Sudha Murty Never Travels Without Doing Her Research

The writer treats every holiday as a “hard-core study tour”, even if it means enrolling in a three-month bible study class before a trip to Israel.  
Murty (extreme right) mostly travels solo or with her sister Sunanda Kulkarni (second from right). Here the siblings can be seen braving Icelandic cold.
Photo courtesy: Sudha Murty
Murty (extreme right) mostly travels solo or with her sister Sunanda Kulkarni (second from right). Here the siblings can be seen braving Icelandic cold. Photo courtesy: Sudha Murty

She travels with a diligence usually reserved for those seeking bodhi. Travel for Sudha Murty, chairperson of the Infosys Foundation and an author, always has this element of a quest. Her husband, Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, calls her travels “hard-core study tours”.

Not many people enrol in a three-month Bible study class before embarking on a journey to Israel. At the Stations of the Cross, Murty was so immersed in the experience of following in Christ’s footsteps, that she wept copiously and “unknowingly,” she says.

A love of history dictates Murty’s travel itinerary. “I am attracted to places that have historical significance,” she explains, due to a childhood suffused with stories told by her grandfather and mother, both history teachers. At age nine, Murty travelled with her mother to the grand Badami Caves in Karnataka. Though theoretically she knew all about the famous caves, nothing prepared her for the exhilaration she felt when she realised that she was standing in a historically significant place. “That journey marked me for life,” says the 66-year-old philanthropist.

When she was 29, Murty went on her first solo trip—backpacking across America for three months. Even today, she almost always travels solo or occasionally with her sister. (“My husband hates travelling. He was in Paris for three years and never visited the Louvre Museum. I spent six days touring the museum.”)

Sudha Murty

Sudha Murty.
Photo by Sudha Pillai.

It was in Harlem, New York, that the local cops mistook Murty for a Hispanic drug dealer. In the 1980s tourists weren’t encouraged to walk around Harlem late at night. Her large backpack didn’t help matters. However, when the cops rummaged through her bag looking for drugs, they were flummoxed by a dabba of curd rice. “They just didn’t get it,” Murty says.

The journey pushed her boundaries in other ways, too. It taught her to plod through her fear when she lost her way, and had to spend a night in the Grand Canyon. Her instincts became finely honed, and she was constantly humbled by the kindness of strangers.

Murty carries out in-depth research, including extensive “note-taking”, before travelling to a place. The research can last a few months or even a few years. Knowing the history of a place adds a different dimension—of time travel—to a journey. But however well-acquainted in theory Murty is with a place, it is imperative, she says, to travel “with an open mind”: devoid of prejudices, delusions and expectations. “Every place on this earth has something to offer,” she says, “if you are willing to accept.”

Murty has travelled to over 70 countries and might be on the move for up to 200 days a year. As a philanthropist, she “sees a place from an economic perspective too. I like to know about their history, culture, and how they deal with their economy.” She adds, “I don’t particularly care about the political perspective.”

Her travels in India tend to revolve around philanthropic work. But she sets aside one day to explore her destination. She points out that “Our poor infrastructure and public utilities make travelling in India tedious. It is scary to travel in India at night unlike say in Norway or Sweden. Moreover, when people know you are from a different state or country, and you don’t speak their language they don’t think twice about cheating you.” This is a contrast to Murty’s experiences in Japan. She still fondly remembers a shopkeeper in Kyoto, who shuttered his shop so he could take a “thoroughly lost” Murty to her destination. “He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Japanese. We kept bowing to each other, he more than me. But he knew I was a guest in their country and felt it was up to him to see me safely to my place.”

“Travelling has made me realise,” Murty says, “that there is always someone bigger and better than you.” This extends from people to cultural artefacts. “When you see the beautiful ancient masjids and temples in Iran and Cambodia, you realise they are better than the ones back home, which you were boastful about. That revelation does not make you feel inferior. It only opens your eyes to different possibilities.”

Travel can bring to light connections between cultures, “your own country’s influence on other cultures,” says Murty. In fact, she is currently writing a book on the influence of Bollywood in foreign lands. A film buff, she reels off with glee anecdotes about discovering a Raj Kapoor lounge in a Tashkent hotel, and hearing an Icelander sing songs from Dilwale. Her favourite encounter was with a baker in Iran, who refused to accept money for the four naans she bought. “We did not speak a common language. But he knew I was an Indian because of my sari.” He asked her four questions: “India? Amitabh Bachchan? Madhuri Dixit? Salman Khan?” Sudha answered, “yes” to all four. That was the only necessary transaction. “Travel informs you that in spite of the difference we are not different as humans,” Murty says. “Emotions and feelings are universal.”

