UAE: Indian author Sudha Murty speaks on son-in-law Rishi Sunak, humility, working 7 days a week

From literature to life to leaving a legacy, Indian educator and author Sudha Murty on rising above the clutter to give life to ideas, while keeping herself firmly rooted in the cultural fabric, which forms an intrinsic part of her personality

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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Published: Thu 18 May 2023, 6:15 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 May 2023, 10:01 PM

There are celebrities and then there are those we celebrate not for what they do, but for what they are. They are defined by their character, which is reflected in each thought, word, and action of theirs. If anyone fits this description to a T, it is Sudha Murty, Indian author, philanthropist, and social worker who has touched the hearts of millions of Indians with her remarkable contribution to literature and society, not to mention to the Indian economy as wife of N. R. Narayana Murty, co-founder of Infosys.

As I sat in the hotel lobby waiting to do an interview with her, I knew for certain the conversation would be deep and engaging. As soon as she arrived, wearing a maroon Mysore Crepe Silk Saree and the signature jasmine strand around her hair bun, she profusely apologised for making me wait, testifying to what she is predominantly known for — her humility.

In a smooth-flowing interview that she gave on the sidelines of Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, Sudha Murty shared some of her profound thoughts, philosophies, and perceptions on a range of topics — from literature to life to leaving a legacy. Here are some excerpts:

How would you describe yourself? As an author, a philanthropist, the first lady of Infosys or the British Prime Minister’s mother-in-law?

I will answer this from bottom to top. Rishi is our son-in-law and son. That is more important to us than what official position he holds. Positions come and go. So, that doesn’t affect me much. Now as Narayana Murty’s wife. I am proud to be his wife. He is not an ordinary person. He changed the destiny of India’s software industry. Next, as an author. This is independent of Rishi and Mr Murty. This is something deep within me. It was my mother who recognised my flair for writing and encouraged me to write from a young age. But it was my sister, Sunanda, who inspired me to document my experiences as stories. I became a philanthropist after the Infosys Foundation was founded.

Which of the two roles — author or philanthropist — has helped you evolve as a person?

Both, in different ways. Till I joined the Infosys Foundation, to me, India meant software export, GDP, Bollywood etc. But the Foundation taught me what my country really is. It emotionally connected me to the poor people of my country and changed my aim in life. I want our poor children to get three meals a day, education at least up to 12th grade with vocational training and good language skills, and a healthy body. This is my dream for India.

My writing expanded after I joined the Foundation because my canvas then widened. Till then, it had limited scope. Now I met people from all walks of life and in different situations. It made me understand what life was and I wrote about it. I am a direct person. What you see in me, you get that in my writing.

Converting my experiences into writing created a lot of readers in children. So, teachers say, I don’t know if that is an exaggeration, but children do read my books as I can see from my sales figures.

Children started appreciating my simple writing, which filled the vacuum between textbooks and non-textbooks. This has given me satisfaction that no award could have given. Their love is my award. With family structures having changed, grandparents don’t stay with their grandchildren now. So, there is nobody to tell them stories like in the olden days. That gap, I think, I have been able to fill successfully.

Is there a difference between your approach to writing for children and writing for adults?

Yes. When I write for children, I am very careful about the language, and about the values I introduce. I will not write stories that will send a wrong message. I believe children’s innocence must be preserved with positive stories. The characters and plots in my children’s stories are easy. You can’t force children to read. You must give them interesting stories with a small, hidden moral. Writing for adults is much easier because I write what I see, feel, and experience. I don’t need to censor words or themes because adults understand things, whereas children don’t.

Your writing has always addressed larger issues like women’s empowerment and social biases. Has your writing been successful in impacting people and changing their perspectives?

In my Kannada novel called Mahashweta (1983), which is based on real life, I have depicted the protagonist as having leukoderma. It is not a disease per se, but there is a stigma attached to it and a boy who comes to see her rejects the proposal. Many years later, I added a chapter to the book because in real life, the same boy, after reading the first edition of my book, went back and married the same girl.

I was in Bombay two days ago and I met a young woman with leukoderma who said that her life changed after reading Mahashweta. She said, “Ma’am, I was so depressed that I wanted to commit suicide. I was rejected by everyone because I look ugly with this skin. But after reading Mahashweta, I gained so much confidence that now I think ‘let people think what they want, I will live my life the way I think it is right.’”

Many women have come and told me that their English improved after reading my books. A woman once said that her husband used to taunt her that she didn’t know English and it hurt her tremendously. She wanted to improve her language but didn’t know where to start, and then she found my books. She felt, ‘these books are so easy to understand, which means I know English. It gave me confidence.’

A blind school once wrote to me saying that they gave my books in braille (I don’t take royalty for my braille books) to their students who knew only their native language, and the students were able to get small jobs with the English they learnt by reading my books.

So, I assume my writing has impacted people’s lives in some way.

What advice would you give to children who want to start writing?

Writing is not something you decide to do one fine day, like, you want to write, and you will write 15 sentences a day. It is not that everybody can write. It is inborn. For people who already have it in them, and are on the borderline, they will shine if you polish them with creative writing lessons.

What qualities do you think they should have?

Reading. All good writers are good readers.The second quality one needs is sensitivity. For example, when we see someone suffering, we merely feel sorry and forget about it. But what made Prince Siddhartha become Gautam Buddha was his sensitivity. Likewise, we enjoy happy things and forget about them. But a sensitive person will absorb and create stories out of any incident and experience. Generally, all authors are sensitive and compassionate. People who are extremely practical cannot write anything other than official letters.

How is telling stories more important than talking theories?

When I was a professor, I used to teach for 45 minutes and spend the last 15 minutes of the hour telling a story to the class. Now when I ask my old students (all very successful) which of the subjects I have taught them was the most useful to them, they say, “Ma’am, we remember only the stories you told us and nothing else.” When you send a message through a story, people listen. Storytelling is an art which can hook people and lead them to the right values.

What do you spend more time on now — writing or philanthropy?

I have reduced philanthropy a lot after I stepped down from the Infosys Foundation. I want to pursue new things, like archaeology and history. These two things now take me to different places, and I spend time exploring and learning these subjects.

How do you wear so many hats at a time and do so much simultaneously?

I am goal-oriented. I don’t spend time on unnecessary things because time, unlike money, is something you can’t make if it is lost. I work 7 days a week, only then it is possible because I travel a lot.

What makes you a much-loved personality is your humility. Were you inherently so or did life teach it to you?

I come from a family where everybody is like this. My father, my sister, are all accomplished people who led simple lives. So is Narayana Murty. We have always prioritised other people’s difficulties and believed that public good is ahead of personal good. Our requirements in life are minimal and we are very adjustable. We believe that money and position are not permanent. Both my children have imbibed this quality. What is important is to establish good relationships, to be honest and hard working.

What advice would you give to young people, so they lead a life of impact and make a difference to the world?

Normally, I don’t advise anybody. I feel life will teach them everything but if you ask me, I will say, ‘work hard, be clear about what you want to do. If you run after money, money will run away from you. If you run after good work, money will automatically come to you.’ That’s my experience. We never work for money; we work to build good software. I never worked for any honour. I worked because I enjoyed working. Money and honour have come of their own.

What more of Sudha Murty is left for us to see? What more can we expect from you?

I really don’t know. I will do whatever the situation demands.

Do you have any regrets in life?

I didn’t learn swimming and yoga. I could have learnt those.

How do you keep yourself fit and energised to work seven days a week?

I don’t get tired because I always think positive. People who are pessimistic and cynical get tired and age fast. In adverse situations, I always think ‘it could have been worse’ and take heart.


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