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  Books   03 Feb 2024  Book Review| A whitewashed portrait of Infosys’ first couple

Book Review| A whitewashed portrait of Infosys’ first couple

THE ASIAN AGE. | RUPA GULAB
Published : Feb 4, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Feb 4, 2024, 12:00 am IST

A critical review of "An Uncommon Love" delves into the hagiographic portrayal of the Murthy couple

An Uncommon Love. (Image: DC)
 An Uncommon Love. (Image: DC)

Biographies about dashing billionaires who did weird and wonderful things are fun reads. But a book about possibly the most staid billionaire couple ever is a great bedtime read and works better than sedatives. 

An Uncommon Love is not so much a biography of Narayana and Sudha Murthy’s early lives, as it is a gushing hagiography with only one intent: To make you see them as saints who want to serve the country. What’s their agenda, you may well wonder, what with the relentless PR they’ve been bombarding us with for over a year now? If their PR drive earned them the cheeky monikers of Simple Sudha and Humble Narayana, this book repositions them slightly: Here we see them as Sacrificing Sudha and Hardworking Narayana — while also being annoyingly in-your-face simple and humble — they just won’t let up! It’s a given that they achieved a lot on their own steam and do not need to impress us further, so why are they still trying to win our admiration with shows of phoney desi-politician level humility?

The book chronicles how Sudha and Narayana meet in Pune, how their friendship turns to love, how she lends him loads of money when he’s jobless, and how her razor sharp brain is just as engaged as her mushy heart because she carefully jots down what he owes her in a notebook. She claims she destroyed that notebook on their wedding day. An aside: Suppose he had never proposed to her — would she have presented him with the IOU? 

After Narayana and Sudha’s early Romeo and Juliet days have been recounted, Sudha morphs into another Shakespearean character — a Lady Macbeth type-A personality who eggs her husband on, helps him realise his dream of being an entrepreneur, and lends him more money, even offers her wedding jewellery as collateral for a bank loan like a good Indian wife. It’s just too bad that she repeatedly reminds us of the money she gave her husband like a bragging, not-so-good Indian wife. The only time you actually feel sorry for her is when she talks about how broken and cheated she felt when Narayana would not let her join Infosys because of his no nepotism/dynasty principles. The very same principles he broke when his son Rohan joined him at Infosys an an executive assistant in 2013 for about a year and became VP almost overnight — Narayana got a lot of flak for that, if you remember. 

Of the two, Narayana comes across as more likeable. He literally saw more of the world than Sudha did before they met, and he’s more driven and far more idealistic. His says his belief in socialism fades when he’s jailed in Bulgaria for no reason at all, and he decides to embrace capitalism. Another aside: Will someone please inform him that in non-communist countries ruled by allegedly democratic right wing governments, people are frequently flung into jail too for no valid reason, without access to bail?

The most boring bit about Narayana is when the author witters on about his belief in “compassionate capitalism”, a tired old term that’s thrown around in company brochures across the world to make corporations look sweet and nice. A big yawn to that, and a bigger yawn to the philanthropy section. Fact: Most Indian businessmen are not generous. Google search “top ten Indian philanthropists” and look at the sorry figures they donate.

The most enjoyable part of the book is not about Sudha and Narayana, but how Infosys was born, dealing with difficult bureaucrats, getting office space, pitching for clients, a few sly swipes at co-founders to show us Narayana was a better human being, etc. The most fascinating bit was explaining the concept of software to bank managers who had no clue what it was in those days: “Once a manager even took off his spectacles and shook them at Murthy, saying that his glasses were a more saleable product than Infosys’ software.” Unfortunately, those bits are scattered between treacly pages on Sudha’s sacrifices and simplicity, and Narayana’s god-like values and humility. Oh well, this is a hagiography, so a whitewashed and sanitised Infosys is only to be expected. For the whole truth, visit Google again. 

It’s surprising that a well known author like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni agreed to write this book, and more importantly, chose to write it in this cloying, hyper-reverent manner. For example, she earnestly tells us that Sudha and Narayana’s relationship had a (choke) staggering impact on India! I’m not kidding, read this: “… a relationship that would open the doors of aspiration for many young people who came from similar middle-class backgrounds and ultimately change the face of entrepreneurship and philanthropy in India”. 

The only ray of sunshine is that Divakaruni is an established author and not a cynical political strategist, so you don’t have to encounter ridiculous situations like, say, Sudha and Narayana wrestling crocodiles.

An Uncommon Love

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Juggernaut

pp. 399, Rs 799

 

Tags: narayana murthy, sudha murthy, book review 2024