It must be love
Sudha Murthy doesn't mince her words while husband N R Narayana Murthy reserves his aggression for the boardroom, but the IT industry's first couple connect on many levels, finds Himal Ruparel
Unlike husband N R Narayana Murthy, the founder chairman of Infosys, Sudha Murthy, 54, spells her surname without the letter ‘h'. She also bubbles with enthusiasm, while Narayana, 58, is more reserved, especially in public and with those he does not know intimately. Sudha is forthright and outspoken to the point of bluntness, while Narayana reserves his aggression for the boardroom. But for over 25 years, these two very different people have shared life's journey. "If someone had told me that my life would be like this, I would have been scared!" exclaims Sudha.
Agreeing to disagree
The Murthys are two individuals, united by destiny. Sudha is the idealist Narayana more circumspect and tolerant to others. "She expects everybody to be perfect," he says. " I tell her the world is imperfect but she doesn't agree." The couple may often argue about this, but neither expects the other to change.
"I am brutally honest. Murthy is more diplomatic, but I am a very blunt person. Of course, people may say it's because I can afford to be frank, but…" Sudha trails off. Is there any instance where she has been economical with the truth? "Yes, once I was visiting an Adivasi family and they insisted I have some tea or coffee. I knew it would be a burden on them, so I said I don't take tea or coffee. But they insisted. I was about to ask for a glass of water when I spotted the nallah outside their hut and I thought to myself, ‘What if I contract dysentery or typhoid?' Then I was about to ask for milk instead, when I realized that would be something they could ill afford. So I simply said, ‘I don't take tea or coffee and I am allergic to milk'."
Usually, though, Sudha is crystal clear it matters of communication, especially now that the Murthys are much sought after to add badge value to weddings and housewarming ceremonies. "Take wedding invitations for instance," she says. "I believe in being straightforward. ‘I will attend if I am in town' is what I tell people. Murthy, for professional reasons, will always be more careful and guarded."
"I wouldn't put it quite that ways," Narayana demurs. "Let's say I can disagree with people without being disagreeable." So is he the consummate diplomat? " I am a totally transaction-based person," he candidly admits.
"Data and facts are all that matter to me; I don't carry any ideological baggage about people."
How do they resolve their differences? "Some things are difficult to resolve, so we always operate in a state of unstable equilibrium," Narayana says. "But there are so many ‘touch points,' so many occasions when you come so close, that distance brought about by differences of opinion and the pressures of work does not matter."
The Murthy's journey began in 1970, when a common friend introduced then in Pune. Narayana had moved there to start a systems research institute, while Sudha, an alumna of the Indian Institute of Science, worked with Telco, now Tata Motors. "She was brilliant, and pretty," Narayana recalls. "I wonder what she saw in me." Sudha was already a trailblazer, having challenged the Tata Group's policy of male only engineers by writing to J R D Tata himself.
The couple began to date-but Sudha wouldn't quite describe it that way. "In those days, there was no such thing as a ‘date'," she emphatically clarifies. " We spent time together, but always with common friends. It is difficult to ascertain when our feelings for each other began to change." But the chemistry was undeniable. "We would paint the town red," says Narayana. On their nights out, he'd often borrow money from Sudha. "She'd be surprised at how shameless a fellow could be!"
The duo spent much of their free time together watching movies. "He likes Neetu Singh and Dharmendra, while I am a big fan of Sanjeev Kumar. Our favorite movie is Abhimaan with Amitabh and Jaya. We watched it twice in one day; from 12 to 3, and then again from 3 to 6," she confesses with a chuckle. Besides movies and listening to music he likes Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven, while she prefers Hindustani classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi - the couple enjoyed dining out, and still do. "But not as much in five-star hotels," Sudha clarifies. "MTR, the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms near Lalbagh, is a favorite. Murthy always says this five-star food all tastes the same; there is nothing to beat anna-saaru (rice and rasam) at home."
In September 1976, Narayana proposed to Sudha in an auto rickshaw, "He told me that he could not give me money, only a happy and comfortable life," she recalls. It took her family time to accept the fact; Sudha's family her father was a university professor, her brother an Mtech from IIT Delhi and her sister an MSc in Physics from IIT Chennai – were worried about Narayana's prospects. However, the couples were eventually married in February 1978 at his house in Bangalore. The wedding was a simple affair, costing Rs 800, with the couple pooling in Rs 400 each.
After several brief stints in the US, where they shuttled between Boston and New York struggling to make inroads in the complex world of IT, the couple moved to Mumbai, set for an ordinary, middle-class life. "A two-bedroom apartment and a scooter was all I wanted," Sudha remembers. "After all, we were a couple steeped in our work and our books."
But life had other plans. Narayana started Infosys in 1981, with the Indian equivalent of a $250 investment (Rs 10,000 at the time) and a vision to change the way the world viewed Indian software. Initially, things didn't come easy and Sudha was the breadwinner. After a series of jobs and making do with what was available, she eventually shifted base to Bangalore with her husband.