Written by Ashwin Dewan and published on 27 August 2021.
The chairperson of the Infosys foundation dons many hats – a leading advocate for social causes, an engineer, and a prolific writer in English and Kannada. Today, she is well-known for her writings loved by both adults and children alike
“One should not forget the joy of either reading or writing, especially in today’s day and age of technology,” remarks Sudha Murty, in her trademark humble manner during an online session with Shrutkeerti Khurana, the program director at Infosys Foundation. During the session, she talked about her foray into writing, what it feels like to write for children and her love for Kannada.
The session was presented by The Prabha Khaitan Foundation to celebrate the launch of the book 'How the Earth Got Its Beauty' by Sudha.
Born in 1950 in North Karnataka, Sudha Murty is well-known for her work in the social and literary field.
A Padma Shri awardee, her books have been translated into all major Indian languages and have sold over 30 lakh copies. To her credit, she has more than 30 books and 200 titles that include novels, non-fiction, books for children, travelogues, and even memoirs.
She is the proud recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and many awards. She was at her sparkling best during the session that was a treat for her admirers.
Here's Shrutkeerti Khurana (SK) in conversation with Sudha Murty (SM)
SK. When did you first experience the magic and power of language as a child?
SM. The village I grew up in had no electricity. The only entertainment was reading books, and I was swayed by the power of words and how a single word can make you happy or sad.
My grandfather was a Sanskrit teacher who always said that a simple sentence has enormous power and the more words that one knew, the more power one had. In 1970, one day, my brother and I complained of boredom to my father, who suggested reading to keep ourselves occupied. I still remember my brother getting an oxford dictionary while I got myself a Kannada dictionary, which proved not only engaging but educative and informative. I have been hooked on the power of words and language ever since.
SK. You have written several non-fiction and fiction books before moving to the domain of children’s books. What was your thought process while exploring these different genres?
SM. Writing non-fiction is easy as I worked for a foundation where I interact with people from all walks of life such as politicians, beauty queens, sex workers, and the downtrodden. I am fascinated by their stories and the world they live in.
As for fiction, I started in 1979 as a 29-year-old with my first travelogue. I remember traveling to America with very little money and by myself but I still cherish that experience.
I prefer to write in Kannada first and translate it to English later. I have a soft corner for all my books, but some worth mentioning are Dollar Bahu, MahaShweta, and How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories.
For me, it is important to write fiction in Kannada first as that allows me to express myself accurately. However, for non-fiction, I prefer using English. Writing for children is an absolute joy akin to magic.
I always believe that one should not forget the joy of writing or reading.
SK. Your new book is titled 'How the Earth Got Its Beauty'. What was the idea behind it?
SM. Today, the environment is being treated badly with the greed to occupy land resulting in rampant deforestation that, in turn, has led to less space for the wildlife. We should respect nature and wildlife and keep in mind that the forest belongs to them as much as it belongs to us.
I want to share an incident related to this from my childhood. My mother would often reprimand me for plucking pomegranates from the trees near our house. She would say that they are food for animals and we should not be selfish and think only about ourselves.
The earth is beautiful. Let us not try to own it and instead share it with everyone and avoid commercial uses of the planet.
SK. There are many layers to this book that have been much appreciated by all those who have got a chance to get a sneak peek. Devi gives the three sisters a special task to complete between two full moon days in the book. What, according to you, is the significance of a full moon day?
SM. Today, I can say with conviction that not many in this generation would have witnessed and enjoyed a full moon due to overwhelming pollution. I grew up in a village and was lucky to see each full moon day crisp and clear.
For us, a full moon day meant eating dinner on the terrace, and it was nothing short of magic. I could hear insects, and if there were a gentle breeze, the leaves would flutter. In short, for me, a full moon is a symbol of happiness. So, instead of 30 days, I use between two full moon days.
SK. As children, most of us have accompanied our grandparents on pilgrimages. Have you ever been on literary pilgrimages either for fun or research purposes?
SM. When we were small, we used to go to the nearby Hanuman Mandir with our grandparents every Saturday. My grandfather would often go to the library as he considered it the abode of Goddess Saraswati. Not even once did we disrespect books. We always used to cover a book and never fold a page to make a bookmark. My grandfather used to say that a book is a living being that must be respected.
SK. A writer never has a vacation. Does that saying hold true for you?
SM. Every interesting thing catches my eye, and I feel that I have a lot to learn. I consider myself a search engine, and my bioproduct is writing – everything for me is an endless search for knowledge.
SK. As far as your writing is concerned, what do you consider your strength?
SM. My English is simple, but my simple writing has become my strength. As I studied in a Kannada medium school, my vocabulary in English may not be as good as others. I believe I can express myself or depict my feelings on paper better using Kannada.