Rohan Murty, 31, has been in the news, not as the son of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, or as his executive assistant until both father and son quit in 2014, but as the founder — through a generous $5.2 million endowment to Harvard University Press — of the Murty Classical Library of India, a colossal 100-year project to translate into English some of India’s ancient classical texts. But who is he really? Murty left India at 17 to study computer science at Cornell University, USA, followed by a fellowship at MIT and a PhD from Harvard. Does he take after his vivacious mother, the writer Sudha Murty? Is he a geek, who reads physics texts for amusement, like his father? Or is he his own man, someone who loves computer programming as well as philosophy, history and the classics? Excerpts from an interview:
How did coding become a passion?
We had a clunky old machine at home that my father used to work on sometimes. I was a bored eight-year old whose only non-school activity was playing tennis. I didn’t read, have friends or any hobbies. One day, I turned on the computer and started poking about. My father got upset and yelled at me saying I should do something more creative. My mother put me in an evening class where they taught basic programming thrice a week. The people in my class were all working adults.
Nothing made sense to me, a fourth grader, but I stuck on. After six months, we had to work on a project and I started building a checkout-cum-inventory programme for a neighbourhood grocery store. Suddenly, everything I learned clicked; it was very exciting. Those were the pre-internet days, and I would go to the library looking for books with problems that I could write code for.
How did this fit into your school schedule?
I was a bit of a loner at school. With coding, I did not have to rely on anybody, I could challenge myself for hours. It got very addictive. My mother saw that and decided I needed something more advanced. She enrolled me in another institute. The class was full of 30-year-olds. Coding soon became my favourite activity. In the summer after I completed sixth grade, an IIT Kanpur professor came for a ‘Catch ‘Em Young’ programme for Infosys. Somehow, I got roped in and started hanging out with a few 10th graders from my school, Bishop Cotton’s, who were also there. I became friends with one of the 10th graders who didn’t have a computer at home. Every night, I would call him, we would discuss and write code jointly. I would then run it on the computer at home and tell him the output. We wanted a particular book, but it cost Rs 1,200. I would go to the bookstore daily, read it and take notes. After four years, I finally bought that book.
It was an incredible time. I was doing well in school but coding was my life. By 10th grade, I was building my own operating system. For the first time in my life, I had friends and I fitted in. We would go to coding competitions. This became my passion. During my ICSE exams, my most creative ideas would strike me just before exam day. On the eve of my math exam, my parents found me writing code and they were really worried. But in my mind, I had to make the operating system work. When the results came out, for the first time in seven years, I was not in the top five. But by the time I finished 12th grade, I was back at number three in class and scored 94 per cent.
When did you become interested in literature?
I started reading when I went to college. Earlier, my reading was entirely technical. My uncle, a professor at Caltech, gave me the book, Surely You Are Joking Mr. Feynman. Until then, I had imagined I would be a pilot when I grew up. When I finished reading the book, I knew I wanted to be a scientist.
I read a lot of biographies of scientists and books about famous companies. I started reading the history of science and math and got curious about history. To understand what makes people believe, I started reading about philosophy. During my PhD, I began to reflect deeply on civilisations. Empires came and went, as did wealth, but the one thing that transcended time was knowledge. I got excited about everything to do with knowledge — new ways of learning, experiencing and understanding the world better.
What do you do to take your mind off work?
I love comedy. Don Rickles is my favourite. I love to work in isolation but I always have comedy playing in the background. My father and I used to bond over episodes of Yes Minister. I also enjoy music. I love all genres. I love Shania Twain. I like Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson and Elton John.
I read comic books to escape. Even now, I don’t tire of watching Tom and Jerry and Pink Panther every day. I have an emotional connect with comicbook superheroes, particularly Superman. When I was a kid, my mother used to play Superman endlessly to make me eat dinner. When I was a little older, she bought me a Superman costume. I wore it and imagined that I had supernatural powers. Twice, I jumped off the car and broke my arm, while attempting to fly. When a Superman movie released while I was at Harvard, my mother called to remind me, ‘You know you cannot fly, right?’
How do you balance work and life?
I love my work, I never feel it is ‘work’. There are two kinds of people — those who do few things well and are passionate about them; and those who do many things well but may not be passionate about them all. I am in the first category. Work is my indulgence. I work till I cannot work anymore. Every day, my work comes first.
What do you do as a release?
I like dancing. I learned swing for four years at graduate school. I also learned salsa. I became less shy during graduate school. But I only dance in the company of people I’m comfortable with.
Now that you are out of Infosys, what next?
I will continue to split time between Bangalore and Boston. Most of my friends are in Boston. In India, I lead a serious, productive life. It is about work and my parents. I’m more fun when I’m outside India. I left home when I was 17, I became comfortable living on my own. When I’m in Boston, I cook, clean, do laundry and do my taxes. Here there is security. I’m driven everywhere, partly because as much as I’ve tried, I cannot drive in India. In Boston, I meet friends, eat out, go dancing. I grew up conservative and religious. I’m not that when I’m abroad. But when I return, I’m that person again.
Do you miss that freedom?
When I was an undergrad, I had three part-time jobs in addition to taking a large number of courses. For the first time, I was earning my own money and deciding how to spend it. Though I didn’t entirely live off it, it was enough to support me. I lived and earned on my own and with it came carefree times.
There is talk of a startup in Boston.
Whatever I do, my core competence will always be computer science. I’m not yet ready to talk about my next step. It is early days yet.