Sudha Murty likes to explore places at her own pace. For instance, she spent six days in Paris’s Louvre museum; her husband, on the other hand, skipped Louvre altogether in the three years that he lived in Paris. Photo by Latsalomao/iStock.

Sudha Murty likes to explore places at her own pace. For instance, she spent six days in Paris’s Louvre museum; her husband, on the other hand, skipped Louvre altogether in the three years that he lived in Paris.
Photo by Latsalomao/iStock.

Murty is one of India’s richest citizens, and the question of how money influences her travel is unavoidable. “How would I travel to all the exotic places if I didn’t have money?” she quips. Money, she acknowledges, has helped her travel far and wide, stay in comfortable and safe hotels, and hire the most knowledgeable English-speaking guide in town. However, she never spends money on shopping.

“I prefer to spend money on experiences,” Murty says. Ironically, this may mean visiting the markets of the countries she travels to. “If you want to experience the atma or soul of a country, you should visit its markets,” she says. “I go to the market to watch life; the sounds and smells of a land. Markets are the reflection of a culture of a coun-try. Except in Dubai and Singapore,” she adds. “There is no atma there. Just imported goods.”

Years of travelling to many ancient lands have given Murty a perspective on life. “Nothing is permanent,” she says. “Many emperors thought that they or their clan would endure infinitely if only they became the most powerful or wealthiest in the world. Taimur the Great killed five per cent of the global population. Genghis Khan killed 20 per cent of the world’s population. What remains of their countries now? Mongolia is a forgotten country on
the map.”

This learning reflects in Murty’s personal philosophy. “I am often reminded that when you are at the top, you should be kind and compassionate; do philanthropic work if you can,” she says. “Because no matter how powerful you are, one day you will perish. That decree directs my day-to-day life.”

Travel Quirks

A rigid vegetarian, Murty carries an endless supply of thepla and dry avilakki (flattened rice) whenever she travels.

She wears silk saris on her journey. “It does not require ironing. You fold it, keep it under the bed, and you are good to go the next day. Moreover, because it is colourful and shiny, people love to touch it and have photos taken.”

She does not carry a camera and has not taken a single photograph of her journeys in 20 years. “I prefer to
live in the moment and absorb all that it offers,” she says.

 

Surprising Encounter

“When I went to Tibet, a very old lady fell at my feet with tears in her eyes. I was taken aback. She said, ‘Thank
you for letting our Dalai Lama live in India. Consider this my gratitude towards your entire country.’”

 

Funny Encounter

“When I gave a beggar sitting outside a church in Portugal a dollar, he looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘You know we ruled you guys for 400 years’. Initially, I was angry. Then I realised you cannot change history. I smiled and told him, ‘Yes, but that was then, and this is now.’”

 

Bizarre Encounter
Clad in a Mysore silk sari, Sudha was responsible for a security incident at Madrid’s Prado Museum. The metal in the zari made security machines go haywire. “We didn’t speak the same language, so the cops couldn’t understand when I told them the zari was the culprit. I was taken to a room, made to remove my sari, and body-searched. While I stood in my petticoat and blouse, my sari was examined with a fine-toothcomb. I wasn’t miffed at all. They were just doing their job.”

 

Favourite Places in India

Ranakpur near Udaipur.

Belur-Halebid, Karnataka

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Kashi, Uttar Pradesh. “Though it is very dirty, I still like it because it is a 5,000-year-old city and is mythologically connected.”

 

Favourite Journeys

Iran. “Persia is historically connected to India. Kannada has around 2,000 to 5,000 Persian words in its dialect.”

Uzbekistan

China

Egypt

Lahore, Pakistan. “All these places have historical significance, and you can relate them to contemporary India.”

The opulence of the Hazrat Imam Complex in Tashkent left an indelible impression on Murty. Photo by Jose Fuste Raga/INDIA PICTURE.

The opulence of the Hazrat Imam Complex in Tashkent left an indelible impression on Murty.
Photo by Jose Fuste Raga/INDIA PICTURE.

Favourite Markets

China. “It is massive, and you can get anything from pearls to perfumes, to snakes and scorpions.”

The markets in Central Asia.

Purana Qila Market, Delhi.

 

Favourite Museums

British Museum, London. “Spent eight days touring it.”

The Louvre, Paris

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo

National Museum, Delhi. “Even today, when I visit the capital, I always set aside half a day to spend at the
Delhi museum. It is beautiful.”

 

Unforgettable Monuments

Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia.

Borobudur and Prambanan temples, Indonesia

Nasir-al-Mulk mosque, Iran. “Almost all the masjids in Iran are unforgettable.”

 

Top of her bucket list

Travelling the old Silk route of China.

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    Sudha Pillai is an artist, photographer, and writer. She writes about her encounters with people, places, art, and culture.

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