What’s Inside The Handbag Of A Phenomenal Woman (TEDxGCT Talk)



TEDx Talk

What is inside the bag of a phenomenal woman?

Until the 16th-century clothing had no pockets, so men and women carried handbags. Then pockets became an integral part of clothing in the 17th century. Men ditched the handbags. Women continued to carry them. These bags were small drawstring bags and were called “indispensables”. Rightly so!

Have you ever seen a woman without a handbag? I haven’t. Some women carry their world and the neighbouring planet in their handbags.

The contents of a woman’s handbag can give an inkling to the person that she is. If you find Ipad, documents, files, toys, and band-aids in the bag, you know she is a mother of small children and a career woman. If the bag has mirror,  mints, makeup, money, condoms and pepper spray, you know that she’s a well-prepared woman. And you don’t mess with her. I have a friend, who was the Vice President of a company. In her bag, you will always find biscuit packets, antiseptic cream and hand sanitizer in her bag. She’s a lover of street dogs and a nurturer. Apparently, Hillary Clinton and Beyonce carry hot sauce and chilli flakes in their bags. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I have always wondered about what phenomenal women carried in their handbags.

Dictionary defines phenomenal as highly extraordinary, exceptional. However, I like the phenomenal woman as described by one of my favourite poets Maya Angelou. Her phenomenal woman is not cute or built to a fashion model’s size. But she has a charisma about her that you wonder where her secret lies.

She’s imperfect, no doubt, but nevertheless exceptional.

I have been a writer and a journalist for more than two decades. And my life has been informed and influenced by people and their stories. I have met many phenomenal women during this time. And I found that all these women carry few things (metaphorical things..that is) in their handbags. Apart from other essentials.

I find these five things in the bags of all phenomenal women.


Things you will find inside the handbag of a phenomenal woman

  1. A bottle of the warrior spirit.
  2. A large sachet of humour/satire or a funny bone
  3. A book of courage and a compass of common sense
  4. Heels with wheels or travelling shoes
  5. And finally a rainbow

Let’s look at each one of these things.

First a Bottle of Warrior Spirit

Now, who is a warrior? She is a fighter, someone who is brave in the face of conflict.

TED Talks

Shakti Bhaskar and Dr.Narthaki Nataraj

This is Narthaki Nataraj and Shakti Bhaskar, two phenomenal women who taught me that a warrior’s body might be the weapon, but how the weapon is used depends on the warrior’s spirit – you know…the heart and mind.

Narthaki was born in Madurai in a conservative family of farmers and who had no connection whatsoever with classical dance. She’s the fifth child in a family of 10. Right from the time she was three or four years old she wanted to be a Bharatnatyam dancer. She would drape herself in her mother’s sari and dance in front of the mirror. She was like any other four-year-old girl. The only difference was that she was not a girl. She was born a boy. Shakti too had a similar fate…no; I don’t want to say fate…it somehow seems to have a negative connotation to it. Shakti also was born like Narthaki. They lived in the same neighbourhood. Childhood friends. And even today they lean on each other. Narthaki calls Shakti, her God-given Amma. Both of them were ridiculed by family, friends and society. Narthaki was beaten up for dancing and of course for walking and talking like a girl. But Narthaki was focused on her dream of becoming a dancer.  She even secretly learnt to dance under a guru…in a pigsty. When she was 16, she was thrown out of the house for being who she was. Shakti too left her home to join Narthaki. The two worked in the house of a music teacher as maids in return for shelter and music lessons. It was Nartaki’s burning desire or dream to learn dance under Guru Kittappa Pillai, the doyen of Bharatnatyam. The man who was the guru of dancers like Vyjayanthimala, Sudha Rani Raghupathy, Hema Malini and so on. Narthaki pleaded with him to take her on as his disciple. But he refused. Narthaki was persistent. After almost two years, Kittapapillai relented. Narthaki was his last disciple and learnt dance from him in the old Gurukul system.

TEDxGCT 2017

Dr.Narthaki Nataraj. Pic: Roy

Today, she is the guardian of rare compositions that she learnt from him. She is also Dr.Narthaki Nataraj, who has received many accolades, travels around the world, teaching the dance form in many international universities. Today, she is accepted by her family and well-respected in society.

