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Rohan Murty revives classic conversation

Published : Oct 30, 2015, 9:43 pm IST
Updated : Oct 30, 2015, 9:43 pm IST

Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy’s son Rohan Murty (he takes after his mother Sudha’s spelling of the last name) was in conversation with festival director Anil Dharker at the ongoing Tata Literature

Rohan Murty in conversation with Anil Dharker
 Rohan Murty in conversation with Anil Dharker

Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy’s son Rohan Murty (he takes after his mother Sudha’s spelling of the last name) was in conversation with festival director Anil Dharker at the ongoing Tata Literature Live! The 31-year-old Ph. D from Harvard was here to expand on his idea of the Murty Classical Library of India — an initiative that aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia. It will provide modern English translations of classical works across a vast array of Indian languages — an initiative he hopes will sustain for the next 100 years, at least.

“I am a computer scientist by training and by day and something else by night — a fan of the classics to be more precise,” he clarifies as Anil looks amused at his choice of words at a session titled ‘Reviving our Classics’.

“These are essentially time machines,” Rohan says referring to the volumes his library will churn out. “Elliot described a classic as something that is perpetually contemporary, but I quite disagree. It’s not ought to be a universal, contemporary idea. But given my limited understanding (a phrase he almost punctuates all his sentences with) it is an idea of one person at a particular time in history which is why they (the classics) are so diverse,” he adds.

Rohan drew inspiration from the Loeb Classic Library published by Harvard University Press, that makes ancient Greek and Latin literature available in English. An alumnus of Harvard himself, Rohan’s library is published by the university as well. Elaborating on the idea he said, “I think I am a typical common product of urban middle class or upper middle class English speaking population. We read Hamlet in school — can you imagine reading it over two years and dissecting it in every way when you are 14 It seems so strange and so foreign and yet we studied it and took exams on it. It was fine, but its only many years later when I was in the US that I began to reflect. Friends of mine from other parts of the world were familiar with the antiquity of their cultures and I wasn’t. So it seemed odd.”

Speaking of one of his favourite translated works from the lot, Rohan talks about Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. “I know I shouldn’t pick out favourites, but this one just stands apart. It is the most unique one out of the first lot of volumes — it is the oldest poetry written by women anywhere on this planet, still available to mankind. It was written in Pali in 200 BC by Buddhist nuns. It’s fascinating to read the stories of these women and in a way shocking to me that the society was a lot more open and accepting (than what it’s today).”

Is it in a way contributing to the revivalist, reactionary mood of the country “I get asked this question in multiple ways and the answer is ‘no’. The idea came about in 2009 and is as political or non-political as Shakespeare’s works. The only agenda if you will, is to make the current and future generations aware of the extraordinary literature produced here. The books are meant for people all over the world, not just Indians. One of my challenges is in fact posed by a certain subset of people from extreme left who believe that I am on the right and vice versa. I am on neither side. I am sitting on the fence, which economists will tell you is the right place to be.”

The general editor at the library is professor Sheldon Pollock — a Sanskrit scholar and currently the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Rohan admits that he is frequently asked if there is a threat of Pollock’s political inclinations creeping into the books of the library. “I get a lot of hate mails about this. People may view his works as political, but we are not making him a custodian of our culture. His views don’t enter the books — these are only translations.”

While the books cost about `300 on an average, Rohan says they are trying to find a way to make them available free, digitally.