white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

How to live your life in a world that isn’t ready for you? Two young women, two tales.


Imagine you are a young, intelligent lady living a century ago. The war is starting in Europe, and India is yet to become independent. Economically, politically, socially, enormous chains are binding you to a sub-optimal life.

The world is not ready or prepared for your brilliance. 

And yet, you nurture dreams. 

Today, we’ll see the story of two young women. One wants to conquer the world and enjoy its riches. The other wants to realize her inner-self. 

Who are these women? And what lessons do they have for leaders?

Our first heroine is Mata Hari, the most famous woman spy in history. She tragically was executed for treason in a case that was never proved in full. Paulo Coelho tracks down her life story for us in his trademark poetic style. And while it isn’t as popular nor as sunny as its sibling, The Alchemist, it’s a story for our times. 

Our other Superstar is Suri Nagamma, one of the most exalted devotees of the sage Ramana Maharishi. This book is her autobiography. She tells us how she came to live her life purpose. I found this book tucked into a corner store in Turvanamalai. It’s now available on Kindle too. 

How to live your life - Suri Nagamma
How to live your life – Suri Nagamma

Both the young women pursued very different purposes and lived very different lives. And yet, they both have a lot to teach us on how to live our life. They can help us find meaning and achieve success.

A question of purpose.

We all want to find our purpose and fulfill our destiny – whether we wish to become a business leader, sculpt a masterpiece, or help at the orphanage. 

Marta’s mother shares some timeless advice when her daughter is leaving for boarding school. 

She cautions against escaping our inner nature or purpose – it will manifest in whatever we choose to do. So why not become friends with it and invite it into your life?

The Immortal words

On the day of my departure, my mother called me over and gave me a packet of seeds:

“Take these with you, Martha.”….

I asked what the seeds were for.

“They’re tulip seeds, the symbol of our country. But, more than that, they represent a truth you must learn. These seeds will always be tulips, even if at the moment you cannot tell them apart from other flowers. They will never turn into roses or sunflowers, no matter how much they might desire to. And if they try to deny their own existence, they will live life bitter and die.”

“So you must learn to follow your destiny, whatever it may be with joy. As flowers grow, they show off their beauty and are appreciated by all; then, after they die, they leave their seeds so others may continue God’s work.”…..

“Even the tallest trees are able to grow from tiny seeds like these. Remember, and try not to rush time”.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.A couple of paras edited,

Understanding your true inner nature. Patience. Leaving a legacy for others to continue.

Wow – such brilliant advice on how to live our life. 

But we often don’t heed advice until it’s too late. The power of these books is in not only focusing on role models but also on anti-model behaviors. As Taleb says:

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find anti-models – people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

Inner nature, models, and anti-model behaviors – these keep cropping up through the book.

With the background out of the way, let’s get started already!

Humble Beginnings

Mata Hari is born Margaretha Zelle in a little Dutch town to prosperous parents. She is placed in an excellent school. While tedious, it’s a good life.  

Fate strikes a few years later, and the family loses their wealth. To prevent their daughter from facing hardship, they send Margarethe to a boarding school in another town. Her parents are hopeful that the education will pave the way for her to become a teacher before settling down into family life.

Fate strikes again. Margaretha’s mom dies. Her principal turns out to be a pervert. And she doesn’t want to become a school teacher or live a family life. 

She yearns for adventure and a way out of this mundane life. 

Life in a rural village

As for Suri Nagamma, here she is explaining her background:

I was born in the small village in the Guntur District in Andhra Pradesh in August 1902. My father passed away when I was four years old, and my mother followed him when I was ten. My eldest brother, born a dwarf, could not look after the family and my two other elder brothers were away in Madras studying in College. So my elder sister, along with her husband, stayed on in my village to look after me. 

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

At eleven, Suri is married to a village boy who dies in a small-pox epidemic.

Suri has to take care of her disabled brother at the tender age of twelve. She is widowed for life (remarriage was not an option in those days), and she seems to be fated to live her life out in the village. 