But just for a minute, close your eyes and imagine, the lives of these two wonderful women in a society and at a time when the third gender had no option but to either become prostitutes or beggars at traffic signals. Imagine what it would’ve taken these Bravehearts, these warriors, to hold on to a dream till it became a reality.

Two phenomenal women, who never let hatefulness kill their dreams. Their warrior spirit enabled them to rise again and again.

Even today, I always find them carrying a bottle of the warrior spirit in their bags.

  1. The second item that I usually find in the handbag of phenomenal women is a large sachet/packet of humour or a funny bone.

TEDxGCT 2017As women, I think we are living in the most interesting of times. On the one hand, you have unprecedented women bashing. She gets blamed for everything…from rape to abuse to even natural calamities. And on the other side, there’s also unprecedented push-back from women. We are no more women whose place is in the kitchen alone; we are no more women with no voice or opinion; we are no more women who readily walks one step behind the menfolk. Every day we are marching forward. But it is not an easy march. Every time we take one step forward we are pulled back 10. Still, we clobber our way back. In this exciting but hard journey, on a daily basis, we encounter morons…people who say things like women wearing jeans cause earthquakes and floods and so on. If we are to maintain our sanity and not die of high BP because we are continually raging against these morons, then we need to have a sense of humour. We need to learn to laugh as much as we need to learn to rage – both at ourselves and the world around us.

TEDxGCT 2017


And I know few phenomenal women to use humour and satire to navigate the choppy waters of life.

Humor/comedy/satire can be a social corrective. A social reaction that can take head on the negative behaviour of individuals or society at large.

Sometime back, when I quit my job, I got to spend time with my mum. Ask any Malayali, and he/she will tell you that after 6 pm it is the tv serials that rule the homestead. So, I ended up watching a lot of these serials with mum… obviously, because I wanted to spend time with her.

But at the end of the day, I would be frothing with rage. The regressive storylines, the misogynistic dialogues, the portrayal of women in these serials…everything angered me.

TEDxGCT 2017 Like always, it was humour and satire, which I lean upon to deal with my rage and other emotions that helped me not to die of high BP. It led to the creation of the Instagram project Ladies Saloon 007.  It not only helped me deal with what I was feeling but also became a platform for discussion of important issues. As I mentioned earlier, satire/ humour can be a social corrective, a social reaction that can take on negative behaviour by an individual or society.

A little bit of art and lot of humour can give you a perspective on things and encourage people to have a discussion too. And all phenomenal women make humour/satire their constant companion.


3. The third thing that phenomenal women usually carry is a book of courage (and a compass of common sense).

It was my first year in college. The bus stop was a 10-minute walk away from college. I used to dread walking alone because there used to be these roadside Romeos lounging around, passing comments and sometimes even brushing against you or grabbing you. Most of us girls would walk clutching a file or books to our chest (We really didn’t need these for the class). But this was almost like armour for us. On that particular day, I forgot my armour. I remember dragging my feet slowly to the bus stop. As I was nearing the bus stop, I saw three idiots walking towards me. I know trouble when I see it. And the instant reaction of all girls is when you see trouble you avoid it. I tried to avoid their eyes. Tried to veer away from their path. But they had zeroed on me.. The guy in the middle came straight at me, and as he crossed me, he grabbed my left breast and walked away. I too walked a few steps away. Because you didn’t want to attract attention and gather a crowd. But I was seething with rage, and my legs were shaking in fear. But something in me snapped that day. I turned around and called out to the guys. Initially, it stunned them that I even dared to open my mouth. Then they came charging towards me because you see, I was still timid. I asked, Why did you do that? He said Because I wanted to and I can. My fear increased.My insides were shaking in fear. But my voice rose too. I screamed aloud, You want to touch me, come and get me and I kept moving towards the boys aggressively though on the inside I was shaking with fear. By now a crowd had gathered, and people were watching.

Across the street, there was a slum. And from there I saw this large woman probably in her 50s, emerge, charging towards the boys with a broom.  And I tell you, on that day she whacked the boys solid. The minute she did that a couple of others from the crowd stepped forward to help us and sort out the issue.

