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‘Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer’ review: At the forefront of the good fight for immigrants

It is fitting that a book on a highly successful immigration lawyer, who began her practice in the U.S., was published during a polarised election campaign in which immigration was a key issue.

Adithi Rao’s Being Sheela is not only about the life of Sheela Murthy, founder of the Murthy Law Firm, philanthropist and entrepreneur; it is equally about the anxieties of a people waiting to be accepted in another country they call home. Rao goes beyond writing a biography by also including stories of how families suffer while traversing America’s knotty immigration policies. The theme underlining the book is the American Dream, which has been lately under threat. While Murthy is an inspiring symbol of it, the others who approach her for help struggle to live that dream.

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The early chapters detail Murthy’s fairly conventional childhood with an aggressive, wilful mother; an affectionate, lenient father; and two sisters. They contain some enjoyable anecdotes.

Before she goes to the U.S. to attend a moot court, a young Murthy doesn’t hesitate to call on the Karnataka Chief Minister to request funding. And the first time she meets Vasant, a photographer and digital artist whom she later marries, she pulls him up in an endearing schoolgirl fashion for lurking in the corridors of Alliance Francaise. Through these stories, we get a sense of Murthy being a confident, no-nonsense and intelligent woman.

Life stories

Murthy’s interest in law, writes Rao, began as early as age 10 when she read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Rao attributes Murthy’s passion in immigration law to her being a woman of colour and an immigrant in the U.S. but doesn’t tease out details. In an interview to The New York Times, Murthy once said she “went through hell” while trying to get a green card and was “struck by my attorney’s lack of sensitivity and how little he cared.” This clearly frustrating experience, which was perhaps the seed of her dream, does not find mention in Being Sheela.

Rao’s painstaking research on immigration rules and their complexities is evident in the chapters on Murthy’s clients. A young man who gets married is unable to bring his wife to the U.S. on a H-4 dependent visa. Following 9/11, a Muslim man, who simply wanted to know how the door of an aircraft worked, is horrified to find himself in the midst of deportation proceedings despite being in the final stages of getting a green card.

These stories provide a glimpse into the inner functioning of the law firm and capture the travails of being an immigrant.

Woman of grit

Murthy is depicted as a family woman, an empathetic lawyer and an indefatigable worker who sets herself punishing schedules. But the various shades of her personality — her weaknesses and struggles that made her a woman of grit — are not etched out. This is where the book is disappointing — it focuses solely on the success of a remarkable woman but never reveals what failures she overcame.

In a speech to the law firm, Murthy tells her employees: “What you’ve handled at the firm are not cases. They haven’t been just work to you. They have been labours of love.” This is essentially Murthy’s own approach to her work. It is her relentless pursuit of justice that makes her life so admirable and the book an informative and compelling read.

Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer; Adithi Rao, HarperCollins India,₹599.

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in

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