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When Sudha, Narayana Murthy Broke Up

February 19, 2024 09:59 IST

After agonizing over this for weeks, he made a decision.
When they met after work one evening, he startled her by blurting out, 'I think we should break up.'

A moving excerpt from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's An Uncommon Love: The Early Life of Sudha and Narayana Murthy.

IMAGE: Sudha Murty with her husband and Infosys Co-founder N R Narayana Murthy. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sudha Murty/Instagram

Over the next few days, Murthy thought hard about the kind of company he wanted to start. He told Sudha that he envisioned it as an extension of what he had built for the IIMA students and professors. He would use his knowledge of information systems to design applications for businesses. Government organizations did not seem interested in improving productivity, but surely the private sector would be.

'I feel confident about this. I've seen the impact of computerization first-hand in Europe,' he said to Sudha, who listened intently.

'Not only governments but banks and businesses have adopted these systems. The minicomputer has made computing power accessible at affordable prices. Companies like Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM and Data General are transforming entire industries with their products. Sooner or later, it's bound to happen in India -- and when it does, my company is going to be in the forefront.'

Murthy decided to call his company Softronics, a word combining software and electronics. His friend Madhava Rao, who had worked with him at SRI, designed the official stationery for the company. He also promised to type Murthy's business letters in the evenings, after his regular job.

Looking at the fresh ink on the newly printed Softronics letterhead, Murthy felt his heart expand with hope. He began scouting for business. He knew enough design and programming on the computers available in India at that time and was very comfortable with all the programming languages.

His plan was this: Once he succeeded in convincing a customer that he could develop a software system for them, he would hire computer time from data centres at companies such as ECIL in Hyderabad. He would then be able to run applications and store and process data. He could also develop his software, validate it, install it and then send in the invoice. But the reality turned out to be very different.

His lack of a formal office space turned out to be a major hurdle. When potential clients enquired where the Softronics office was, the fact that it was located in Murthy's flat rang alarm bells.

Unlike in the US, where many tech giants started off in garages, in India even a fledgling company was expected to have a proper office. Murthy ran into the same problem when he tried to hire engineers.

Before accepting the job offer, they wanted to see their workspace, and when they saw a table set up in Murthy's bedroom, they were sceptical.

IMAGE: Sudha Murty, N R Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and Rohini Nilekani. Photograph: Kind courtesy Infosys

Even when he managed to find some clients willing to take a chance on him despite the small size of his operations, executing the projects turned out to be more difficult than he had expected.

The few computers in Pune -- old, outdated and glacial in speed - were useless to Murthy. And even in other cities, accessing a computer was difficult, thanks to the Indian government's severe import licensing restrictions and the small number of rudimentary, India-made, low-capacity IBM, ECIL and ICL machines.

The government wrongly believed that computers were 'labour-saving devices' that threatened to increase unemployment in India. Hence, there was massive red tape and long waiting times to purchase one.

To develop his systems, Murthy had to travel to other cities to use data centres there. For instance, to do the required work for his first client, Dr Beck and Company, Murthy would travel once a month to ECIL in Hyderabad and spend a week there to do his work.

At other times, Murthy would have to travel to an ICL data centre in Mumbai. The computer there was free only late at night, and the centre would allocate Murthy time in fifteen-minute slots when no one else required the machine - for instance, between 2.15 and 2.30 am. Murthy worked alone in the data centre, compiling his code. If he made an error in his code, he had to wait two frustrating days to get another time slot to rectify it.

IMAGE: Sudha Murty posted this wedding picture of hers with Narayana Murthy on her Instagram on the couple's anniversary. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sudha Murty/Instagram

These were tough odds: Travelling from Pune to Mumbai to use a computer for fifteen minutes in the dead of night at an exorbitant price. It cost Murthy Rs 550 for each hour of computing time; additionally, he was exhausted from all the back-and-forth travel.

The computer available to him, the ICL 1901, was very slow, taking fifteen minutes to compile a COBOL program of a thousand lines. His revenues were eaten up by high business costs that made it increasingly unlikely that he would turn a profit.

