A wise man once said, ‘Traveling: it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.‘
Traveling inspired Narayan Murthy, one of the most renowned entrepreneurs of India to build Infosys. He backpacked across 25 countries in his 20s. From the goodwill of an unknown to spending nights on the cold floor of the railway station in a leftist country, the young Murthy experienced it all in a year-long journey.
“Traveling makes you modest. You can see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”– Gustav Flaubert
In honor of his 72nd birthday, we bring an article that will tell you the journey of a young man who learned a lot of things while roaming through Europe. One such major lesson was that only capitalism could take India forward, and so, he came back and went on to build one of the biggest tech companies in India, Infosys.
Narayan had been living in Paris for several years in a one-bedroom apartment. He was 27 at that time.
While being in Europe, he saw the changes that Europe was going through. There were several new revolutions from leftism, socialism, and liberalism. 1968 saw the student revolution after which students voiced their opinions on almost every matter. Paris was known to be the safest city in Europe. He and his friend would stay out late till 2 am on weekends and walk to their homes as Paris was also the most well-lit city in the world.
Murthy loved traveling. He and his friend would occasionally drive to London. They would take a ferry to cross the lakes, drive into a ship, park their car, and wait in the lounge soaking the water bodies. They would then drive out after reaching the land. The process was easy yet time-consuming.
Planning to Hitchhike 25 countries
He was planning to expand his horizons through traveling more of Europe. He had already visited Germany, Holland, and Austria. But, they were all planned visits where he would systematically take off every month with no backpacking or being around strangers’ cars.
Murthy thought hard for 6 months and saved $5,000 from his salary. He knew that if he didn’t do this now, he won’t get a chance again. He then donated the money and saved only $450 as he was planning to hitchhike (traveling by getting free lifts by passing vehicles).
It took him two more months to get the visa for 25 countries and materials like a backpack, sleeping bag, windcheater, some winter clothes before the trip, and traveler’s cheques.
After resigning from his job and in the course of next 11 months, Narayan hitchhiked from Paris to Kabul, covering Italy, Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Serbia, Croatia (then Yugoslavia), Bulgaria, Istanbul, Greece, and Afghanistan.
Hitchhiking was a lot easier in those days. People used to wait in the gas stations with no particular destinations. Drivers who were going in the same direction would pick them up. Sometimes, they would also offer lunch or dinner.
He tells how he usually had to wait for an hour or two to get picked up. Sometimes, he also had to wait for six hours. He had a pocket radio which kept him entertained. His meals were the ‘easy to carry’ items like a sandwich and French fries.
The biggest difference that I see between the world then and now, is fear. Today, people are so scared of other people. Nobody allows strangers in their cars. Despite the fact that it was barely two years after the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, the fear of people hadn’t percolated into an everyday routine as it has now.
Today, I am certain that one would not be allowed to sleep at railway stations in Europe. But, that is exactly what I did during the trip. Most drivers would drop you at railway stations. I would leave my sleeping bag and backpack in the locker — which came cheap at about 25 cents for a day — and went out to see the city. I would return at night and sleep on one of the benches, as many others did. The police would walk past and smile at us — there was no fear.– Murthy on hitchhiking and fear of people
There were many interesting incidents while he was out in the world. One among them was while he was traveling from Pisa to Rome with a short Italian man. The man was very polite and even offered him lunch. Murthy wanted to show his gratitude and said, “Te Amo”. It actually means ‘I love you’ but he intended to say, ‘I like you.’ This outraged the man as he thought Murthy was homosexual and he refused to take him any further.
Murthy was not unfamiliar with Europe but it was in the trip that he realized how Eastern Europe is different from Western Europe. Western Europe was prosperous and people were easy going. They would sit with people and talk to them. Things were very smooth— infrastructure was great and fees to enter places of interest was the same for everyone; European or Others.
Whereas the countries of Eastern Europe – Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia — also known as “iron curtain countries”, were controlled by the Soviet Union. People were approachable but cautious of strangers. It was not easy to hitchhike and drivers who were willing to take usually demanded a few dollars in exchange.
Even the officials demanded hard cash and people who didn’t have it were not allowed to proceed further. Communist countries were trying to get as much of hard currency as possible then. Even entry fees for foreigners and locals to places of interest were different.
The Defining Moment
When Murthy was in Yugoslavia he experienced something that would become a defining moment in his life. When he was in Serbia, he was dropped to the railway station at night by a kind man. The restaurant refused to serve him food as he didn’t have any Yugoslavian currency. So, he went to lay down at the station to preserve energy. He boarded the Sofia Express the next day.
Sitting opposite to him on the train were a boy and a girl. He tried to strike up a conversation. While the boy did not respond, the girl knew French and was kind and friendly. While they were talking, the lad walked up to a few policemen standing nearby and said something.
The next thing Murthy knew was being dragged out of the train and thrown into an 8 x 8ft room and his passport was also confiscated. The room had just a toilet in a corner and the floor was hard and cold. There was no bed, no chair or table.
It had been 2 days since he had any meal. The next morning, he was anxiously waiting for some food but nothing came. There was no one outside. In the evening, he thought he was going to die.
In the next morning, after about 120 hours without water and food, the doors opened. He was dragged out and locked up in the guard’s compartment of a freight train. He had lost the ability to think. They told me that they would not allow me to get down in Bulgaria and that my backpack and passport would be returned to Istanbul. “You’re from a friendly country called India, so, we’re letting you go”, they told him.
I got my passport and backpack back but that incident turned me from a confused Leftist to a determined Capitalist. It left me disappointed in communism and got me thinking about the method of governance that is best for a country’s development. I realized that a country can prosper only through the creation of jobs, and the only people who can do that are the entrepreneurs. I realized that a government’s job is not to create jobs but to make it easy for entrepreneurs to create jobs. It happened many years ago and a lot has happened since, but I believe this event had something to do with the creation of Infosys.– Narayan Murthy on the incident and capitalism.
So, this is the story of how a year-long journey and its experiences changed the young Narayan Murthy into a capitalist. Like they say, everything happens for a reason and we are glad that he was able to find his reason. His life is a story of inspiration and perspiration.
We once again wish Mr. Narayan Murthy a very happy birthday! Tell us what inspired you the most in the comments.
- Conde Nast Traveler
- Google Images