Is Sudha Murty the new celebrity we love to hate?

Why do we – and the media – react the way we do whenever the super-rich say something?

WrittenBy:Jayashree Arunachalam
Date:
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Are you a journalist who’s passed their use-by date? Or an academic with a mysterious daytime job? Or perhaps a social media talking head?

If you tweeted about Sudha Murty in the past week, then you’re definitely one of those three, according to India Today anchor Shiv Aroor

Murty this week “triggered the entire community of self-righteous, sanctimonious wokes” to spin the “wheels of pointless outrage”, Aroor said. This after she said that since she’s “pure vegetarian”, she carries her own food when she travels and worries about the “same spoon” being used for non-vegetarian food.

As a result, Murty was called a “privileged casteist”, in Aroor’s words, with a “wave of jokes over her simplicity”. There was also a wave of news stories on the “debate” this had sparked. She trended on Twitter for several days.

There are several issues at play here. 

The first is Murty’s specific comments on vegetarianism. Another is Murty as a cultural phenomenon defined by ‘simplicity’, and the role the media plays here. And finally, why we react the way we do whenever the super-rich have something to say.

Let’s unpack it.

In the times of the internet, it’s hard to predict what goes viral. (In case any of you have cracked it, please do get in touch with us at Newslaundry.) Murty’s comments were seemingly innocent, innocuous even. She’s just like us, people tweeted, my aunty does the same thing when she travels. 

Murty’s husband is Infosys cofounder Narayana Murthy. He’s worth about $4.4 billion dollars. Her daughter Akshata is married to Rishi Sunak, currently the prime minister of the United Kingdom. Murty is also a luminary of her own making: an engineer who once wrote to JRD Tata about equal opportunities to women, an accomplished author, and a philanthropist who heads the Infosys Foundation.

With that out of the way, let’s tackle Murty’s “pure vegetarianism” remarks. 

It isn’t a matter of opinion that vegetarianism in India is tied to caste. When people talk about being “brought up” vegetarian, or living in vegetarian homes – they’re referring to caste. When caste dictates every aspect of Indian society, from power to opportunities, dress to diet to death, it’s the elephant in the room that you cannot ignore

But what Murty said isn’t out of the ordinary. It’s part of her shtick, of simplicity and humility. She’s married to one of the wealthiest tech billionaires in the country, but she doesn’t dwell on it – and she won’t let you forget that. 

If you spend enough time on social media – no judgement – you’ll notice  a deluge of headlines devoted to the Murty couple’s simplicity. They’re usually based on things Murty had said in interviews, or written about – all of which are repeated verbatim as standalone news reports without any critical analysis.

For instance:

They travel in an “old Maruti Alto” and she hasn’t bought a new sari in 25 years (or more). 

She was once called “cattle class” because of her plain dressing while boarding for business class. In an M Night Shyamalan twist, the heckler encountered Murty later that day at an Infosys event and was “shocked”

An immigration officer at Heathrow airport said Murty must be “joking” when she said her place of residence in London is 10, Downing Street.

The couple didn’t go on vacation for “30 years” because of Narayana Murthy’s preoccupation with work. They love to buy books – they have 20,000, we’re told – but Murty doesn’t like to lend them out. 

She once acted in a Kannada TV serial but refused “gaudy saris” and too much makeup. Her purse contains only “two telephones, mask, bindi and handkerchief” and she “loves discounts”.

These are news stories from leading media houses. Google “Sudha Murty simple” and you’ll find even more. 

Preaching simplicity is admirable. But we’re living in a country where the richest one percent of the population own over 40 percent of the country’s wealth. The bottom 50 percent own just three percent. The number of billionaires has risen from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022, while hunger resulted in 65 percent of the deaths among children under the age of five. Meanwhile, billionaire fortunes are increasing by $2.7 billion a day. This includes Murty and Murthy, both of whom are philanthropists. 

Sudha Murty, with her incredible wealth and simple saris, holds appeal in an aspirational way, more so than a Kim Kardashian living a life of excess and urging people to “get your fucking ass up and work”. But billions are billions, and when you have that much money in the bank, it allows you to appear on TV to advertise your simplicity.

Which brings us to our favourite subject – the media. 

Perhaps it’s hard to grudge an extremely wealthy person their desire to craft an image in the public sphere and to spare no effort or expense to achieve this. But fingers should squarely be pointed at the media outlets that roll out the red carpet for every pithy soundbite that emanates from them.

Sections of the media have a tendency to put out low-effort stories that report uncritically and unquestioningly whenever a celebrity makes some sort of statement – with little application of mind. A responsible media would be conscious of the power and influence that the super-rich wield in this country and be instinctively questioning when they see a powerful person deliver thematic soundbite after soundbite at regular intervals. 

The very least they can do is not publish every such utterance in the form of “news” whenever it happens. Billionaires also donʼt need journalists like Aroor to defend them from “pseudo-liberals” who are “deeply illiberal” at heart. 

After all, the PR industry employs thousands of people. Journalists should be careful not to jeopardise their employment by doing their jobs for them. 

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