Suri Nagamma doesn’t dwell on fate. Instead, she asks herself, how do I live my life best given these circumstances? The answer comes to her in a flash – to live a life as a spiritual seeker. And in an amazing display of one-pointedness, she spends the rest of her life toward that pursuit.

As childhood comes to an end, both young women are set to explore the world.

One craves adventure and knowledge of the world. The other turns inward to explore her inner world. 

Seeking fulfillment – the early years.

Marta is enamored with the world. She is beautiful, learned, and intelligent. She believes she will achieve success if only she can escape from her current life.

And to this end, she ends up wooing and marrying an Army man twice her age and leaving for Indonesia with him. In time she becomes a mother. But what should have been a paradise feels suffocating. In her words:

Now I had only my daughter, a house that was always empty, a husband who never took me anywhere for fear of being betrayed, and a city so beautiful it felt oppressive; here I was in paradise, living my own personal hell.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

A fellow Army man’s wife’s suicide jolts her out of her stupor. She decides to leave this life behind and explore new beginnings in Europe. 

Aligning to a higher purpose

Suri Nagamma is Anti-fragile. She accepts the situation she is in wholeheartedly and reframes the situation – she believes life is moving her toward spirituality.

There are no schools in her rural village. She teaches herself to read and write with the help of some elders. She spends a lot of time reading spiritual books, hearing devotional talks, and offering service at the temples.

When she falls ill, she requests a secluded area for her meditations. She turns to sattvic food, which further helps her spiritual practice.

She even finds an opportunity to learn poetry – and immediately puts her learning into practice.

While I was on the search, I happened to meet Srimati Gudipudi Indumati Devi, a poetess of repute. That was a very fortunate thing for me, for I learnt from her how to write poems, and how to look at the world in the proper perspective. In due course, I wrote a Satakam (a book of hundred and eight verses) under the name Manasa Satakam.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

However, there’s one area she won’t compromise on – the search for the right Guru.

Although I had heard of several eminent men in the spiritual field, none of them seemed to have the attributes of the Siddha Purusha I had seen in my dream, and so I could not accept any of them as my Guru.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

And so she lives, searching hard for her Guru while building her spiritual muscle. 

There are lessons in leadership from both of them on how to live our life.

Mata Hari teaches us how to pursue worldly success. She has decided to seek freedom, money, and fame. She displays three characteristics that account for the success of many of today’s entrepreneurs:

  1. Hustle – relentlessly push forward and use every opportunity – even if the end vision isn’t clear yet
  2. Know when to Quit and move on – don’t get chained to your past
  3. Pivot – keep tweaking and looking for opportunities until something works.

Suri Nagamma teaches us how to live when one has a purpose.

  1. Choose an over-arching life purpose (find a Guru and attain moksha) and aligns everything in life to this.
  2. Use NO strategically. She says NO to many gurus and is willing to trust in providence and wait for the right person to turn up. 
  3. Uses adversity to your advantage. She is Anti-fragile in the real sense.  

Tasting success – the middle years

Mata Hari manipulates a gentleman to give her a reference to an influencer in Paris. And she soon becomes one of Europe’s most famous dancers and influential society woman. 

Life is an adventure and showers her with riches and fame. She loves the sense of going wherever life takes her. In her words:

When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

The focus on becoming the best and then holding onto the pole position gets her immensely competition focussed. She’s almost like the Digital Powerhouse companies of today – playing hard, swallowing all the competition, and exercising all her might to stay at the top. 

Her heart attracts some quality advice, but her brain has no time for such little things. Here’s some beautiful advice she doesn’t have time to reflect on. The first is from an artist and the second from a violinist. 

“It took me four years to learn how to paint like a Renaissance master and my entire life to go back to drawing like a child.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition

The most beautiful melody in the world will become a monstrosity if the strings are out of tune.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

How to live your life when the future is disruptive?

