience as the eldest (and more rebellious) of three children with strict South Asian parents, successful career in journalism, and advice to young South Asian women.

Where it started: Growing up in London

Sushi was born in Punjab, India and raised in Twickenham, in Southwest London, the eldest of three children. She described her hometown as, “A fairly white, middle-class area. There weren’t many Indian families around when we were living there.”

“My parents still wanted my siblings and me to grow up in an Indian world in Britain. I don’t know how they quite visualised that,” she said amused.

“But for me, as the eldest, in my youth, it was quite difficult,” Sushi reflected. “I spent most of it, like so many other Indian girls, trying to be everything my parents wanted me to be, while at the same time suppressing what I wanted to be. It was a hideous clash of Eastern expectations and my personal Western desires. I expect a lot of Indian girls were doing this at the time, but I didn’t know that they were.”

Keeping a balance between her own life and what her parents wanted sometimes called for creativity on Sushi’s part. “It was a bit like being like James Bond,” she says, sharing the inventive ways she would manage her strict-Indian parents’ expectations during the school holidays.

“In those days we used to have this old-fashioned telephone with a dial, and on the back of the phone was a little ledge. Before I left the house, I would put a little bit of talcum powder on the ledge so if the phone rang in my absence the powder would fall onto a highly polished cabinet.”

“My dad was always calling from work at intermittent times when we were on school term breaks to make sure we stayed at home.” For this reason, she was careful to leave for only a few hours at a time.

Sushi explained, “If he came home and asked, ‘I called, where were you?’ I would then be able to say, ‘Did you call between 12 pm and 2 pm? Because I thought I heard the phone ringing when I was in the garden putting out the laundry.’ I could narrow down the time when he had called, it leant some legitimacy to my story. It wasn’t like I’d gone to the pub or something, I’d just be out shopping.”

It was also through Sushi’s upbringing that she discovered her passion for journalism and desire to speak up against injustice. In her memoir, she shared,

I was inflamed by injustice, and there was so much injustice that people didn’t know about. Indian women in Britain couldn’t even choose who they could marry. Did anyone out there know about that? There was a veneer of choice, but when you lifted the veil there was, I thought, repression underneath. By the time my teenage confusion ripened into indignation, I was sure I wanted to be a journalist because I felt an urgent desire to tell people things they didn’t know.

However, this dream caused tension within her family. Her father, in particular, was not supportive of Sushi’s career aspirations despite seeing journalism as a serious profession. He believed journalism was a ‘man’s job’, unsuitable for women, and financially unstable. Coincidentally, it was also her father who would encourage Sushi to read the latest headlines, frequently quizzing her on the top stories. These shared interests and diverging perspectives characterised a treasured, yet fraught familial relationship that at its core was well-meaning, but often lost in translation due to generational and cultural differences.

The journey of a trailblazer

After completing a degree in the UK and working ‘sensible’ jobs her parents approved of, Sushi moved to Australia and made her start as a news reporter at Australian Associated Press (AAP) like she’d always dreamed.

From AAP she would go on to work for The Age newspaper for the next two decades addressing topics across the board from multiculturalism, appealing to men on how they can help change the world for the better, to the consequences of living alone, which feels more relevant than ever given global circumstances.

“I’m not a confident person” she shared with Daizy. “I sort of laugh inwardly when people say, ‘You’re so confident.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve tricked everybody.’”

 “As a journalist, you have to bluff your way through so many occasions, it becomes easy to learn how to appear self-confident when, in fact, you don’t feel very confident at all.”

 It was surprising to hear this from such an accomplished professional, with her career as a journalist spanning over 27 years. Sushi is presently Chief of Staff and a Senior Journalist with RMIT’s ABC Fact Check, a partnership between the ABC and RMIT University, that reviews the accuracy of claims by public figures who influence national discussions. In 2020, the online course Sushi created, encourages students to adopt a ‘news-critical’ mindset and identify misinformation and disinformation.

Considering Sushi’s career to date, it’s hard not to view her as brave for pursuing her dreams despite the lack of self-confidence she describes. It seems quite courageous to follow a less traditional path (for South Asians in the West), in spite of the barriers she faced.

Sushi’s work has been publicly recognised and has received two Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards, including Best Columnist. It was her presence writing columns that led Sushi to an entirely new literary pathway, writing her debut memoir, Deranged Marriage. A hilarious, bittersweet commentary on the culture clash between family, relationships and tradition when East meets West.

Sushi’s sapphires of wisdom

“If I could advise younger women, I would say: firstly, listen to your inner voice because sometimes other people don’t know better. Sometimes, you just need to follow your gut instinct. Secondly, I would say: know your own power and acknowledge it. If you’re young and know that you’re really good at something, use it; even if it’s something small. Be aware of your power to do things. Thirdly, I wish I’d realised earlier that it’s okay to tell people to f*** off.” Sushi says bluntly, laughing. “I feel like I spent so much time trying to be nice to people. I tried to meet their expectations and be polite. I could have saved myself so much time.’”

Rather than specific actions on how to achieve this inner freedom, Sushi describes it as a way of living, “It’s in the small things in life. It’s always in the small details where I’d wish I’d asserted myself more. When I didn’t feel comfortable, I should have stood up, and voiced my opposition; especially when every fibre in my body was telling me, ‘No, no, it’s better if you do it like this.’”

An example of this was at the start of her publishing journey, “At the time I was approached by a particular publisher to write the book. I wish I had stayed with that publisher, but I didn’t because a friend, who is a novelist, suggested that I go with a different publisher instead. I thought, ‘You must know better because you’re a novelist, and I’m not.’ I ended up with a much bigger publisher, but on reflection, I wonder what the experience might have been like with a smaller publisher.”

 

High hopes for the future

“One of the most joyful things in my life and my key way of making a difference in the world was having a daughter,” Sushi said, remembering her mother’s disappointment on learning that Sushi was having a girl.

“My one biggest act of rebellion against my culture, my parents, and the whole patriarchal system was giving birth to a daughter. She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life,” she said smiling.

On her thoughts about the world that she wants her daughter to inherit, Sushi said,

“I hope that she inherits a world that we haven’t destroyed through Climate Change. I hope that she just grows up in a world where she sees herself as a human being first; a human being equal to any other human being. I hope that she and other young women don’t have to spend half their lives fighting to be equal. I want her to grow up having a sense of self-confidence that comes from within, independent of other people’s opinions. I hope she has the opportunity to fulfil her potential. I have tried to help her learn how to live as a compassionate human being. I hope that’s the kind of child that I’m raising.”

She continued, “Just as men throughout history have had the luxury of time and confidence to explore the universe, write great novels, make adventurous trips across the seas – they got to do all of that because they weren’t spending half their time trying to be equal to the rest of humanity. I wish women could also spend their time exploring their own potential and pursuing what makes them feel whole.”

This was the third of five profiles in ASAC’s Australian Stellar Women 2021 series, in collaboration with South Asian Heritage Month (18 July – 17 August), recognising five exemplary emerging and established South Asian creatives, activists, founders and leaders whose voices and work are a force of good. They’re women who are not only successful but are generous and supportive of those around them, and are paving the way for the next generation of South Asian community leaders. Today we’re celebrating Sushi Das for her incredible contributions to the field of journalism.

 Visit the links to read our previous profiles on Former Senator Lisa Singh and Founder of Sober Mates, Sam Wilson.

During South Asian Heritage Month, we’ll be celebrating and reclaiming South Asian histories and identities. If you enjoyed this post follow us on Instagram to stay in the loop as we share the next two profiles in this series! If you’d like to be a part of our community of ambitious South Asian women, sign up for our paid membership!

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