“Being Sheela” is a biography of Sheela Murthy, an immigration lawyer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist based in Maryland. It charts her journey from a childhood in the bosom of a middle-class, military family in India, to a highly successful career as a Harvard-trained lawyer in the United States.
Author Adithi Rao beautifully brings to life the dynamics inside families – Sheela’s own as well as her husband’s, highlighting the unique qualities and subtleties of relationships, while exploring the conflicts and ambiguities within what are clearly very loving families.
Sheela’s personal story of growing up in a family of three high-achieving sisters (two of them are doctors), is a delightful tale weaving together the charms and challenges of Indian middle-class life.
Sheela’s story is one that needs to be told. In an America where immigrants have been under siege during the last four years, this memoir is particularly significant and meaningful. It’s almost a primer on how to navigate a complex immigration system and counter discrimination against H1B visa holders, or dependent EAD-4 spouses, green card families awaiting decisions that determine their future, and immigrants whose lives are on hold in the wake of aggressive immigration reform initiated by the Trump administration.
And therein lies its weakness. Rao does a terrific job stitching together the rich anecdotes that form Sheela’s early life. She understands the nuances of Indian culture and expectations and articulates those stories from an insider’s perspective.
That richness of detail and color is lost when the book turns its attention to Sheela’s professional life and philanthropic work. Rao seems intent on recording the minutiae of cases that form the cornerstone of the Murthy Law Firm which Sheela founded. But the narrative feels less compelling. Rao painstakingly covers case studies of Sheela’s work as an immigration attorney but pays less attention to the human side of Sheela as she makes decisions and does not fully explore why Sheela makes certain career and professional life choices.
It feels as though Rao is in a hurry to pay homage to achievements that are richly deserved, rather than offer insights into the transitions that propelled Sheela into her career and philanthropic journey.
Why did Sheela switch jobs or what made her finally decided to start her own firm which became the powerful Murthy Law Firm? The story skims the surface of her reasoning in a way that makes some of Sheela’s decisions, unfortunately, seem somewhat contrived.
Sheela found unique ways to deal with her client’s dilemmas. She has a reputation for helping women who are victims of violence and has made a difference in people’s lives. But Rao does not dig deeper into Sheela’s personality – the thinking and motivation that drives Sheela in these scenarios.
The book is similar in style to Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” – but unlike “Becoming”, it is not reasonable to assume that the reader is familiar with Sheela’s track record as a lawyer and philanthropist.
Her work for women’s causes and philanthropy is mentioned in passing throughout the book, but these significant contributions are quickly summed up within a few chapters. Adding more layers to this catalog of accomplishments would enrich the narrative with the same sensitivity and depth given to her personal story.
None of this, however, takes away from the remarkable tale of an intelligent, engaging, empathetic woman who has dedicated herself to others in what she calls ‘labors of love’.
Being Sheela is an inspiring immigrant success story that offers intriguing insights into the complex inner workings of American immigration policy.
Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer; Adithi Rao, HarperCollins India,$34.87, 260 pages
Svati Kania Shashank is a lawyer practicing in New York for over 20 years.
Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor, at India Currents