A Woman of Grace
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
She is one of the most technically qualified of Indian women; she is an author of more than ten books - Novels, Travelogues, Children's Books, Technical Manuals, etc.; she is a mother and housewife and a part-time professor; she is a philanthropist, heading a foundation which gives more than fifty million rupees in charity every year; she spends fifteen to twenty days a month traveling to villages in the interiors of South and Central India supervising the construction of schools, latrines and libraries; she is probably among the richest women in the world, her holdings worth more than $200 million; she lives, however, a middle class life, sharing the cooking and cleaning and minding their modest home in Jayanagar, Bangalore with her husband; she is a woman of grace and generosity; she is a wise woman; and the Congress-I, which wants to rope her into politics, gave her one of this year's "Rajyothsava awards". 1. In Karnataka; she is the woman and the impetus and the financier behind India's greatest success in the info-tech sector. If you still can't recall her name, or unhappily still if you do not know there is such a woman, I want to introduce to you, Mrs. Sudha Murthy.
It is only this past year that people have begun writing about Sudha Murthy, the wife of Narayana Murthy, the chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd. Sudha Murthy could have been the chairperson of the company herself. She has an MTech degree in computer engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. In fact, she got the first rank when she graduated in 1974. She worked for the Tata's as a development engineer and The Walchand Group of Industries as a senior systems analyst. She was working as an engineer for the Tata's when Narayana Murthy came up with the idea of starting Infosys. He had no money and so she gave him the ten thousand rupees she had stashed away for emergencies.
For three years they lived in a one-room apartment in Bombay and worked, worked very hard to give wing to their ambition: to put India on top, "Along with all the other great nations of the world". Sudha Murthy has been the "Safety Net" for Narayana Murthy, the idealistic, Brahmin-Marxist visionary, who like many of that ilk was always short of money! She reveals in a wonderful interview to The Indian Express. 2. That Narayana Murthy still tells her, as they and their enterprises achieve dizzying success, "Thank you, my net".
Sudha Murthy has been asked if she succumbed to the "Traditional/Patriarchal" hierarchy when she gave up her career to enable Narayana Murthy to pursue his. It seems Narayana Murthy told her after she had been working for Infosys for a while that only one of them could work for Infosys. While that decision was difficult to accept she has gone on to achieve the success and the satisfaction in everything she has become involved in. She admits to interviewers that she could have stayed on in Infosys and Narayana Murthy would have quit and that he would not at all have been resentful of that. It seems they made the decision because they realized that the business and industry they were in was so demanding that if both worked for the same company there would not be enough time to bring up their children and mind their house.
In her diary she writes, "Nandan Nilekan suggested that I should be on the Board but Murthy said he did not want a husband and wife team at Infosys. I was shocked since I had the relevant experience and technical qualifications. He said, 'Sudha if you want to work with Infosys, I will withdraw, happily'. I was pained to know that I would have to give up a job that I am qualified to do and love doing. It took me a couple of days to grasp the reason behind Murthy's request. I realised that to make Infosys a success one had to give one's 100 percent. One had to be focused on it alone with no other distractions. If the two of us had to give 100 percent to Infosys then what would happen to our home and children?" 3. She says that a few women journalists have accused her of setting a wrong example by giving up her dreams to make her husband's dream a reality, but she feels that her husband's dreams were grander than hers and that his dreams just did not encompass himself and his family but a generation of people and a whole country. "So, when I had to choose between Murthy's career and mine, I opted for what I thought was the right choice".
4. However, one should realize that Sudha Murthy did not simply step aside to become and be an "Ordinary" housewife. What she does and what she has achieved are probably more important and more satisfying than being the chairman of the leading software industry in India. She credits her work ethic and life vision to her North Karnataka upbringing: the motto "Kayakave Kailasa" (work is worship) guides people in that region and Sudha Murthy says that and peace of mind and family are the priorities in her life. All the money that they have5, she says, doesn't really matter because they are happy and contented with a modest lifestyle.
Giving and Writing: Sudha Murthy says she will give someone an interview only if they want to talk about her work and not her money6. And seeing poverty in the Indian countryside as she does, impels her to work doubly harder to alleviate the suffering of people. The Infosys Foundationis her main passion and she is president of the foundation. Unlike many other philanthropists in India who simply donate money sitting in their plush homes or offices and who may not at all be directly involved in the projects that their monies go to, Sudha Murthy makes sure that the foundation is not just a charity organization. She wants to make sure that the money they give helps empower people. She travels to the villages herself, helps in preparing projects, sees through the implementation and makes sure there are follow ups.