And so she steamrolls on. But Father time waits for no one. Unlike today where performances can be archived and royalty earned, her career has an expiry date. Younger, hungrier competition pours in. Former allies now turn foes – she cannot expect loyalty and good faith in the transactional world she inhabits.

She decides to take one more big bet and move to a different country (Germany) to start the next phase of her career. There’s no point in staying on as an average Joe:

“It’s because I dream of being accepted and respected, though I don’t owe anything to anyone. Why do I need that? I waste my time on worries, regrets, and darkness—a darkness that only enslaves me, chaining me to a rock where I’m served up as food for birds of prey, a rock that I can no longer leave.”

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

How to live your life purpose – seek a Guru!

Suri Nagamma, meanwhile, has found her Guru, Sri Ramana Maharishi, through her brother. 

She travels alone to Arunachala – an unheard-of event for a young, shy rural woman of her time. 

And at the first opportunity, she poses her only request to the great Sage:

Finally, with a trembling voice, I said, “Please somehow help me to attain Mukti.” Looking at me with compassion, he merely nodded his head.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

This single point focus gets her to start achieving success. The great Sage sums her up in his trademark style:

Look, people, write saying that I am this avatar and that. Do you know what Nagamma has written? ‘He is the omnipresent, omnipotent Self. He is born to show us the path for the realisation of the Self.’ Where is Vijayawada, and where is Arunachalam? She came from there and has been staying here all alone and she has written like this. What can we say about it? The nature of people reveals itself according to their Samskara. Her Samskara is like that.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

Using her excellent writing skills, she starts creating letters on her experiences, which are very well received. However, politics and troubles raise their head too – and one of her masterpieces is confiscated by the authorities. But she sees these deterrents as stepping stones to achieving self-realization:

Truth always succeeds, but for those who stick to it at all times, suffering is unavoidable. 

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

Becoming a writer and a sage

Her stoic attitude and unwavering focus keep pushing her into the limelight. Here’s a conversation that takes place when a few highly revered pundits request her to continue with the letters.

“Why do you ask me, an uneducated woman to write? You are all great pandits. Why don’t you stay on here and write?” 

Sivarama Sastri smiled and said, “Look, please do not think we could do this sort of work. As our minds are steeped in sastras and other literature, we cannot take note of the inner meanings of the teachings of great sages like Bhagavan. Knowledge itself is a great hindrance to spiritual progress. You do not have such a difficulty, as you look upon Bhagavan as a personification of God and take what he speaks as the Vedas themselves. So, you alone have to do this work. It is a must. Don’t get discouraged. Take it as your duty,” and went away.. 

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

But fame and money don’t mean anything to her. She decides to ask the Sage if she should continue writing, and he tells her a story ending with this moral:

“People who do good work and have a mind to choose self-enquiry never give up their work, although they feel it to be a burden.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

And so she continues her life at the Ashram, growing into a spiritual powerhouse in her own right. And yet, she also takes the time to visit her brothers and their family. Over time, they also become devotees of the path. 

The Ending

Marta takes the big bet of emigrating to Germany and starting a new career as a dancer. However, the war is beginning, and things are rough. Living becomes a struggle.

She gets a hint that the German secret police are looking for celebrities like her to become agents for Germany against the allies. 

She walks up to the German Intelligence unit and signs up as their agent. And to make things more interesting, she also visits the French Intelligence unit and signs up as a double agent. For her, it’s a game – she doesn’t trade any secrets. And the move enables her to live in the celebrity lifestyle she is used to now.

Both sides are suspicious, but they have no evidence to reveal her as a traitor.

And that is when she falls in love with a soldier affected in the way. And this gentleman betrays her, leading to her eventual arrest and execution. 

Her lawyer tries his best (though she feels he is not pulling all the strings), but he fails to convince the government to halt the execution. She leaves behind a letter for her daughter – the only person she cares about in the world. And dies stoically, without being chained or blind-folded. An era ends.

Retiring in Peace

Suri Nagamma’s next phase of life is fully dedicated to practice and worries about Maharishi’s declining health. It’s hard watching helplessly as his condition worsens, and against his advice, doctors persevere with increasingly invasive treatment. 

