They say experience is the best teacher. And a teacher who says that must have seen a lot in her life. Sudha Murty’s Wise and Otherwise: A Salute to Life (Revised Edition, Penguin Books) is a collection of 51 stories all narrating her experience with various kinds of people she meets during her philanthropic work in the Infosys Foundation.
With each story running just around 4 pages, the book is a very light read and not more than a few hours of investment are required. The numerous geographically, socially and ethnically divided people run the gamut of emotions as Sudha Murty aptly combines proper events in order to compare and contrast the mentality and mindset of the people across the country. A man who dumps his father as a destitute in an old age home, a man who introduces himself as a close friend of Sudha Murty to herself, a beggar who moves into an earthquake struck area in order to make a living from the relief, two marriage brokers discussing the impact of the IT boom on their business – you have them all. Murty’s encounters range from eavesdropping to accosting, showcasing her thirst for connecting with people and striking up a conversation. A big drawback for the book is that, save a few stories, it is way too didactic and tries to highlight what is good and what is not in terms of the author’s moral orientations. The author cleverly places this “messages” within conversations giving a feel that its preachment is not deliberate, but immediately contradicts the feeling by following it up with a moral code learnt from the experience. No wonder her son says in one of the stories that she behaves like a teacher all the time! It also falls prey to its own ideologies and contradicts itself in various manifestations. In one story she talks about social sensitivity and misunderstandings in life while in another story, she criticizes her friend’s attitude and jumps to conclusions without appraising people’s latent traits (“What do such people achieve in life?”, “Today, nobody likes Parvati” and the list goes on). Thus, many of her characters become just caricatures for developing a moral code of conduct, like the Panchatantra tales it mentions. But what hurts the book the most is its conclusion of her experience and paraphrasing of emotions in each story. Each story starts off with a perfunctory briefing of a social illness that looks contrived and deliberately placed to start off a thematic story. As the interesting encounters end, the author interprets the attitude of the people she had met and makes an assessment of their characters, without leaving the conclusion to the readers. There are, however flashes of effortless brilliance (“Music and gum do that to people”, for one) within the stories, but everything is obscured by the lack of interactivity with the readers in the stories. Sudha Murty is doubtlessly one of the biggest feminist icons for the country and her experiences indicate the disparities between freedom and privileges given to women across the country. But as a literary piece, Wise and Otherwise does not have much to offer except a fabulous cover page by Debashis Mukherjee which brings us back to the clichéd proverb.