The biggest challenge, Murthy realized with a sinking heart, was that access to computers -- especially a faster computer -- was unlikely to improve any time soon. The Indian government's motto, at that time, was 'self-reliant, indigenous development'.

If an entrepreneur did not want to use the Indian ECIL computers, the authorities made procuring anything else from abroad very difficult. The US firm Digital Equipment Corporation had emerged as the top minicomputer manufacturer in the world, providing customers with smaller, cheaper general purpose computers

that would have been perfect for Murthy's projects.

But the government made their import into India almost impossible. Because of the lack of computers, Indian businesses did not yet recognize the value of information systems and therefore were reluctant to pay good prices for the kind of service Murthy could provide.

Faced with a slew of problems beyond his control, a frustrated Murthy was finally forced to admit that his first foray into entrepreneurship was not going well. This created in him a crisis of conscience. He felt he had no right to involve Sudha in such an uncertain future. After agonizing over this for weeks, he made a decision. When they met after work one evening, he startled her by blurting out, 'I think we should break up.'

Sudha was both shocked and hurt. 'But why?' she asked him.

'My venture is failing. You are a beautiful woman with a shining future. I can't drag you down with me,' he said. 'I'll be happy without money, I don't care for it. After all, I grew up on the edge of poverty. But I don't want to spoil your life.'

Sudha's heart sank. She had been planning to tell her parents about him and to introduce him to them soon. But she hid her feelings and narrowed her eyes at him. 'What makes you think I care about money any more than you do?'

Murthy, however, would not listen to her arguments. He cut off all contact with her. In the following days, he started hanging out more than ever before with friends with socialist leanings, but this only confused him further.

Within his heart, the ideals of Marx battled with the examples presented by Gandhi and by his best-loved epic hero, Karna the Generous. Out of this turmoil would finally emerge a clear philosophy of compassionate capitalism, but the interim was painful and bewildering.

IMAGE: Sudha Murty and Narayana Murthy. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sudha Murty/Instagram

Sudha could have made Murthy feel guilty for abandoning her after spending all this time with her or pursued him aggressively, but she had too much self-respect to respond in an over emotional way. But neither was she willing to just give up.

Though she was upset, she knit him a white sweater -- perhaps because she knew his propensity towards giving away his clothes to the poor.

It took her a long time because she was not deft with handicrafts. But finally she completed it and sent it to him with their common friend Vinay.

This silent gift of love did its job. Murthy, who had been missing her terribly, reached out to apologize, the two of them got back together, and in the dark days that followed, Sudha became the single source of brightness for Murthy.

Sudha helped Murthy through this tough time in a number of ways. When she realized he was running out of savings, she quietly loaned him some money every month. When he protested, she told him he could return it when things got better.

She even bought him a shirt so that he would be better dressed at meetings. She knew their evenings together brought him a great deal of solace because she was a good listener and he could unload whatever was on his mind.

IMAGE: Sudha Murty, her husband, daughter Akshata Murty and son Rohan Murty at the launch of the book An Uncommon Love: The Early Life of Sudha and Narayana Murthy, February 10, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

But she also realized he no longer had money to eat out regularly. So she started paying for their dinners -- and Murthy, though usually proud about being self-sufficient, accepted. She sometimes asked probing questions about what he was doing to grow his company, but overall, she was supportive and encouraging. Murthy, who could never speak to his own family about his work problems, grew more attached to her each day.

When Sudha visited her family in Hubli -- something she liked doing every few weeks -- Murthy would accompany her to the train station. 'I'll see you off,' he would say, but when the train arrived, he would get on it with her because he wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.

The first time this happened, Sudha, who was a law-abiding individual, was scandalized. 'Murthy,' she said, 'you don't have a ticket!'

Excerpted from An Uncommon Love: The Early Life of Sudha and Narayana Murthy by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, with the permission of the publishers, Juggernaut Books. Available on Amazon and in bookstores.