Suri Nagamma uses these worries as a springboard for her realization. She retires to her childhood home town, constructs a little “Ramana” ashram, lives her life sharing his stories, and helping with the temples’ service. Unasked, people flock to see her and take her blessings. And they learn how to live their lives in peace.

Who is a success? Who teaches us how to live our lives?

I believe both of them were successes – they achieved what their heart told them to do.

Here is Marta on how her life would have turned out to be if she had lived the life society had planned for her.

I did not want to be her, that woman who looked into the eyes of Andreas’s wife and understood. The one who told me that our lives are planned out down to the minutest details: You are born, go to school, and attend university in search of a husband. You get married—even if he is the worst man in the world—just so that others can’t say no one wants you. You have children, grow old, and spend the end of your days watching passersby from a chair on the sidewalk, pretending to know everything about life yet unable to silence the voice in your heart that says: “You could try something else.”

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

Even her death by execution, while tragic, gave her fame and a legacy we talk about even today. She would have probably accepted it as a better bargain than anonymity. In her words:

I am a woman who was born at the wrong time, and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.

Coelho, Paulo. The Spy. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

If there was one thing she would have missed, it would have been the absence of the right people in her life. She was just too busy for people. And that was probably her only regret. 

Give up the world to enjoy its riches!

Suri Nagamma loves anonymity, but fate makes her famous. This rural girl bootstrapped herself. She learned what she needed, dared to move to a different location, and stayed entirely focused on her dreams. 

On a pilgrimage to Kasi, one of India’s most sacred places, the priest suggests that everyone give up a flower, a fruit, and a vegetable. 

Curious as ever, she asks what they truly symbolize, and he answers that they enjoin giving up the three big attachments in life:

  • the desire for the world
  • desire for wealth and
  • The desire for a child

She happily gives up the desires – they are almost sublimated for her anyway. Suri Nagamma spends an hour at the Kasi Viswanath temple guarding the Sanctum Santorum, who miraculously gets called away. She continues to witness miracles and lead an extraordinary life.

For one who gives up the world, the world lays itself at their feet, says an old proverb. Here’s Suri Nagamma talking about her life:

Whenever I go to Arunachala, the Ashramites extend to me the same affectionate regard as before. Then people used to say that I was Bhagavan’s eldest child and the Ashram’s eldest daughter. Now too they say the same thing. Bhagavan’s relatives look upon me as one of their own family. President T. N. Venkataraman calls me his elder sister and his children regard me as their auntie. We are all Guru Bandhus – that is to say relatives through the Guru.

Nagamma, Suri. My life at Sri Ramansaram . Sri Ramanasramam. Kindle Edition

To me, they are both incredible successes born ahead of their time. 

How to live your life? A summary of learnings

Here’s a one-minute summary of the notes I took of what we can learn from them on leadership:

  1. You can choose two paths. Follow your instinct and pivot until you succeed. Or determine a purpose and let it define your life.
  2. Role model behaviors are important. Understanding anti-role model behaviors are just as crucial for leadership. 
  3. Roots and family are essential. They define us in ways we cannot imagine. Families and friends’ support is vital during difficult times.
  4. Success is what you define it to be. As long as your definition is in sync with your actions, you are ok! Let no one tell you how to live your life unless you agree!
  5. When we tread in uncertain times, situational leadership is critical. Our ability to innovate is what will set us up for success.
  6. In the most unlikely characters, we will find the most useful lessons! And fiction is my favorite source!

7 comments

  1. Brilliant piece of writing Subra. Two fantastic women and how amazingly you’ve written about them connecting to leadership lessons. Trademark Subra style 👌

  2. Very nice comparison and quotes of their life and impeccable summary at the end. Thanks Subra for providing

  3. Really liked the way you’ve connected two different stories … how to become a leader through adversity.. it also emphasized that where there is a will there is a way… moreover after reading i really want to read these books…

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