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A tale lucidly told

Sudha Murty's latest novel "Mahashwetha" addresses the social stigma attached to a skin disorder



Sudha Murty, in Chennai to launch `Mahashwetha' — Pic. by Vino John

"WHEN I saw the big billboard outside, I got so scared! I'm a film star or what?" said Sudha Murty, chairperson of Infosys, writer and social worker, addressing what looked like an audience of grandparents and grandchildren at Landmark.

Author of novels such as `Wise & Otherwise', and `How I taught my grandmother to read', Mrs. Murty was in the city to launch her latest book `Mahashwetha', translated into English from the Kannada original.

Many casual browsers at the bookstore noticed the little lady shuffling on to the stage, her characteristic half-moon bindi and mallipoo in place. Since the book cover itself did not say anything about the contents, they pulled up a chair and sat down, hoping to get an idea from the reading. Maybe one night, when a grandchild asks for a bedtime story, they could borrow Mrs. Murty's fitting plot.

Social stigma

As theatre persons Shankar, Srinath and Indrani read a few excerpts from the book, the storyline unfurled.

The novel addresses the social stigma attached to leucoderma, and tells the tale of a recently wed young woman who has to battle with not only the disorder, but also with her husband and family, as a result. "See, our Indian men want to marry fair-skinned girls, but when she becomes a little extra fair, they want to run away. Atishwetha Mahashwetha... I wanted to pun on this line," Mrs. Murty said, "If someone has diabetes or BP, they almost proudly announce it to the whole world. We can accept these things, but society looks down upon a person with leucoderma. Come on, it's after all a cosmetic disease!"

The novel isn't path-breaking or even laudable for style. In fact, Mrs. Murty herself mentions that her classmate, who's now a popular personality, read `Mahashwetha' and dismissed it as "one of those nice, quick read books". But as many members in the audience pointed out, it would touch someone who'd been through the ordeal, or had seen a relative suffer in the same way. "When it hits your family, you know the impact. Vitiligo (leucoderma) is often misunderstood as leprosy, especially because it's also called kushta. It has become more of a social disease."

Simple style

During the Q&A, a young girl referred to Mrs. Murty's writing as "simple, easily understandable" and that her books were the only ones both her grandmother and she could read. There were the regular "What inspires you?" and "When do you get time to write?" questions in awe, mostly from old couples who looked like they'd stopped over during their evening walk — the husband asking, and the wife nodding approvingly. "Never let your reader skip even a paragraph," she advised, but her attempt was defeated as soon as she said, "Abdul Kalam keeps telling me that he reads only the last 20 per cent of my writings, because everything is there only in that part!" Ah well, but the President reads her.

`Mahashwetha' has been translated in Hindi, Gujarati, Oriya, Marathi, etc. and is available at Landmark for Rs. 150.

ROHINI MOHAN

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