As a PhD student at Harvard University, Rohan Murty was encouraged by a friend to attend a lecture on epistemology in ancient India. Murty complied with some hesitation; he had no knowledge of Sanskrit, and was, at the time, deeply taken with Western philosophy. “The experience was transformative,” he admits. “It was extraordinary to find links between Panini’s grammar and the computer languages of today.”
The discovery drove him to make Sanskrit classics more accessible through corresponding English translations, and he found a collaborator in Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University. “It was his suggestion to include other regional languages as well, like old Kannada and medieval Bengali,” says the 31-year-old computer scientist (and son of Infosys’ Narayana Murthy), who donated $5.2 million to set up the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) with Harvard University in 2010. Hot off the press are five rose-coloured, dual-language tomes that include Sufi Lyrics by Bulle Shah and an anthology of poems by Surdas, to be followed by five new translations every year.
Murty is currently planning a digital future for MCLI and imagining ways to “tell the intellectual history of mankind through graphic novels.” Having grown up on fiction from the Marvel universe, he believes real-life stories of seemingly dreary events (like the discovery of the atom) can be equally riveting. He could just be the superhero geeks everywhere have been waiting for.
Photograph: Lucky Malhotra