Sudha Murty – A woman of substance

Sudha Murty, Chairperson, Infosys Foundation, is an engineer by vocation and a social worker by avocation. She speaks about her work, and her thirst for knowledge that makes her an eternal student. She shattered the glass ceiling in the 70s as the first woman engineer in the automobile operations of Telco (now Tata Motors). The story of how she landed this job is now legendary: after seeing an ad for engineers with a postscript stating women need not apply, she dashed off a postcard to the mighty JRD Tata himself, questioning the discriminatory policy. Summoned by him, she was hired after a gruelling interview. Earlier, the only female student at her engineering college, she vanquished all competition by standing first in all the branches in all 10 semesters. She was the only woman at her postgraduate programme, too. A software wizard in her own right, Sudha Murty, along with her husband Narayana Murthy, was among the Indian startup pioneers who spearheaded knowledge-based ethical wealth generation by co-founding Infosys Technologies. Helping nurture it into a tech giant, she later carved a career path away from it, in order to give back to society. Now as head of the Infosys Foundation, a major part of her life is given to philanthropy, but she is also a prolific writer and a voracious reader, making time for both. An itinerant, she travels the world – she has just returned from the premiere of the Marathi film adaptation of her book Pitru Runa. It's difficult to pin her down. But when you do, clad in a homespun sari, she charms you with her disarming simplicity. With a casual wave of her hand, Sudha dismisses questions about what made her start Infosys Foundation: "All these questions have been answered in four of my books: The day I stopped Drinking Milk, How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories, Wise and Otherwise and The Old Man and his God. In short, I was moved by the poverty around me and the pathetic condition of women." Infosys Foundation helps the poorest of the poor, particularly with medical aid and education. It's also involved in natural disaster relief work, and ongoing projects include building toilets for homes in backward areas. Culturally, the Foundation is involved in documenting and supporting dying art and craft forms and encouraging unrecognised artists by creating a platform for them. Some of them are sent to national and international festivals for greater exposure. The Foundation also supports Ranga Shankara, the popular theatre in Bangalore, which stages plays six days a week right round the year. "The Foundation has helped me understand my country," says Sudha Murty. The one challenge, she admits is educating girls in poor households. "In a labourer's family, if the eldest is a daughter with siblings, she becomes their young mother. And in Indian villages, basic necessities like drinking water are missing. If we provide clean drinking water to children, we can eradicate 80 per cent of diseases. We've built 10,000 toilets, but the number actually needed is 10 million. The figures are staggering and my resources are limited – funds come only from Infosys Technologies. There are many things I want to do, but life has taught me to focus on what I can do, not on what I can't. But things do disturb me sometimes. Like when I came across a woman with nothing to wear, and so, couldn't come out of her hut to meet me. It was heart wrenching to think I had so much when a fellow human being couldn't afford even basic human dignity. I gave her a sari and sat outside and wept. But today, instead of crying and letting it sap my energy, I try to do more for the needy. Also, I've stopped buying saris for the last 20 years. I took a vow not to buy anything for myself other than books, music and medicines. The clothes I have will last me the remaining days of my life." Sudha Murty is her own person. "I don't ask for my husband's opinion, advice or guidance. The only thing I do ask for is more funds for the Foundation," she laughs. "When I want to raise money, I walk into the Infosys boardroom and start lecturing. They say: 'Tell us how much you want, otherwise you'll make us feel guilty'. And if I still fall short, I put in my own money." She doesn't believe in giving advice either. "You should run your own marathon and your own experience will teach you how to run it. Does anybody's life change because of advice? Not really. Practical help, maybe, but not advice or some pompous message," she says with characteristic bluntness. Ask her what women bring to a project that men do not or cannot, and she promptly says: "Things like toilets. It's a basic necessity, but men don't think about it. These are things that can't be decided in boardrooms. Also, men can't understand, for example, in an education system, what the child wants or what a mother wants for her child. She may not be educated, but she knows what's best for her child. We need to ask mothers and make policies, and not make policies and then ask mothers to accept them. These are the insights that women bring on board. "Most importantly, women aspire. They aspire to be themselves. A woman, in the final analysis, wants to lead her life with her decisions. But most of the time, men don't realise it, nor do they allow it. Even the most educated men don't grasp this, and the most educated women don't get to take decisions that affect their lives. It doesn't come with money, power or education. It requires tremendous courage and confidence. I can show you many women in villages that are more confident than urban, educated women, because they don't have pseudo values or baggage about what others will think." At this stage in life, Sudha confesses she has nothing on her wish list. "I don't wish for anything, except to always keep learning and knowing more about the world," she says. "And of course, keep working. I work all the time, on all days, always. For me it's not work. It's like a holiday. It's my life." Her motto? She quotes Etienne de Grellet: "I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."