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‘Talking About Charity Helps’

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Philanthropy, creating libraries, building toilets in rural India, are among the list of priorities for Sudha Murty. And travelling to almost every village in Karnataka, and across India has given her a window of opportunity to study people closely. These experiences, she says, motivates her to write and share them. The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk is one such anthology of real life instances written by Murty. The title of the book itself is a chapter, in which the author discovers the depth of poverty and the sufferings associated with it through the story of a poor farmer who has just a glass of milk and is in a dilemma to divide it between Murty, a guest in his home, and his new born child who needs to be fed. Murty speaks to BW Online's Sanjitha Rao Chaini on the importance of reading vernacular literature, translations and why a published work plays an important role in movies.
Why this book? And why should a reader pick up this book?
I write experiences because I should share my experiences with people. If we don't write about experiences, then reading becomes a one-dimensional knowledge. But experiences in itself is a three-dimensional knowledge, and it may not be possible for everybody to go through this three-dimensional knowledge. This experience is what I share in the book. Whatever I have learnt while working with the poorest of the poor in the country, I write.
When and where do you write?
I started writing when I was in school and continued writing when I was in college. My first book came about 33 years ago. That was in Kannada. Because of the high work pressure, I don't have any particular place to write. I normally write at home preferably early in the morning from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. If it's in English, I use a laptop to write. I write it by hand on paper if it's in Kannada. I write in both languages and I have different ways of writing for each of them.
You once wrote a letter to JRD Tata pointing out that barring women applicants from jobs at Telco was injustice. How has it changed  India now in the light of gender determination and female foeticide emphatically brought to fore by Aamir Khan in his television series, 'Satyameva Jayate'?
I graduated in 1974 and that's when I wrote this letter. Things have definitely changed a lot in 40 years. Social change does require time. It is not like a computer where you press a button and get a reply. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to watch Aamir Khan's television series as I am always touring the rural areas. Perhaps if it comes out on a DVD, I will watch it. But I know Khan is a perfectionist and he must have done a good job of it. I have heard a lot about it from several people.
Several chapters in the current book touch upon philanthropy and giving. In the corporate scenario, CSR seems like a marketing strategy. Your thoughts…
We are always taught that if you give from right hand, don't let the left hand know about it. However, in the corporate scenario, talking about giving perhaps motivates others to give. If one corporate gives Rs x lakh for a cause, it could in some way motivate another company to contribute and participate in such activities. That is the other way of looking at it. And well, everybody may not have the same passion and love to give. It depends on what and how much they chose to give. Ultimately, you need to see whether it has made any difference, especially in a country like ours where problems are plenty.
We do a lot in terms of charity but normally people know only one part of that. For instance, I will talk about issues that are important to me. We are building 10,000 toilets in Gulbarga, a district in North Karnataka. For me, toilets are important even more than a puja room in a house. I talk about it because people should help their society, help their homes and donate for the cause. So, to a certain extent, talking about charity helps. For some hard hearted people it may not work. But for some people even a small push will help them walk, like a child learning to walk.
Where all did this book take you?
I travel a lot. I have travelled extensively in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, I probably know every village, I have travelled to all places here: Tamil Nadu, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, yes. I don't travel because I have to write books. I have written books because I have travelled. I buy a rope because I have a buffalo; I don't buy a buffalo only because I have a rope (It's a literal translation of a Kannada idiom).
How do you make the transition as an author while writing for both children and adults?
The transition is really hard while writing for adults and for children. While writing for children, I have to get down to their level. I have to describe everything and one should not use certain words. I should not show that I am very angry or any emotion should not be extreme. It should be an easy read, they should be able to read it without the help of a dictionary. And indirectly a moral lesson to be taught.
The Day I Stopped Drinking MilkTells us about the kind of books you read...
I like simple reading and effective reading. I like English writers. I do read Indian authors when it comes to history. But for factual accounts, non-fiction, I prefer English writers. I am readingKitab-I-Nauras (Book of Nine Rasas) by Ibrahim Adil Shah II, of the Adilshahi dynasty of Bijapur (the book is a collection of poems and couplets was written to introduce Hindu aesthetics and culture to the Muslims.). I am reading the translation in Kannada. Before I started this book, I was reading a lot of books on Myanmar. We just returned from Myanmar. I met Aung San Suu Kyi and it was a great feeling to meet her. I wanted to see a few specific places there. We went to Mandalay, where Tilak was imprisoned; we visited Bagan, which is the old captial among other places. Next, in books, Mahashweta Devi's translation in Kannada is waiting for me. I cannot go to sleep without reading. I am addicted to reading.
Do you think translating literary works is a better way to reach people, especially in a country like India with so many languages?
Yes, I think so. When I was in Maharasthra, people of my age group used to tell me about stories during World War II and the books were all in German. I asked how they knew of such stories and they told me the German books were translated in English and someone had translated them to Marathi. So, translation is important if one is interested in learning cultures of people speaking a different language. In fact, my books are one of the top sellers in Maharasthra. I was surprised to know that all my books are translated in Marathi and in Gujarati.
There are such gems in Kannada literature such as Karanth's Mookajjiya Kanasugalu, Bettada Jeeva, which we probably study only as text books. These books tend to go unnoticed by book buyers..,
Parents should encourage their kids to read books in local languages. When we were kids, and we were not really rich, but my father would say, 'It's your birthday, come let's go to a book store and you get to pick two books,'. So both parents and teachers need to introduce the curiosity in the children. They should buy the book read it out to them. The school library too should stock go od books. For instance, we have built about 50,000 libraries in rural areas. We constantly buy good books and distribute them to these libraries.
Who are your favourite writers in Kannada?
In different age, my choice was different authors. Books by Triveni, one of Kannada's modern ficiton writers, had a tremendous effect on me when I was young. She has a very simple way of writing that appeals to all and her story conveys the message to all in a very poetic way. Later on I started reading the works of Shivram Karanth and S.L. Bhyrappa. I have read all their works in Kannada.
One of your books Tumula is being adapted for a Kannada movie, to be directed by T.S. Nagabharana. What is your take on books being made into movies? 
My only request to them was that the story should not disappear. The quality of any movie is based on quality of the story. Acting and production is important, but it is a necessary condition that the story should be good. In Kerala, almost all the Jnanpeeth awardees' novels have been made into movies. This is why the quality of Malayalam movies is really good. When you take a story from a writer/book, there is quality, there is strategy in the story. And not just commercial values, moral values are also present in quality writing. In Kannada, Puttanna Kanagal's movies were interesting. I am sure people are fond of watching good work. But the quality of Kannada movies now is very low.
E-books or paper format?
I am old fashioned. I like to lie down and take a book and read. Even if there is no power, I should be able to read. And importantly I like to have the coordinate of the pages. For instance a particular page and a particular paragraph may interest me, then I go back to read it. But I lose the coordinates and continuity in Kindle. The paper format gives me a sense of direction. And it doesn't strain my eyes. My brother gifted a Kindle to me, but I have used it very less. I work in rural areas 20 days a month and I prefer to take a book while travelling to these areas by train. So, every time I travel, I take around 10 books with me.
sanjitha (dot) chaini (at) gmail (dot) com