Sudha Murty is the chairperson of Infosys Foundation, which deals in the welfare of underprivileged sections of society. The foundation focuses on rural development, health care, education, destitute care and culture. A teacher, social worker and a prolific writer, Ms Murty has authored several books in English and Kannada. In this interview, she talks to Swetha Amit about her tryst with writing, life-changing experiences and her latest collection of short stories titled The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk.
How and when did your tryst with writing begin?
As a school girl actually. It is there in our family. I come from a teachers' family. My grandfather and mother were school teachers; my father was a professor in a medical college. So I grew up with books all around. It was not wealth, but books around me. Whenever a new book would come, we would discuss about the book or about a new poem that would appear in the newspaper.
We grew up in that kind of an atmosphere. Reading was a great passion for me from childhood. Probably reading led me towards writing. In school, I used to write good essays. And later I used to write short stories as a teenager. I published my first book in 1979 after I went on a back-packing trip abroad. I wrote about the trip. That was my first travelogue. After that I penned down more. Now I have written about 24 books and have 156 titles to my credit.
You have authored books in both the genres of fiction and non-fiction. Which is more challenging to work on? Where are your fiction stories inspired from?
Actually, I feel, writing fiction is more difficult. Non-fiction is easy. I go there, see everything, note it in my mind and write it down. There is no imagination involved. In The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk, for instance, all the stories are real. I am more of a reporter actually in this case. In fiction, I am a creative person.
To create a character which is real, but yet not real is challenging. You should have the invisible line between real and unreal. Yet it should be so real that the reader should feel the emotions of the character. So I find it more challenging..
You have come across different types of people. Some with gratitude and some without. How does the experience with the latter still motivate you to continue doing good for the society and not feel bitter?
Initially, when I was young, I used to get upset with people who do not show gratitude. I had a mindset that if you help someone, the person who receives it should have gratitude. That is good manners, good culture and a good way of living. But, over a period of time, I learnt that it was not true. Helping others is your job. I get pleasure in that. In return they may or may not be grateful, depending on their culture.
I realised I cannot impose my culture on them. If you help me, I am always grateful to you because that is the way I have been brought up. Philosophically speaking, God cannot come everywhere, so he sends people to show his presence. It's true. When you are really in difficulty and someone says a good word or helps you, you should never forget that.
But, I have learnt to accept that each person's way of looking at things and their culture may not be the same as mine. They have different attitudes and you cannot change that. It doesn't matter to me now if they are grateful or not. Over the years I have grown and developed a sense of non-attachment. But happiness to me is to help people and I continue to do so and enjoy my work.
Shraddha (a short story) takes one back to your letter to JRD Tata in 1974 with regard to Telco being a male-dominated organisation. How far do you think we have progressed to let women hold the reins today?
It's been almost 40 years. Things have changed tremendously since then. In my time, I was the only girl in an engineering university. Today, 50 per cent are girls. When I used to work, people would think that a woman works when there was deficiency in money in the house or the father or husband was not rich.
People never thought that a woman could have a career or that she loves to go out and work. At the most it was perceived that a woman could be a teacher, college professor, a clerk or a nurse, but not more than that. They never thought of a woman as an engineer or executive. Today, you can see girls in good positions. In fact, in educated middle class families, I have seen that dowry has disappeared.
Though in another form, the need for lavish weddings have come up. This is different. But cases of demanding dowry have diminished as women are also working today and there is more self-respect. Women have also become more assertive with education and economic independence. That makes me happy. They can withstand pressures in a male-dominated society.
Earlier, even if there was a problem at home, they would stay at home, but now they realise there is a way out. In the rural areas, society is not as progressive as it is among the educated class, but still things are progressing slowly. Any social change requires time, so one must have patience. Over a period of time I am confident women will come up.
Coming to women empowerment, while there is a small section of the society where women are progressing, social evils like rape, dowry and female foeticide still prevail. What role do you think we can play in helping to abolish these evils?
