Found in Translation

Rohan Murty spoke on MCLI, and his love for history and philosophy.

Written by Nikita Puri | New Delhi | Published:January 19, 2015 12:00 am
Rohan Murty, Murty Classical Library of India, Indian classical texts Rohan Murty at the launch of Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) in Delhi (Source: Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

It is easy to spot a book from the recently-launched Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), one can’t miss the rose-coloured hardcovers. These books, which make ancient Indian classical texts available even to the non-scholar readers among us, have been made accessible by Rohan Murty. Son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy and social worker-cum-writer Sudha, the 32-year-old attended Cornell University as an undergraduate. He received his PhD in Computer Science from Harvard University, a doctorate supported by the Siebel Scholars Fellowship and a Microsoft Research Fellowship. A Computing Innovations Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Murty is a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. Though his interest in “networked systems, embedded computing, and distributed computing systems” is what keeps him going, Murty’s love for literature shines through MCLI. Excerpts from an interview:

On the genesis of MCLI:

When I was studying Computer Science at Harvard, I read philosophy in ancient India on the side. These were texts written in Sanskrit, and I could only read one-off translations. I’m not a historian but my perception of history was rooted in the 13th century or somewhere around there. I was curious as to what happened, say for instance, from 2,000 BC to the 13th century in this part of the world. What was philosophy like in those days, and how did people live. The only way I could access this information was because someone somewhere had done some translation.

I was itching to do something about this when, about four years ago, I met Sanskrit scholar and literary historian Sheldon Pollock, who had previously worked with the Clay Sanskrit Library. Pollock said, “Why don’t we go beyond Sanskrit? There are several classics in vernacular and medieval languages in Indian literature.” This was a much more expansive way of thinking, and Pollock is now the general editor of the series.

On the books, and publishing of the series:

All books are in Hindi and English. We are looking at texts that were written around the 1800s or so. The first five books are Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women; Sufi Lyrics; The History of Akbar: Volume 1; The Story of Manu; and Sur’s Ocean. I’ve finished reading Therigatha. Parts of it are very heartbreaking because it is by nuns who led an austere and solitary life. My mother has already wolfed down two of the books.

The publishers, Harvard University Press, have previously done the Loeb Library (Greek and Latin literature into English), and the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (medieval and Byzantine literature into English). They have the experience and expertise to do this. With about five books every year, we aim to publish as many as 500 books over the course of a century.

On the debate surrounding national versus classical language:

I don’t want to comment on any of that simply because I would rather they be taken for what they are. I went to an ICSE school, and we read Shakespeare, Dickens and Wordsworth… there was nothing political about those. This is literature produced in this part of the world, it is our shared heritage.

On affordability, reach, and digitisation of the MCLI books:

The prices are quite reasonable. When you think about it, it costs much less than what leading Indian authors publish. You can order them online, the books will soon be available in bookstores too. Digitisation is something that I, as a computer scientist, fundamentally believe in.

On his investment in the project, and on government and external support:

My endowment to this series is $5.2 million, that’s how we try to make sure that this survives for a long time. I want this to survive.

It should outlive my lifetime, and everyone else’s lifetime. In theory at least, it should survive forever. The government spends a lot of money in a lot of other valuable efforts. If we do about five books every year, then I think we are fine.

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