The Apeejay Jeet Paul Memorial Lecture begins with an introduction to none other than Mrs Sudha Murthy, chairperson of Infosys foundation. Mrs Murthy’s immense humility wins over the stern audience as she asks if she is “qualified enough to answer” the “tough questions” of Kolkata’s literature lovers, in a panel where she focuses on how one can find the strength to overcome hurdles in life to achieve one’s goals. Sudha Murthy remembers how she was told that “no boy will marry an engineer girl”, that “engineering is a man’s world”, and how she countered with the cool logic: “That is because only men attempt it; if women do, they can own that world too.” This sets the tone for Ms Murthy’s lecture, told in the fashion of an affectionate grandmother telling stories to her flock. She recounts a harrowing story of her troubles at a college that was opposed to her very presence; there being no toilets for women at an all-boys college, she had to go home every day to use the restroom as the college refused to build one for her. She was not allowed to eat in the canteen; she was not allowed to speak to the other boys in her class. The first two she saw no choice but to accept; the last one she never stopped fighting, but the boys themselves “boycotted me”, she said. In an experience eerily reminiscent of my own high school story, she recalled how the boys would not sit next to her, talk to her or share notes with her; she spoke about how, having topped her class, when boys came to speak to her realising she was far ahead of them, she knew that her “strength lay in her marks”, and the second that goes, they would be gone too; she mentioned how she would never, ever give them that chance.
I was able to listen this far before I was struggling with my emotions: I’m sorry to say I hardly heard much of the next few minutes. How is it possible that the story had not changed from 1967 to the time I went to high school in 2009? Are attitudes really that insidious, that fast-rooted? I know that many of the people who, for lack of a less effective word, tormented me during those three years have grown up to be sorry for their behaviour, to have become very different from there teenage selves indeed, but do these attitudes still percolate at the grassroot level? And how admirable is this woman who fought them, the whole system of society and education, alone, 40 years back?
With the knowledge that here, at last, is someone who I know to have fought and won, I turn back to the lecture: Mrs Murthy is asking us to have the courage to be impractical, take risks: “Impracticality drives you towards success,” she says, “Follow your heart, be emotional, be impractical, keep hope and you will achieve new things. You will be successful.” She mentions how her organization has built 13,000 toilets for women all over the state; she talks about her work with the devadasis of Karnataka: how she became not only their helper but their friend, over 18 years; 3,000 of them are now independent. “India requires its children to eat twice a day, have proper clothes, be educated upto 10th standard, and possess vocational skills; that is my only “share” and “price” and “Sensex”, that is my mission.”
This fight has not been without its share of danger: Mrs Murthy mentions the threats of acid attacks, beatings and other heinous acts she has received, and declares, “This is my choice. I choose to fight and so I must face these.”
“What have I achieved in life? Not much,” says Sudha Murthy, “But if God calls, I can tell him, I have met my mission: I have become an engineer, and I have helped my poor people of my country, India. Whoever I meet, whatever I do, it is only a bonus now.”
The session thus draws to a close to thunderous applause, and after a brief Q&A session, during which she mentions the struggles of being a starting entrepreneur, the magical hour is over.
I think I can safely say that today I met a woman who will be my idol, in both personal and private conduct, for the rest of my life.