She travels with a diligence usually reserved for those seeking bodhi. In a way, travel for Sudha Murty, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation, is a journey of pursuit. Her husband, Narayan Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, calls her travels “hardcore study tours”. She doesn’t deny it. Not many enrol in a three-month Bible study class before embarking on a journey to Israel. At the Stations of the Cross, she wept copiously. “Unknowingly,” she says. “How can someone as compassionate and loving as Jesus Christ could be crucified and made to suffer so much?” she asks.
Love for history dictates Sudha’s travel itinerary. “I am attracted to places that have historical significance,” she explains. A consequence of a childhood suffused with stories from a grandfather and mother, both history teachers. As a nine-year-old, Sudha 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, Sudha 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.”)
It was in Harlem that the cops mistook her for a Spanish drug dealer. Back then, no woman travelled alone in Harlem late in the night. That privilege was reserved for drug peddlers. Her large backpack, which the cops thought was filled with drugs, didn’t help her case either. However, when they rummaged through her bag what flummoxed them the most was her dabba of curd rice. “They just didn’t get it.” It was a journey that pushed her boundaries. Taught her to plod through fear when she lost her way and had to spend the night in the Grand Canyon; honed her instincts and was humbled by the kindness of strangers.
Sudha carries out in-depth research, which involves extensive “note-taking”, before travelling to a place. The “research” can last a few months or a few years. Knowing the history of a place and then walking through its portals makes for an alluring time travel. But, no matter how well acquainted (in theory at least) she is with a place it is imperative, for Sudha, that she “travels with an open mind” — devoid of prejudices, delusions and expectations. “Only when your mind is open, you can receive. And every place on this earth has something to offer. If you are willing to accept.”
Sudha has travelled to over 70-80 countries. She travels 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. I don’t particularly care about the political perspective,” she reveals.
Her travels in India revolve around her philanthropic work. But she dedicates one day to explore the land. Travelling in India, she says, is difficult when compared to travelling abroad. “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. I have seen it happen. But you can never see something like that happening in say Japan.” She still fondly remembers the shopkeeper in Kyoto who shuttered his shop so he could take a “thoroughly lost” Sudha to her destination. “He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Japanese. We kept bowing to each other at intervals, 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.”
Travel is a great ego-buster. “Travelling has made me realise,” she says,” that there is always someone bigger and better than you. 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.” In a manner, travel makes you realise who you are.
“Travel also helps you see your own country’s influence on other cultures,” says Sudha who is currently writing a book on the influence of Bollywood in foreign lands. A film buff, she reels off with glee the time she discovered a Raj Kapoor lounge in a hotel in Tashkent or heard an Icelander sing Dilwale songs. But her favourite story is that of naan-seller in Iran who refused to accept money for the four naans that 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 sealed the deal for him. “There are so many things that connect us though we are from different countries,” she says. “Travel informs you that in spite of the difference we are not different as humans. Emotions and feelings are universal.”
Being one of the wealthiest Indians, one cannot avoid asking her how money has influenced her travel. “How would I travel to all the exotic places if I didn’t have money?” she quips. Money, she will acknowledge, has helped her travel far and wide, stay in comfortable and safe hotels and hire the most knowledgeable and best English-speaking guide in town. However, you can never catch her spending money on shopping. “I prefer to spend money on experiences,” she says. Ironically for someone who doesn’t buy a single thing from anywhere, Sudha insists on 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. I go to the market to watch life. The sounds and smells of a land. Markets are a reflection of a culture of a country, except in Dubai and Singapore. There is no atma there. Just imported goods.”
After years of travelling and walking through many ancient lands, Sudha says, she has learnt that “nothing is permanent. 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 5% of the global population. Genghis Khan killed 20% of the world population. What remains of their countries now? Mongolia is a forgotten country on the map… Nothing remains forever. Except for one’s kindness and compassion. When I soak myself in the histories of various countries I am often reminded that when you are at the top, you should be kind and compassionate; do philanthropic work if you can. Because no matter how powerful you are, one day you will perish. That decree directs my day-to-day life.” If you believe this intrepid traveller, one of the perks of travelling is…The more you travel, the smaller the ‘I’ in you becomes.
ON THE SIDELINES
Travel Quirks: A rigid vegetarian Sudha carries an endless supply of theplas and dry avilakki whenever she travels. She wears only silk saris when she travels. “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. She hasn’t taken a single photograph of her journeys in the last twenty years. “I prefer to live in the moment and absorb all that it offers than spend time taking pictures.”
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 only 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 zari sari Sudha created a security havoc at the museum in Spain. The metal in the zari made the security machines go haywire at the entrance. “We didn’t speak the same language so the cops couldn’t understand when I told them that the zari in the sari 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. Khashi. “Though it is very dirty, I still like it because it is a 5000-year-old city and is mythologically connected.”
Favourite journeys: Iran. “Persia is historically connected to India. North Karnataka has around 2000-5000 Persian words in its dialect.” Uzbekistan. China. Egypt. Lahore. “All these places have historical significance, and you can relate them to contemporary India.”
Favourite markets: China. “It is massive, and you can get anything from pearls to perfumes, to snakes and scorpions.” The market in Central Asia. Purana Kila Market, Delhi.
Favourite Museums: British Museum. “Spent eight days touring it.” The Louvre. Smithsonian. Cairo Museum. Delhi Museum. “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: The Vishnu temple in Cambodia. Borobudur Buddhist Temple and Prambanan Hindu temple in Indonesia. Nazir Ol Molk Mosque in Iran. “Almost all the masjids in Iran are unforgettable.”
Top of her bucket list: Travelling the old Silk route of China.
A version of this was published in National Geographic Traveller India, July 2017 issue