Sunday, November 21, 2010

How and why Narayan Murthy gave up on Communism

NR Narayana Murthy who was a staunch Communist in his early days reveals how he moved away from communism in this lecture given in 2007 at New York University's Leonard N Stern School of business.

Narayana Murthy on the lessons life has taught him

After some thought, I have decided to share with you some of my life lessons.

I learned these lessons in the context of my early career struggles, a life lived under the influence of sometimes unplanned events which were the crucibles that tempered my character and reshaped my future.

I would like first to share some of these key life events with you, in the hope that these may help you understand my struggles and how chance events and unplanned encounters with influential persons shaped my life and career.

Later, I will share the deeper life lessons that I have learned.

My sincere hope is that this sharing will help you see your own trials and tribulations for the hidden blessings they can be.

The first event occurred when I was a graduate student in Control Theory at IIT, Kanpur in India.

At breakfast on a bright Sunday morning in 1968, I had a chance encounter with a famous computer scientist on sabbatical from a well-known US university.

He was discussing exciting new developments in the field of computer science with a large group of students and how such developments would alter our future. He was articulate, passionate and quite convincing.

I was hooked.

I went straight from breakfast to the library, read four or five papers he had suggested, and left the library determined to study computer science.

Friends, when I look back today at that pivotal meeting, I marvel at how one role model can alter, for the better, the future of a young student. This experience taught me that valuable advice can sometimes come from an unexpected source, and chance events can sometimes open new doors.

Break with communism

The next event that left an indelible mark on me occurred in 1974.

The location: Nis, a border town between former Yugoslavia, now Serbia, and Bulgaria.

I was hitchhiking from Paris back to Mysore, my home town.

By the time a kind driver dropped me at Nis railway station at 9pm on a Saturday night, the restaurant was closed. So was the bank the next morning, and I could not eat because I had no local money.

I slept on the railway platform until 8.30 pm in the night when the Sofia Express pulled in. The only passengers in my compartment were a girl and a boy.

I struck a conversation in French with the young girl. She talked about the travails of living in an iron curtain country, until we were roughly interrupted by some policemen who, I later gathered, were summoned by the young man who thought we were criticising the communist government of Bulgaria.

The girl was led away; my backpack and sleeping bag were confiscated. I was dragged along the platform into a small eight-by-eight-foot room with a cold stone floor and a hole in one corner by way of toilet facilities. I was held in that bitterly cold room without food or water for more than 72 hours.

I had lost all hope of ever seeing the outside world again, when the door opened. I was again dragged out unceremoniously, locked up in the guard's compartment on a departing freight train and told that I would be released 20 hours later upon reaching Istanbul.

The guard's final words still ring in my ears 'You are from a friendly country called India and that is why we are letting you go!'

The journey to Istanbul was lonely, and I was starving. This long, lonely, cold journey forced me to deeply rethink my convictions about Communism. Early on a dark Thursday morning, after being hungry for 108 hours, I was purged of any last vestiges of affinity for the Left.

I concluded that entrepreneurship, resulting in large scale job creation, was the only viable mechanism for eradicating poverty in societies.

Deep in my heart, I always thank the Bulgarian guards for transforming me from a confused leftist into a determined, compassionate capitalist!

Inevitably, this sequence of events led to the eventual founding of Infosys in 1981.

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