In the larger scheme of things, this might be insignificant. But on that day, I learnt that being courageous does not mean being without fear. It means putting yourself out there, standing for what you believe in spite of your fears; it is about pushing through your fears. And the thing about your courage is that it encourages others around you to be courageous as well.

Along with courage you also need common sense to be all the other things that you want to be – kind, just, truthful, generous, spontaneous, consistent…all the characteristics that make a phenomenal woman.  Look around, and you will find scores of phenomenal women who carry this book of courage with them always.

  1. The fourth object that I find in the bag of a phenomenal woman is a pair of heels with wheels or what I call travelling shoes:

Every woman (or man) should embark on a solo trip now and then. Like how celebrities indulge in an enema now and then. It cleanses your system inside out. On solo trips you learn to push through your fears—be it talking to strangers, walking alone into a fine dining restaurant or sleeping alone in strange places. You learn to ‘ask’, to receive, to give and to take. Prejudices dissolve. You learn to trust humanity. Also, yourself too. Travelling makes you street-smart, sharpens your instincts, and opens your heart and mind.

TEDxGCT 2017, TED Talks

After working 24/7 for seven years at a job that took a toll on my life and health, I bought a ticket to Goa. I shacked up in a hotel close to the beach. For the next two weeks, I did everything I had not done for the last seven years. I ate breakfast for lunch and lunch for dinner. I spent hours staring at the ocean, trying to decipher the language of the howling sea. I beachcombed. I roamed the sleepy lanes. I had coffee by myself and with strangers. Ate buckets of fried prawns with nameless women and held hands with Russians with bulging forearms. All the while pretending to be someone else—because when you are travelling solo, you can be whoever you want to be. It is liberating. So I was pretending to be someone else, till I found myself. Travel has shaped the way I think and approach life. One of the things that travel has taught me is that 95% of the time people always treat you the way you want them to treat you. The other five percent are there to prevent your life from becoming too monotonous and boring. Travel expands your heart and your mind. That’s why phenomenal women always have a pair of travelling shoes in their bag.

  1. And last but not the least, phenomenal women always carry a rainbow in their handbag.

A rainbow, it is said, is a triumphant arch, that fills the sky when storms prepare to part. Borrowed wisdom, not my own!

TEDxGCT 2017, TED Talks

This is my mum. 76-years-old. Sharp as a whip. And she is my rainbow. No, that’s not how she dresses up – usually. I was trying to do a cartoon on the accessories of women in Malayalam serials and asked mom, “Ma, what kind of earrings do you think the heroine will wear next in this serial..” That was her response. Yeah, mum is badass. Loads of common sense. Always cuts to the chase.

Her life’s been a series of battles, and she’s lost many times. But today when I see her, I know that she’s won the war. And she is my rainbow. Every time, I encounter a storm, I think of my rainbow, and it energises me to fight the storm or wait it out as the situation calls for. Not only because she is such an inspiring warrior to me, but also because she is my cheerleader. She believes in me more than I believe in myself.

Phenomenal women always have a rainbow in their bag. This rainbow is made of encouraging words, people who believe in them, memories of victories, appreciation and all things that will encourage them to remember, on a particularly stormy night, that this too shall pass and tomorrow is another day. They never leave home without their rainbow, because it is their personal portable charger.

So, there you have it. These are things that a phenomenal woman carries in her handbag.

My name is Sudha Pillai. I am 5’2” tall. An XXL size. I like a good laugh. I am definitely not perfect. But I believe I am a phenomenal woman. And so are you. I hope each one of you here goes on to do phenomenal things in life and become phenomenal human beings. God bless and goodbye.


I shall post the video of the talk as soon as it is uploaded 🙂

2017-12-25T12:35:08+05:30 Media|4 Comments


  1. Lekshmi April 25, 2018 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    This article was totally worth reading. I’m sure this’ll work magic in women’s minds . So powerful. Thank you ♥️.

    • Sudha Pillai April 26, 2018 at 12:29 am - Reply

      Thank you, Lekshmi 😊

  2. RAJARAM B A December 26, 2017 at 10:32 am - Reply

    A FORTHRIGHT CONTEMPORARY VIEW.. humour and message subtly conveyed.

    • Sudha Pillai December 26, 2017 at 11:13 am - Reply

      Thank you 😊

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