'Our interest was in literature that was locked away'

Amartya Sen wanted him to teach, but Rohan Murty — Infosys founder N.R. Narayan Murthy’s son — had other plans. He tells Avijit Chatterjee that he wanted to set up a library so that people could benefit from reading translated classics — the way he did

  • Published 3.04.16

Others had spouses or partners. Rohan Murty, his friends in Harvard joked, had philosophy. It was that, and a love for classics and old languages on the side, that kept the computer scientist going.

"Philosophy changed everything in my life," Murty now says. "It changed my identity. I think it gave me a broader perspective because it represented a different way of life and a different intellectual thought that was not as necessarily organised as science was."

It was this interest that led to the formation of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). We are discussing the project, sitting in the Bangalore office of Catamaran Ventures, a $127-million venture capital fund launched in 2010 by Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy. In 2010, Murthy's son, Murty - he doesn't use the "h" - helped set MCLI up in association with Harvard University with a personal endowment of $5.2 million.

The project kicked up a storm recently when a group of academics and others demanded the removal of MCLI founding editor Sheldon Pollock for "disrespecting the unity and integrity of India" by condemning the "actions of the Jawaharlal Nehru University authorities and Government of India against separatist groups". Murty stood by the American scholar, and said he would continue as the editor.

"I doubt if these people have read even a single book that we have published," Murty had then retorted.

He has put that episode behind him and is eager instead to talk about MCLI, which aims to make available literary classics across a vast array of Indian languages, including Bengali, Kannada, Marathi, Pali, Punjabi, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu.

The library has published nine volumes - all translated works - so far. Among them are the songs of the 18th-century Punjabi poet and Sufi mystic, Bulleh Shah, the first volume of the 17th-century Akbarnama, Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women and Tulsidas's Ramcharitmanas. The first set of volumes was published last year.

"Our next set includes Bharatchandra Ray's Annada Mangal, which has been translated from Bengali to English, The Death of Shishupala by Magha (translated from Sanskrit) and The Life of Harishchandra by Raghavanka (translated from Kannada)," he says excitedly. "We plan to publish four or five volumes every year."

Murty, who earned a PhD in computer science from Harvard University after a bachelor's degree from Cornell University, became interested in the classics while working on his doctorate. His PhD programme, he stresses, was the "most intellectually vibrant" period of his life.

"I wanted to learn so much about so many different things. I used to attend all kinds of seminars, not only in my department but also in all the other departments. Somehow I got exposed to the Loeb Classical Library, which presents translated works of ancient Greek and Latin literature," he recalls.

His face lights up as he narrates the "interesting history" of the library. James Loeb, the founder, wanted people to read Greek and Latin. So he started translating Greek and Latin books. "Anybody who wants to read Greek and Latin classics can read these books because the original scripts are also there. The translations have been done by well-known scholars across the globe. I started reading them, and that's how I got interested in classics."

He also started taking Sanskrit and philosophy classes "very religiously" on the side while doing his PhD. "I think I was very curious and hungry at that time," he recalls.

Murty, 33, feels these classes did him a world of good and made him earn a "reasonably good" PhD. "Studying something in a very different domain where arguments were constructed in a very different way made me rethink my own approach to work," he says.

The ancient philosophical texts, he believes, interested him because they had been translated very well. "I felt if these texts had opened my eyes then there must be many people like me who would also benefit from reading translated texts."

His desire to do something on the lines of the Loeb Classical Library brought him in touch with Indologist Pollock in Columbia. "I was introduced to him by (author-commentator) Gurcharan Das."

Murty told him about his own "exciting journey" and asked him why more students could not be exposed to ancient texts. "He told me that though Sanskrit was important we should also look at other languages such as old Kannada, medieval Tamil and medieval Bangla. Our interest was in literature that was locked away," he says.

He discussed the formation of the library with his mother, the author Sudha Murty, who has been a "major influence" on him. A computer scientist by training, she was also closely associated with the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, and the Madras Sanskrit College, Chennai. "I spoke to a couple of others as well and after a lot of thinking decided to start the Murty Classical Library."

Murty is not involved with its day-to-day functioning. A board of editors comprising scholars from across the globe, along with Harvard University Press, decides what has to be published.

His love for philosophy, history and literature, however, hasn't taken him away from his "first love" - coding. "This is one activity that I am never tired of," he says.

His interest in coding picked up when he was studying in Bishop Cotton Boys' School, Bangalore. "There were some seniors and I joined them in writing codes which were far beyond our years those days. After school every day we used to sit in the lab and code for at least two to three hours."

Their teachers, he adds, used to keep the lab open to encourage them. "Even during my advanced days I don't think I wrote codes as interesting and as technically complete as I did when in school with these friends of mine," he says, and then adds: "You see I am not a singer, dancer, writer or sportsperson. That was my method of expression."

His father may have been one of the most successful men in India, but Murty stresses that he grew up like anybody else. The stress in his family was on education - "You had to be either a scientist or an engineer." The success of Infosys did not mean untold wealth either for him or his sister, Akshata.

"I once wanted to buy a computer book for Rs 1,800 but couldn't do so because I didn't have that much money," he remembers. He bought it only after he'd won some prize money in school - and the shortfall was made up by his mother.

Murty was so attached to his school that he wanted to teach there after he graduated from Cornell in 2005. "I had applied for a PhD at Harvard and was accepted. But I had three months' time, so I opted for part-time teaching in my school. But I liked this experience so much that one day I told my teacher that I wanted to forget all the PhD stuff and stay back in Bangalore." The teacher had a hard time convincing young Murty to leave for Harvard.

But he did have a great interest in academics. "Professor Amartya Sen would tell me, 'You should not be doing anything. You should be a professor'," he recounts. The economist, he adds, was "very happy" when Murty was admitted to the Society of Fellows at Harvard, the second computer scientist they had picked in 50 years.

"He insisted that I call him by his first name because, according to him, he and I had become colleagues. He was a senior fellow and I was a junior fellow."

Murty has worked in different areas - including at Infosys, where he was for a brief period an assistant to his father. He left the company on June 14, 2014, when his father stepped down as executive chairman.

For the present, the computer scientist is happy funding a robotic astronomy project at the California Institute of Technology. The research was facing budgetary shortage when Murty decided to help financially by donating $1 million.

Murty, who spends most of his time in Boston and London, is working on another project, which he wants to keep under wraps right now. "I want to work in peace. I will let people know about it at an appropriate time," he says.

We had started the interview with Murty talking about his fondness for Bengalis. He had mentioned the many Bengalis in his life - from his best friend in school to economists Sen and Kaushik Basu. "I have great admiration for people from West Bengal. There is such a strong intellectual tradition there and a lot of respect for learning."

It doesn't surprise me that as we wind up the interview, he returns to the subject of Bengalis. Why are all the top economists Bengalis, he asks. "Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu... Pranab Bardhan. They are all Bengalis," he points out. Curious and hungry that he is, Murty is going to come up with an answer one day.