The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | Award-winning novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on her first non-fiction book, ‘An Uncommon Love’

‘An Uncommon Love’ tells the story of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy and his author wife Sudha Murty

Updated - January 18, 2024 01:04 pm IST

Published - January 11, 2024 02:03 pm IST

Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (left) will be a part of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Chennai, January 26-27.

Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (left) will be a part of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Chennai, January 26-27. | Photo Credit: File photo

Sometimes changing your mind can teach you a new trick or two. When I was asked by my publisher if I’d be interested in writing a biography of the early years of author Sudha Murty and Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, I turned down the offer right away. I had great respect for the Murthys, whom I’d known since my college days at the University of California in Berkeley, where I’d been friends with Sudha’s brother, Shrinivas. But I was a fiction writer.

Creative licence was my forte. I relied on it to bring alive on the page characters such as Draupadi and Sita, Maharani Jindan and the magical Mistress of Spices. In writing a biography, I’d be hobbled by facts. Besides, I had only written fiction in my nearly three-decade-long writing career. Surely non-fiction was a very different beast? 

However, my publisher was persuasive, and the Murthys gave the project their blessing. Before I knew it, I found myself interviewing the couple, spending time at their home in Bengaluru, and researching and writing my first ever work of non-fiction. In the process, I discovered something very interesting: writing non-fiction isn’t that different from writing fiction. They draw upon similar skills. 

In both fiction and non-fiction, you must understand, deeply, what motivates the main characters to behave in a particular way. In both cases, you must feel the character from the inside as they go through the dramatic moments of their lives. In both cases, you must understand how these moments transformed them. 

Just like re-visioning the ‘Ramayana’

Perhaps my earlier forays into re-visioning the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as interpreting the lives of women at key historical moments, such as Maharani Jindan in The Last Queen (2021), had prepared me for this. Because in those cases, too, I was constrained by the incidents that had already taken place. The only liberty I had was character interpretation. 

An oleograph depicting Draupadi’s ‘vastraharan’ or disrobing in the ‘Mahabharata’.

An oleograph depicting Draupadi’s ‘vastraharan’ or disrobing in the ‘Mahabharata’. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

For instance, when writing the famous disrobing scene in The Palace of Illusions (2008), described by so many great writers, I realised that the storyline was already there: the Pandavas sitting in the Kaurava sabha, humiliated and powerless; Draupadi being dragged in by Dussasana, who tries to disrobe her. The only freedom I had was to imagine and feel what Draupadi thought and suffered, and how, by the end of the scene, she was transformed by refusing to feel shamed.

That is the same technique I used in writing the story of the Murthys. After they shared certain cardinal incidents from their lives with me, I sat, eyes closed, imagining and feeling. I focused on the protagonists’ very human emotions, desires and flaws. And the scenes began to come alive.

In 1978, the newly-wed Sudha joined Murthy in Boston, where he was briefly posted. She told me that the first place in Boston she chose to visit was the MIT campus. Years ago, she had been offered a research assistantship at the prestigious university, but she had reluctantly given it up to join TELCO as their first woman engineer. So, on visiting the campus, she had wept tears of regret. When she told Murthy about this, he offered to put her through the graduate program at MIT, even though it would mean the end of his own ambitions of starting a company. Touched, she said to him, “I don’t need it. You are my Ph.D.”

Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty at the Mysuru campus of Infosys, 2007.

Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty at the Mysuru campus of Infosys, 2007. | Photo Credit: M.A. Sriram

Crying on the steps of MIT

The facts that Sudha gave me formed the skeleton of the scene I wrote of that incident. To make it come alive, I had to sit, with Sudha, on the steps of MIT, with tears streaming down my cheeks. I had to be with her and Murthy that evening, in the cramped bedroom of their shared apartment, as he asked her what was wrong. I had to be able to see her looking into his face as he made the offer that, if accepted, would force him to give up all his dreams. I had to hear her tear-soaked but triumphant voice saying, “You are my Ph.D.”

It was not so different from when I worked on a scene in my novels.

This became my editor’s favourite scene. When she asked me what inspired me to come up with it, I had to correct her. “Every bit of it is true!” I said. 

This, then, is what I’ve learned from writing both fiction and non-fiction: in fiction, we create the structure of the story; in non-fiction, it is given to us. But in both cases, to ensure that the book touches the reader’s heart, we must bring the characters alive in the crucible of our imagination. 

Gsquare Group presents The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Association with NITTE Education Trust & Christ University. Bookstore partner: Higginbothams

The writer’s latest book is ‘An Uncommon Love: The Early Life of Sudha and Narayana Murthy’.

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