A recent report said that the Infosys Foundation had felicitated an engineer who works for the Karnataka Public Works Department because he had been instrumental in helping the foundation to identify beneficiaries of developmental schemes in North Karnataka7. These projects in the North Karnataka districts of Dharwar, Belgaum, Haveri and Gadag included the construction of library buildings, providing books, building roads and latrines and so on. The engineer was being felicitated because he had taken the initiative in helping the foundation with his engineering expertise.
Sudha Murthy is involved in a whole range of issues, from funding cancer research to rehabilitating commercial sex workers. She not only heads the foundation and is therefore responsible for disbursing the forty to fifty million rupees that the foundation gives away every year but she spends her own money on many of these causes. She recently gave ten million rupees of her own money to rebuild the school in Hubli she was a student of8.
She says she is inspired by the lives of the Buddha and of Christ and that whatever she does to help people is not sufficient enough. She is also inspired by the examples of people like the late JRD. Tata who took the lead in philanthropical work 9 in India. Every year the Infosys Foundation receives more than 10, 000 applications for donations and more than a hundred calls a day seeking information and help. She says that she has learnt to distinguish between the good and worthy applications and the ones merely seeking to profit. She worries that she may be losing a little bit of her trust in humanity because a number of people have tried to hoodwink her and the foundation. She writes in her diary: "Sometimes I feel I have lost the ability to trust people. I have become shrewder to avoid being conned. It saddens me to realise that even as a person is talking to me I try to analyse them: Has he come here for any donation? Why is he praising my work or enquiring about my health? Does he want money from me? Eight out of ten times I am right. They do want my money. But I feel bad for the other two whom I suspected".
Sudha Murthy's novels, six of them, are in Kannada. She is at present writing a novel in English. Unlike many of us, who are more at ease writing in English, she writes in Kannada, her mother-tongue. She says she does so because she loves the language and because she "Thinks" in Kannada. Her main characters are women - Gritty, Educated, Principled, Middle to Lower Middle Class and burdened with the conflicts that modernity and change have ushered into their lives10.
Sudha Murthy did not begin writing recently and she is not using the Infosys success to launch her writing career. She began writing during her college days and her first novel, Athirik the published in 1979, traces the life of Shrimati Deshpande whose busy husband has little time for her. She decides to go to the US for a PhD and then separates from her husband: both staying in the marriage and stepping outside of it. Sudha Murthy's other novels deal with such issues as rejection, choice, negotiating with in-laws, seeking an identity and so on. It is easy to circumscribe her novels as dealing with "Largely lower-middle to middle-class, upper caste, women, in families that are urban based - either Bangalore, or Hubli-Dharwad" (Hubli and Dharwar/d being twin cities)11 but doing so would not do credit to the range of issues, concerns and life challenges that Sudha Murthy presents her readers. Her other novels are Mahashwethe, Avyakthe, DollarSosay, Yashasvi and Tumula.
Sudha Murthy does not consider herself a feminist because she does not seek to invest her female characters the same or similar traits, personalities, or characteristics of male characters. Her male characters tend to look for solutions, while her women characters struggle both with reason and emotion. Her protagonists are also concerned with values, money, fame, success and how they influence their marriages and their relationships. While she may not have achieved "Fame" as a writer, she considers writing almost a religious calling. Words have meanings and they have consequences, she points out.
Their home and life: They don't have a locker at home because she doesn't wear jewelry. They spend about six to eight thousand rupees per month on household expenses, excluding telephone bills and such. They do all the housework themselves. No maids or servants.
Narayana Murthy likes Western classical music and she loves Hindustani. She gave up buying saris five years ago when she went to Kashi and as per tradition she had to give up something. She hasn't bought a sari since then. Neither she nor her husband carry a purse or a wallet with them. They borrow money from their drivers or secretaries or friends and repay them at the end of the day! Their love and respect for each other doesn't seem to have waned a bit since their courting days. It seems Narayana Murthy still gifts her books inscribed with the words "From Me to You".
Popular with her students, Sudha Murthy goes to movies with them: she started the computer science department at the Maharani Lakshmi Ammanni College for Women, taught at the Central College and now teaches part-time at Christ College, all in Bangalore.
Sudha and Narayana Murthy have two children - Akshata and Rohan. Akshata is studying in the US and Rohan goes to school in Bangalore.
I will close this essay with an excerpt from her diary: "Have I lost my identity as a woman, in Murthy's shadow? No. I might be Mrs Narayana Murthy. I might be Akshata and Rohan's mother. I might be the trustee of Infosys Foundation. But I am still Sudha. I play different roles like all women. That doesn't mean we don't have our own identity".
Originally published on Thursday, November 23, 2000.