As a kid, Sudha Murty remembers her grandfather asking her what she would do if she were given a pair of wings. ‘I didn’t think twice,’ she recalls. ‘I told him I’d fly to the nearest library and read all the books there.’
If there is one thing that has remained a constant companion for the 72-year-old Padma Bhushan awardee, it is a passion for reading. ‘Until I graduated, the only gifts I received from my parents and grandparents were books. Never a sari or dress or anything else,’ says the author of more than 40 books who was recently in Dubai to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Dressed in a green cotton sari, a string of jasmine in her hair that is neatly pulled into a bun, the author of Grandma’s Bag of Tales is a picture of warmth and cheer as she takes my hand in hers in a warm handshake before we sit down for the interview.
Barely a few hours earlier, the author of novels, short stories, travelogues and technical books in English and Kannada was busy with a bunch of enthusiastic children telling them stories from one of her books.
I am curious to know what moves her to try her hand in such different genres.
‘Writing is an expression of my emotions. When I come across something interesting, I save it in my memory. I have a computer science background, so when I like it, I store it,’ she explains, with a smile.
When she is convinced that her story is ready in her mind, she begins to write, exploring every saved thought, layer by layer. ‘A novel takes years for me because I think about my characters every morning, but I can write it in about 20 days,’ says the author of Wise and Otherwise, adding it’s not writing that makes her nervous, but cooking.
She goes on to explain that technical books – she has written two – are relatively easy to write as they do not involve ‘a lot of emotions’. Also, if earlier she enjoyed writing travelogues, she no longer does so now ‘because you get everything on the internet’.
Did she take a lot of pictures during her travels?
‘No, because I want to possess as little as possible,’ says the wife of Narayana Murthy, the billionaire co-founder of tech giant Infosys.
Sudha has often emphasised on the importance of adopting a simple lifestyle. ‘If you are simple, life will be easy. The more expectations you have from life, the greater will be your disappointments,’ she explains.
The Murtys may be billionaires today, but there was a time when money was not easy to come by. ‘When we were building Infosys, ups and downs were part of our life,’ she says. She remembers selling her jewellery to build a two-bedroom house where they continue to live in today. ‘Our life is very simple; we were always happy with a two-bedroom house. We extended it to a three-bedroom because we began having a lot of guests.’
WRITING FOR CHILDREN
Sudha began writing books for children to give them an early understanding of the Indian way of life. Written in simple, concise language, her stories revolve around her life experiences and are generously sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom culled from people who inspired her during her many travels, and peppered with her own world view and philosophy.
One of her first books, How I Taught My Grandmother to Read, is based on her childhood experiences of growing up in the care of her maternal grandmother in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Over the years she produced several acclaimed works in both Kannada and English, bagging several awards including the Crossword Book award in popular (Non-Fiction) category.
Some of her works have been included as course materials in schools while some have been used as topics and study material by doctoral students.
‘I published my first novel in my mother tongue, Kannada, in 1979 when I was 29. My first book in English was published when I was over 50 after T.J.S George, who was then a senior editor at the Indian Express, encouraged me to do so,’ says the much-published author who is a recipient of the prestigious R. K Narayan Award for her contribution to literature.
What sets Sudha apart from many writers in English is that it was only well into her teens that she began to have a firm grasp of the English language. ‘I am from a middle-class family and studied in a Kannada medium school up to Class 10,’ says the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation (the non-profit arm of Infosys) and a member of the public health care initiatives of the Gates Foundation.
Aspiring to become an engineer, she secured admission in an engineering college, the only girl in the batch of about 150 students. While in college she remembers struggling with her studies as the medium of instruction was English.
She recalls mentioning to her mother her inability to write in English even though she understood what was taught. ‘My mother, a teacher, gave me a piece of advice I cherish. She said: ‘You must know how to ride the wave rather than [finding ways to] avoid it.’’
Her mother encouraged her to work on her English by reading newspapers and books.
She did, and went on to graduate in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from B.V.B College of Engineering (presently KLE Technology University) as the topper, securing a gold medal for her outstanding performance.
‘Knowledge does not belong to anyone, the person who seeks it will find it,’ she believes.
In 1974 she completed her post-graduation in Computer Science from Indian Institute of Science, once again bagging a gold medal for exceptional performance.
Although she was offered scholarships from universities in the US to pursue a doctorate in computer science, Sudha wanted to take up a job and recalls an advertisement that caught her attention and, in many ways, changed her life.
‘It was a standard job-requirement notice from the well-known automobile company Telco (now Tata Motors) seeking young, bright engineers with an excellent academic background. However, at the bottom of the ad was a line that said ‘Lady candidates need not apply’.
‘I was extremely upset,’ she says. A firm believer in equality, the young engineer dashed off a postcard to none other than the then chairman of the company JRD Tata expressing her protest.
