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Geeta Padmanabhan | March 23, 2004

When God asked Raja Rathideva what he wanted, the king said, "Give me strong hands and a compassionate heart."

"It's a mistake to invite me to speak," she lisps and smiles, her eyes sparkling with equal parts intelligence and impishness. "I'm a teacher and I speak till the bell."

An hour-and-a-quarter later, she is still speaking and the audience at the Madras School of Social Work isn't ready to leave.

It took the MSSW two years to get her to come. She was busy travelling to find out where the Infosys Foundation money should go. Finally, Sudha Murthy (Infosys Foundation Trustee and wife of Infosys Technologies Chairman N R Narayana Murthy) is here to answer the question, "What is social work?" The occasion is the 14th Mary Clubwala Jadav Memorial lecture.

Her speech is a string of anecdotes, mostly personal, pasted together with quotes from the scriptures. It is a Toulmin analysis of claims, reasons and evidence. It is a Rogerian argument that seeks to find agreement between people who disagree. In the end it succeeds in its objective; convince the audience.

"Doing social work is not easy," she warns waving her mehndi-patterned hand. And goes on to break stereotypical notions of this work with the precision of a well-schooled computer architect. She knows a social worker is traditionally pictured as someone wearing khadi, jhola and dishevelled hair.

"I have been accused of using a computer and plane travel for my work. But these are tools that make me efficient. I have to make a judgment in five minutes. Of a human being, of a cause." In comparison business advisory decisions are easy to make. Which is why social workers need to be professional, practical and stay clear of emotional judgments.

She recalls a difficult decision-making situation when she had funds for just one more signature. She had to choose between a young mother and a kid. Both needed nuclear medicine for cancer treatment. She weighed all arguments and decided in favour of the mother. "I didn't want her children orphaned," she explains, and in a stage whisper adds, "For the child, I wrote a personal cheque."

She stresses the need to be in the field -- facing malaria, cholera and doing with just one simple meal a day. She talks of the trauma of seeing India's poverty. "Poverty takes away the right to argue. It takes away options and opportunities. Nobody wishes to be born into a poor family."

She quotes Thatthareya Upanishad to entreat her listeners to set aside a portion of the income for their educational institution, another for the poor. All this of course, after looking after one's own family. "But draw a line at what you need. Take your partner's consent. See that you do not make the receiver your dependent. Give as naturally as you eat, sleep or breathe. You don't have to be an entrepreneur to give."

She doesn't deny money helps in social work. "It helps to build good infrastructure. But what truly helps is the passion for the work." No, no, compassion doesn't mean tears and talk, she is quick to add. It is not holding meetings and getting your name in the papers.

Orissa is a recurring theme in the lecture. She grins when asked, "Are Infosysians sensitised to social work?" Retorts, "Murthy will not allow me to pull them out. But in Orissa, I requested them to devote two hours per week, which later changed to one day a month. There would be no promotion, no increment and no ESOPs for this. But everyone turned up to help build SNEHAM at Bhubaneswar."

Has she ever goofed up? "Yes," she admits. "We award 700 scholarships a year and have helped 70,000 people. In the early years I got conned quite a few times." She tells of a father who used her cheque to raise funds for the son's cancer treatment and let him die anyway.

Now she has a database with complete details and does a systematic follow-up. She is philosophical about people who choose to forget the Foundation's crucial help. "Gratitude is the highest form of culture. But some are not good at it," she shrugs.

The Foundation has made her a different person, she claims. People are her books. She narrates a touching encounter in support. On a visit to a temple in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, she noticed the priest and his wife were blind, in their eighties and obviously poor. She at once offered to deposit an amount, the interest from which they could use. She said the capital could go to the temple when it was no longer needed.

She was in for a lesson in charity. "I don't have your name, but you are foolish," was the response. "I have served this Nanjundeeswara all my life. He has always provided me with two meals a day. The village gives us clothes during festivals. We don't attend concerts. Why do we need all this money?"

For medical expenses, she persisted. The man must have smiled when he said, "Someone might hit me and take your gift away. I am happy within myself. I need nothing else."

"I hurt a sensitive soul," rues Sudha.

IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management) don't teach values like contentment, she points out. They don't get the students to think with compassion, to learn to understand others. She once asked Bill Gates who could make the greatest difference in life. "A compassionate social worker," said the IT guru. "Never lose them."

There is no one way to do social work, she declares. A woman sends her 20 grand (Rs 20,000) a month and wants the receipt sent to her mother's house. She was not sure her husband would approve.

Teach your maid's daughter to read and write, she suggests, or bear her school expenses. Find what you can do on Sundays to improve your neighbourhood. Sometimes just good advice would do.

At the end of one of her speeches in Gujarat, a group of ten 35-plus women told her they had a few hours to spare during the day. Sudha told them to go to the nearest slum and start a hygiene campaign. Take the kids for vaccination. Tell the women to save a bit of what they earned daily. Resist their alcoholic husbands. It was one of 300 speeches she makes a year. She didn't think of it one way or the other.

Four years later, she was astonished to find her advice turned into a movement. A hundred women now had a sizable bank account. This time she told them to register themselves as a society and get an NGO to help start a small business.

She takes pains to explain where the money goes. "Any family that does not eat two meals a day, cannot educate kids till class X is poor. But in the five states we have worked, I have set up libraries in the remotest parts. These are my happiest investments." The audience applauds.

One incident stays etched in her mind. In Anaikal, a woman and her young unmarried daughter came to see her on subsequent days. Sudha wanted to know why they hadn't travelled together. Eyes downcast, the woman said, "We have only one sari between us."

She is not smiling now. "We are doing well in software. But in 50 years, we have not wiped out this helplessness. It is not fair and I blame myself."

Delivered anywhere else, this would sound like the weary cliché of a well-heeled politician. But from her, the words emerge miraculously clothed in the resonance of truth. Is it her sincerity? Her work? Her simplicity? Her life itself? All of it perhaps.

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