One of my teachers used to say, people cultivate the habit of reading by the essence of their first read book. I was a blessed child, who grew up in the warm embrace of Bengali literature. One fine day, when I was in the fifth grade, I went to the school-library and started eyeing the magnanimous section of glossy English paperbacks. I flipped through some: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel — all western classics with princes and princesses — or Enid Blyton. I couldn’t truly relate to any of them because those characters didn’t grow up the way I did. Big joint families, festivals, mythology, and other staples of Indian life were completely missing, and that made me feel alienated amidst the giant pile of words.
That was when, in a rustic shelf at the back, I came across How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories, by Sudha Murthy. It was a collection of 24 simple, touching, and witty anecdotes from the author’s life, which had taught her great valuable lessons. The book didn’t tell me or make me oblige to what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it made me strong enough to take independent decisions based on those life experiences. There, the curious, fascinated child in me found her first Indian English book.
[How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories]
A prolific writer, engineer, professor and philanthropist, Sudha Murthy is a force of nature. Smashing glass ceilings at a time when there were very few women leading the way — she was the first female engineer to be hired by TELCO, India’s largest auto manufacturer — her story is an exemplary account of a formidable trailblazer, who braved the road less travelled.
Murty was brought up with very few facilities in the village of Shiggaon, Karnataka. Her affection towards writing was the result of the dearth of entertainment sources. For the longest time, she has written only in her native language, Kannada. At the age of 29, she visited the USA all alone to publish her first book, Mahashweta, and dedicated it to Narayana Murthy— the founder of Infosys, her husband and her friend. At the age of 50, she started writing in English and gave the foreign language a warm motherly touch.
Her works are a fable with a lesson at the end and dozens of them that make you think, smile and cry. What’s striking is that every story feels true and you can see her sensibilities, her feelings, her opinions and at the same time, her understated humanity.
In an old interview with Shashi Tharoor, she mentioned that one of her biggest strengths as a writer is that her language is relatable. When Tharoor asked her what she has against dictionaries, Sudha Murthy said that in India, 50-60% people speak colloquial English. They would require a dictionary to read and understand the books of Tharoor and others who write in fancy words. But she is like those people. And so is her writing.
Books such as Three Thousand Stitches, Wise and Otherwise, How I Taught My Grandmother to Read, Old Man and His God, The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk, and Here, There and Everywhere are based on her experiences with the Infosys Foundation.
Three Thousand Stitches starts with the story of her work with a group of rehabilitated sex workers, who had presented her with a bedspread that has 3000 stitches to represent all 3000 women whose life had been turned around by the Infosys Foundation.
In that story, Sudha talks candidly about her initial challenges in helping these 3000 women, including getting pelted with tomatoes and chappals when she first tried to reach out to them. However, with the encouragement, endurance, and support of her father and colleague, she was able to break the ice with the women, work with them and rehabilitate them – the result of her years-long perseverance and determination to create an impact.
Sudha Murthy is an inspiration, an idol to many, but to me, she feels like my own humble grandmother, who used to wear a lot of handloom Mysore silks and tell me stories of the past. Her words are simple and delicate, yet each story tugs at your conscience, like a mother’s pallu. Reading her is like witnessing a cloth being woven – imagination is one thread and reality is another. When the book is finished, you won’t be able to distinguish between the two.