By Madhusree Chatterjee
Short story writer Sudha Murthy has expanded the mosaic of her craft – short story-telling — into the larger canvas of novels. Her debut novel, “House of Cards” (Penguin), a love story between a girl from a village in Karnataka and an impoverished doctor, explores the conflict between materialism and idealism — money verses love — in the greater framework of a conventional Indian marriage located in a big metropolis (Bangalore) in the throes of change.
Conventions collide with western sensitivities in the Silicon Valley of India where Mridula and Sanjay enact their sentimental love story that spans 25 years of wedded harmony, influencing their personal strengths and failings to adapt to the transformations around them. In the process, Murthy observes issues of unjust gender balance, filial politics and generation gaps – conflicts that beset bulk of the Indian urban societies.
The book released two months in the stores, was introduced to readers and the legions of Sudha Murthy’s fans in New Delhi at an informal reading by Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, and the author, at the Landmark Bookstore in New Delhi. It was followed by an interactive session with the writer, known for her short stories on her experiences as a social worker.
Murthy, the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, the social corporate responsibility wing of the technology giant Infosys, said the novel was a combination of her philanthropic work among women at the foundation — and the stories she had heard from women while working as a counselor at a college in Bangalore.
“I began to write the story 10 years ago. But I was not in a hurry to complete it. It was inside me for sometime,” Murthy told this writer in an informal chat in New Delhi. “The women used to come and tell me about the difficult situations they faced in their lives. They were often accompanied by their mothers,” Murthy recalled about the beginning of the book.
Most of them yearned for the love of their husband. “Men fail to understand the fact that women are more emotional,” Murthy said about the essential emotional anchor of her story. Mridula, the young woman protagonist from a village, longs for the love she shared with her husband during the courtship and initial years of marriage. Her dreams crash when Sanjay leaves his job as a government doctor for a lucrative private practice. As the couple climbs the ladder of success and affluence – the distance between the two grows, Mridula’s son lets her down as well with his “rich kid” ways. Arrogance breeds indifference in the Generation Next, weaning the children away from the fold of parental love.
Murthy brings to the readers notice the stark social realities that characterize the upwardly mobile Indian societies in emerging urban hubs — on their way to becoming mega cities.
“Mridula could not help notice that the group (son and his friends) were focused only on money and how to earn more of it,” Murthy says in her book.
“Mridula recollected what she had read long ago. At twenty, if you are not an idealist, then you don’t have a heart and if you continue being an idealist at 40, then you don’t have a brain. She thought that her children had no heart while Sanjay (her husband) thought that she had no brain,” Murthy observes.
The wry comments about male chauvinism and the underlying irony echoes the reality in million of urban Indian homes, where the educated idealistic woman is relegated to the kitchen. “Idealism is not an obsolete virtue,” Murthy says.
“There are people who are still idealistic…May not be in the big cities but if go to the B-towns and smaller cities, you will find so many idealistic people,” she points out. Narrating one of her “idealistic” encounters, Murthy recalls a young IIT (technology) graduate from New Delhi, who quit his job to work for sex workers in their shanties”.“The boy said he wanted to do something different,” Murthy recounts.
The smaller towns are addresses of such stories — of commitments away from the run-of-mill white collared assignments. The trend is growing in the technology and business school environments across the country that are beginning to venture beyond core business education, Murthy says.
The writer shares striking similarities with the protagonist of her novel Mridula, who is given to compassion and philanthropy. My foundation figures in the book indirectly. It is a source of inspiration,” Murthy says. The Infosys Foundation that Murthy leads is at the moment busy building “10,000 toilets in Karnataka —mostly for girls”. The dropout rate of girls in school depends on sanitation. If there is a toilet in school, girls can sit for their examination,” she divulges about her foundation’s current activity. The writer’s husband N.R. Narayana Murthy is the co-founder and chairman (emeritus) of Infosys Technologies Limited. The heroine in Murthy’s novel plays the samaritan in her husband’s health facility.
Women are always in the centre of Murthy’s repertoire of activity and literary endeavours — placed in the Indian socio-cultural and economic contexts. Her debut novel looks at marriage as an important means of social bonding in a new India. “Love marriages and arranged marriages – one cannot generalize about trends. It depends upon individuals. In the educated classes of India, love marriages are common because women are empowered — they have the right to choose,” Murthy points out. Demographies matter. In big cities, a woman can fall in love without support structures raising the hackles, but in the numerous smaller cities across India, love marriages are still frowned upon because “the families are orthodox”, the writer observes.
India is still as primitive as many hardline “talibanised” societies across the world in matters of love and marriages. The “Khap panchyat”—village councils — of Haryana (in northern India) censure inter-caste and inter-racial marriages by penalizing young men and women in love. Honour killings make occasional headlines despite the revolution in technology and wide spread literacy in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh. The social disparities verge on the insane.
Murthy says the status of women in India differs according to geography and cultural heritages. “My experience is mostly limited to south India where women are more powerful. They go out a lot more — education helps that”… North India in contrast is much more aggressive, the activist writer says. “The reasons for that are historical. Delhi and the rest of north India till 1947 were ruled by hundreds of kings — both India and foreign — and had seen hundreds of wars. Women had been raped, tortured, suffered and lost their men folk to wars. To live in such a society, one had to be aggressive,” Murthy says.
She cites an example from her own filial fold. “My son-in-law is a Punjabi (a native of Punjab) and my daughter is a south Indian. They (Punjabis of north India) are extremely hospitable, garrulous, inclusive and warm people. They would rather think of food and revelry when they entertain guests at home than traditions and heritage. We, the south Indians, are more conservative and reticent by nature,” Murthy says.
South India is “ritualistic”. “Lots of temples in south are still untouched. Some of them are more than 500 years old. The geographical and historical situations mould our characters,” she says.
These “situations” influences Murthy’s writing. “I was born and brought up in Dharwad. I live in Bangalore. I find it easier to write about the city and the state because I know it well,” Murthy admits. … “May be, if I live in Delhi for five years, I will be able to write about it.”