See, it's not like fixing a computer. These things take time. Female foeticide can be tackled through women empowerment, educating them and enabling them to gain more economic independence. Frankly, I don't see this issue so much in the south as much as it's there in the north.
So as women empowerment increases, these things will eventually come down. Rape, on the other hand, has nothing to do with empowerment or economic independence. It is more physical. It has to be handled with a severe punishment. Today a rapist comes out on bail within four months. Suppose there was a severe punishment meted out like capital punishment, people will realise the consequence of committing such a crime. Over a period of time, it won't happen and this too shall be stopped.
In one of your short stories, The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk, you had a touching experience with a poverty-stricken family who went beyond their means to be hospitable to you... so far as to sacrifice their meal. It's an irony that one finds lack of similar hospitality in well-to-do homes at times. Do you feel that the world has become too materialistic that people have forgotten aspects of humanity and etiquette?
Normally, I have seen from my experience that poorer the people, the more large-hearted they are. That is because they share a lot. And people who share a lot are always people with a large heart.
With modern amenities available, it becomes more of nuclear families concentrating on their lives alone. The poor people in a colony share water, electricity, at times their houses and kitchen. One reason for such community living is their economic position, but it makes them large-hearted as well.
Today, every generation tends to feel that the next generation has become materialistic. It is left to individuals on how to look at life. It depends on their attitude and perspective as to what is important to them. For me, human relations are more important. But for someone else, wealth may be more important. But with experience, as you see more of life and people, you realise money has a limited advantage.
One needs to look around and see that sometimes money alone does not give happiness. In that case all wealthy people should be the happiest, which is not necessarily true always. You cannot buy happiness; you have to generate it within yourself. The best way to make yourself happy is to help others. When they are happy, it's contagious, you feel happy. One needs to also be compassionate and that makes you a true human being.
What does it take to be a good writer?
I feel you should be sensitive and only then can you respond to others' difficulties. Only people who understand what is hardship, sadness, happiness and all those put together are able to express it well.
What are the books that have inspired you and who are your favourite authors?
There is nothing like a favourite author for me. I read lots of books. I read different types of books, on history, geography, poetry, and mythology, and travelogues and biographies. My work inspires me and that has changed my life. Every person is like a book to me.
Lastly, what is your next book about and when will that become accessible to your ardent readers?
Actually my next book is in the pipeline. It will be released in July. It's a novel called House of Cars. I wrote this in Kannada first and after 10 years I have written it in English. It's about the life of a woman and it's a woman-centric book. It has won several awards in Kannada and was very popular with women.
I have not thought of my next book after that because I am not in any hurry. If I feel like writing, I write. If my mind is full and up to the brim, then I can't hold it and it starts flowing out in the form of a book. But I don't make a plan that it's going to be one book after another or that I have to write every day. For me writing a book is as natural as the wind blowing, flower blooming or the gentle rain.
Excerpts from The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk
She had uncombed hair and was dressed in a torn skirt and blouse. She was trembling and folded both her hands.
The collector asked again, 'who are you? From which station did you get on? Where are you going? I can issue a full ticket for you with a fine.'
The girl did not reply. The collector was getting very angry since he had been dealing with countless ticketless passengers. He took out his anger on this girl. 'I know all you runaways,' he shouted. 'You take a free ride in trains and cause tremendous problems. You neither reply to my questions nor pay for your ticket. I have to answer to my bosses…'
The girl still did not say anything. The people around the girl were not bothered at all and went about their business. Some were counting the money for their ticket and some were getting ready to get down at Wadi junction, the next stop. People on the top berth were preparing to sleep and others were busy with their dinner. This was something unusual for me, because I had never seen such a situation in my vast experience of social work.
The girl stood quietly as if she had not heard anything. The collector caught hold of her arms and told her to get down at the next station. 'I will hand you over to the police myself. They will put you in an orphanage', he said.' It is not my headache. Get down at Wadi.'
The girl did not move. The collector started forcible pulling her out from the compartment. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling. I stood up and called out to the collector. 'Sir, I will pay for her ticket', I said. 'It is getting dark. I don't want a young girl on the platform at this time.'