The chairperson of Infosys Foundation and prominent English and Kannada author Sudha Murty talks about her latest collection of life stories.
Ordinary people, extraordinary lives is how Sudha Murty describes her latest collection of stories Three Thousand Stitches.
Seated in her office, dressed in a blue-grey dhakai (a gift from a close friend) she talks to us about her book, especially the story, Three Thousand Stitches. It is about a group of devdasis who opened a bank with her help, and how on its third anniversary they gifted her a quilt made by all 3000 members to convey their gratitude.
Though the book is about people, it also gives us glimpses into the life and personality that is Sudha Murty. The conversation is peppered with incidents and experiences from her life that reiterates what a great inspiration she is.
Sudha was the only girl in her engineering class in 1968, loves watching movies in theatres, is a voracious reader, and gave up her most important pastime – shopping - while she was in Varanasi. The last titbit was interesting and on gentle prodding, Sudha reveals that she made a promise to herself on the ghats of the Ganga that she would buy only essentials like food, water, travel, medicines, books, and music from then on.
As an author of multiple short stories in both English and Kannada, Sudha follows a simple rule. “When I write a book, I don't think a lot about how the book should look like, how many pages it should have, how many thousands of words I should write, and where I have to end. None of these things bother me. For me, writing is a form of expression. Through it I actually express my joy, happiness, sorrow, and even humour.”
She describes her writing as a pot of milk on the stove, which when boils too much, spills over. “You know that it won’t happen every day. Sometime I may not write for a year, but when the stories are ready in my mind it starts to spill over and then I start writing.” Usually, Sudha begins writing in the morning and focuses entirely on it.
It is not unusual for her to cry when she writes especially for a story like The Three Thousand Stitches. “I really cried when I wrote it, because I have seen their helplessness, and the torture they faced. Yes, I do write for myself. Incidentally, I publish my writings.”
However, once a story is written Sudha reveals that she can’t add anything else to it. Once she is done with her writing she keeps the manuscript aside. She only revisits it after a few weeks or a month when her emotions have settled and she can look at it in a more practical way. The manuscript goes through an initial round of editing, then a final one before it is sent to the publishers.
Given her line of work as a philanthropist, and as Chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, we ask her how her life has changed over the years.
I changed myself over a period of 20 years, since the time I started working for the Infosys Foundation because it taught me how real life plays out. It is different from sitting over a cup of tea, or a glass of cold drink and just talking about what India needs, and what India should do.
According to her, a lot needs to be done beyond perpetuating ‘armchair philosophy’. “If our country has to improve, things need to change. Meeting and interacting with people made me aware of my duties. I saw and understood closely the life people led, the poverty, helplessness, and the challenges they face. It made me mature, so much so that today I do not get upset if people try to cheat me. Previously I used to get upset, but now I don’t. I look at things so differently, dispassionately, practically, objectively and much more compassionately.”
It’s not that stories of struggle don’t impact her. Recalling her early visits to Kamathipura, the red light area in Mumbai, she reveals how difficult those moments were and how strongly they affected her. Over the years, she has however learnt to deal with it. “The question I constantly ask myself is, have I done anything to change the status quo or done something to provide a solution? And a practical approach to find a resolution helps me to deal with a situation better.”
Sudha also spoke passionately on her work with the Infosys Foundation. “We started with Rs 5 crore to Rs 10 crore, and now we spend Rs 320 crore. We have also over the years, expanded to more states and location, and the process gained more experience and maturity.”
The work of the foundation keeps her busy, as she is constantly travelling, especially on weekends so that she can save her work days.
There is a process in place that helps her determine how best the resources of the Foundation can be utilised. She retails an interesting fact; the last few lines of each email reveals what the sender needs. The ones that need attention are selected and followed through.
Sudha is positive that things are changing in India. “Fifty years ago, rural India was different. It has now changed. Things have changed for women too, they now know their rights, are assertive, and want to be economically independent. They prefer to plan their families and want their children to go to English medium schools.”
She emphasises that change is a slow and time-consuming process especially when one deals with people, particularly women who have been oppressed for centuries. “It requires so much courage and confidence for them to get out and assert themselves. A lot of change is seen in the cities though it’s happening in the rural areas too.”
At this point, Sudha shares a poignant story of change. She tells us the story of Yugandharma, while making a mental note to include it in her next book. Sudha met Yugandharma in a village in Telangana two decades ago.
Sudha had helped her with a loan, with which she bought a buffalo whose milk she to a dairy. With the money she earned, she bought a few more buffaloes. The economic push gave her the power to deal with her alcoholic and abusive husband. She got her husband to clean the buffaloes and started paying him for it. Gradually she managed to pay off the loan and head the local women's association. And as Sudha recalls, “She told me now I can go and talk to the Chief Minister.”
Not one to speak about own achievements, upon much insistence she shares a message for women through an interesting story.
“About 10-15 years ago I saw a baby elephant, 10 months old named Ganesha. When I patted him he pushed me with his trunk and fell 20 feet away. I looked at Ganesh’s mother Chandrika who was tied to a tree and realised that she was oblivious of the power she had. She was tied to a tree but was peacefully eating grass. She did not realise the power she could display by shaking a leg and bringing down the tree. All she could do was sit peacefully because she was chained. Often in our minds, we think we are chained, but as women, we fail to realise we have tremendous power and potential. We think only of the chains. We do not use the power of the mind to break free from the shackles.”
Sudha believes women don’t have to compete with men, but just with themselves. She urges them to see how better you can be than for example, how they were last year.
In fact, being a woman is an advantage. I was the only girl in class and that made me self-sufficient. I ensured I took my notes, was on class on time and fully focused on what was happening. I had no friends or anyone to spend time with. I am my best companion. Being self-sufficient teaches you to not depend on anyone and tackle any challenges that come your way.