In a warm tête-à-tête with Ketaki Latkar, philanthropist and author Sudha Murty discusses her latest book, the prevailing biases in society, and how she remains detached from material possessions
This happened last year, at London’s Heathrow International airport, as Sudha Murty, the Infosys Foundation chairman, was homebound to Bengaluru. Unadorned, modest and wearing a simple salwar kameez, she was standing at the terminal gate and joined the queue for business class travellers, until an encounter she hadn’t remotely envisaged, left her rather flummoxed. In the queue were standing two women before her, both well-heeled, one in an Indo-Western silk outfit, Gucci handbag and high heels. And her friend, in a seemingly expensive silk sari, pearl necklace and earrings, and delicate diamond bangles. “Go and stand in the economy class queue. This line is for business class travellers,” said one of these women, taking ownership of associating Murty’s choice of clothes and minimalism to lack of buying power and class. But when Murty did not seem to budge from the line, the woman continued with her ranting, and did not think twice before crossing the line “It is hard to argue with these cattle-class people.”
Being called cattle-class did not enrage her, says Murty, but certainly triggered her to give the women her two cents, after walking through the business class check-in. For Murty, class does not mean possession of huge amount of money. You may be rich enough to buy comfort and luxuries, but the same money doesn’t define class or give you the ability to purchase it. “Mother Teresa was a classy woman. So is Manjul Bhargava, a great mathematician of Indian origin. The concept that you automatically gain class by acquiring money is an outdated thought process,” she clarified to the women, leaving them speechless.
This and 10 other short stories, touching upon a range of issues from her personal, professional and social life, the difficulties and challenges she encountered and overcame while working for the Infosys Foundation and the prevailing stereotypes in society are the key contents of Murty’s new book Three Thousand Stitches.
No time for conformists
In a free-wheeling conversation with FPJ, most of which happened in Marathi, given Murty’s love for regional languages, she says, “I am a very simple person, but I enjoy looking well and tidy. I usually love wearing saris, impeccably ironed and starched, and of course with my ‘ambada’ (hair bun).”
One of the greatest concerns for Murty is the fact that people in our society are quick to pass judgements based on appearance, one’s possessions and lavishness and the ability to converse in English in a social setting. Whether this stems from a diminishing system of values, or the colonial hangover is uncertain, but its presence certainly cannot be ignored. “The biggest problem is the hypocrisy in approach. A social worker is expected to dress in a certain way; so are an industrialist and a computer scientist. If this expectation is not met, then there’s a problem. This thought process is passé and needs to be eradicated,” she insists, sounding more concerned than exasperated.
Perhaps, that’s why Murty’s preferred genre of work is non-fiction, given that she can talk about real life, its beauty, the challenges and the little peccadilloes. Ask her if writing comes naturally to her, or if she actually plans it and makes a conscious effort, she happily states an analogy, “It is just how we set milk to boil on the stove. It starts to heat up, and then, there comes a point when it starts to overflow. Writing, for me is very similar. Ideas begin to start brewing inside my mind, and when the time comes, they spill over and get on paper.”
Nothing to lose
Three Thousand Stitches is a mixed bag of anecdotes and true stories that have been encountered by Murty. In her characteristically clear-eyed and warm-hearted style, she candidly writes about a range of topics, such as the meaningful impact of her work in the devadasi community, her struggles as the only female student while pursuing engineering, the unexpected impact and inspiring consequences of her father’s kindness, and so on.
When Murty first approached the devadasis to offer help and talk to them about AIDS awareness, they responded in the most hostile manner and threw chappals and tomatoes at her. In her college days at engineering college, she was often subjected to taunts, unwelcoming remarks from the boys in class and was even discouraged by the college authorities to sign up for the course, despite outstanding merit. But neither the chappals and tomatoes, nor the unreceptive treatment at engineering college deterred her spirit. She not only battled the odds with grace, but emerged a hands-down winner as a philanthropist, computer scientist, and of course, as an author, for telling these tales.
The opening chapter of the book is titled Three Thousand Stitches, and it speaks about the setting up of The Infosys Foundation, and Murty’s first big task of helping the devadasis of Karnataka. The story speaks about her journey from naivety to a strategic and task-driven social reformer, and in the end, gets the reader welled up on learning how 3,000 devadasis, who have been rehabilitated by the Infosys Foundation, designed and stitched a bedspread for Murty (or akka, as they lovingly call her).
Working for a social cause may be noble; but it comes with certain risks, right from the uncertainties surrounding the response from the target audience, to threats from anti-social agents. But, for Murty, courage is second nature. “When you have nothing to lose, you achieve your desired goals. Fear and apprehensions always spoil the work. Also, I don’t care about what people feel or say about me. I don’t work to please anyone, I work for myself, and I feel I don’t possess anything to lose. So, I am always at peace,” she signs off calmly.