The letter had the desired effect. A few days later, she received an invitation to attend an interview in Pune and landed her first job. At a time when few women led the way, she became the first female engineer to be hired by India’s largest auto manufacturer.
It was during this time that she met N.R. Narayana Murthy, and after more than four years of courtship, were married in 1978.
When her husband wished to start a software company, Sudha willingly contributed her savings of Rs10,000, thus becoming the first investor and the backbone in the setting up of what would go on to become the mega firm Infosys. As Narayana Murthy worked hard to realise his dream, Sudha was the strong anchor that kept their relationship and ambitions steady, even as she was taking care of their children – Akshata and Rohan Murty.
PASSION FOR PHILANTHROPY
When not busy writing books, Sudha has her hands full of philanthropic activities.
The Infosys Foundation, the non-profit arm of the firm, was set up in 1996 to fund causes that the Murtys were passionate about. As Chairperson of the foundation, Sudha spearheaded a movement to provide Karnataka government schools with computer and library facilities. She also set up ‘The Murty Classical Library of India’ at Harvard University. The trust has contributed to the building of over 2,300 houses in flood affected areas, donated millions to build amenities for schools in rural areas among other initiatives that have helped the underprivileged living in remote areas across India.
‘Infosys Foundation,’ she once said, ‘changed my life. I’ve lived in villages, worked with sex workers, leprosy patients and HIV patients. I realised what my country is. Progress in India would be if a child gets three meals, clothes, studies up to class 10 and learns surviving skill jobs.’
Some of Sudha’s experiences of working with sex workers have been chronicled in her book Three Thousand Stitches.
Does she ever discuss her stories with her husband?
‘Mr. Murthy is never a part of my creative journeys,’ she replies. ‘It’s a lonely process that I enjoy. Me and my pen, my friend. If I had not married [Murthy], I would not have been rich, but I would still have been a writer.’
POWER OF STORIES
Clearly, Sudha understood the power of stories even as she was growing up. As the class monitor in school, she would often have to mind the class in a teacher’s absence and the little girl quickly realised that they best way to keep them quiet and silent was by reading them a story.
The practice continued when she became a teacher in a college, she would use the last few minutes of her class to share a story with her students. Much later when she met her students and asked them if the lessons that she taught them in management decisions, risk analysis and data analysis were useful in their life, they would tell her that they do not remember a lot about the lessons. What they do remember, they said, were the stories she told them.
While Sudha is acclaimed for her writing, philanthropy, and the impact that her work has had on society, not many know that she is a movie lover, too. ‘I can never get tired of movies,’ she says, adding that she could have become a film journalist.
In fact so taken in is Sudha of movies, that she even acted in one – Pitruroon, a Marathi adaption of her Kannada story, Runa.
Does she have a favourite author or book? ‘I prefer English authors... I read Kannada books too,’ she says, adding, ‘now I am reading Manu Pillai. I am very interested in History. I am also reading India in the Persianate Age by Richard M. Eaton. I like reading books by Sanjay Sanyal and Shrabani Basu.’
Other than their love for books, Narayana and Sudha share few common interests. ‘We are two different individuals. I am an extrovert, my husband is an introvert. I love music and movies, my husband prefers to do deep thinking.’
Sudha believes that it is important for both partners to be busy for a marriage to work. ‘To maintain harmony in any relationship it is important for both partners to be busy. Very important.’
She is also aware that ‘women have to often juggle their professions with their personal lives. Once you have children, they become the priority. When you return [to your career after a break], you won’t be in the same level. But remember age is no bar. It is passion that takes you to the top. That and a good support system’.
So, how does she keep her identity as Sudha, other than being the wife of global software tycoon, Narayan Murthy, mother of Akshata and Rohan Murty and mother-in-law of the Prime Minister of United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak.
The 72-year-old, who has often braved the road less travelled smiles. ‘I believe that the beauty in a person lies in simplicity and confidence. I don’t worry about what people think. What I think about myself is more important. I have always believed in living by example, leading by example and showing by example. I always consider the person next to me like myself. This is the way I treat everyone,’ she says.
As we come to the end of the interview, I ask her if she has any advice for young readers and budding authors.
‘Read a lot, observe and be sensitive. Sensitivity helps you write better. Get more experience of life before you begin writing because you need to be authentic. Write it all down and give your thoughts a home. Read again because you need to make corrections. Do not publish it immediately, give yourself and your work some time.’
As I stand up to thank her for taking the time, she holds my hand and invites me to have a snack that is on the table nearby.
‘Come on, have one. Will your mother let you go without giving you something to eat? she says, serving me a crispy samosa and a dollop of spicy sauce.
I’m unlikely to forget the taste of this samosa for a long while.