Step into the world of leukoderma and understand it complexity, problem and the various Indian superstitions revolving around it. Before you groan and go away, let me tell you that this isn’t a book a la ‘Emperor Of Maladies'(though I am told it is a fascinating book) but rather a fictional story of the struggles that a woman suffering leukoderma faces. ‘Mahashweta‘ by Sudha Murthy, from the synopsis at the back and the glittering praise from well established newspapers, promises to be a unique read that delves into the suffering of a disease that afflicts many but doesn’t find its way in the stories. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to those promises for which there are many reasons to which we will get back to later on.
‘Mahashweta‘ is aptly dedicated to women suffering from leukoderma and urges them to fight and not be oppressed by their disease. The story begins on a congratulatory note with the birth of a girl child which is a means to establish the single status of Dr. Anand-the successful, handsome and rich doctor- who helped give birth to the baby girl. Later while at his work, Anand is coaxed into buying a Rs. 1000 ticker for a play he has no idea about by the ‘incomparable’ Anupama. The play is a love story between Mahashweta and Pundalik and is part of the book ‘Kadambari’ written by Bhana Bhatta. Anupama plays the heroine and as expected Dr. Anand is mesmerized by her beauty and acting skills. After a few irrelevant incidents, they both get married(how predictable!) despite the difference in their economic status. It is only after marriage that Anupama develops a white patch and it begins to spread despite her clandestine treatment. When her mother-in-law realises this, all hell breaks loose. She accuses Anupama of having tricked her son into marrying him and begins to consider her inauspicious because of leukoderma. She eventually returns to her father’s house, disgraced. Her evil stepmother’s taunts and ill treatment just worsens the situation. To top it all, Dr. Anand- being a doctor at least should know that leukoderma is nothing but a disease and not something that turns a person inauspicious-also does not support Anupama and abandons her when she needed him the most. Anupama, however, does not let the circumstances get the better of her. She bravely decides to go to Mumbai, away from her callous family and in-laws, to eke out a living and carve a place of her own free from any pain, stigma and stereotypes. She is quite successful is achieving her dreams and standing proudly on her own two feet.
‘Mahashweta‘ is a conventional story of the suffering bravely overcoming their difficult trials and tribulations. The only redeeming aspect of the story comes at the end when Anupama decides to remain her own master and be economically independent rather than being bound by someone else’s rules and regulations. Other than this, the novel as a whole is marred by a fragmented narrative, dollops of stereotypes, amateurish writing, no smooth narration and a very soap operatic treatment of the entire story. In fact, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that ‘Mahashweta‘ is a soap opera in prose style as it has all the prerequisites of one-the constant preoccupation with marriage, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law twist, the evil stepmother convention, the too good to be true daughter-in-law who suffers silently, the narrow minded and religious focus of the story at time and the list is endless.
While Sudha Murthy does take up a relatively lesser known disease to tell her story, she does not break any new ground on it as the entire novel is steeped in too many stereotypes particularly about girls and marriage. For eg, on the first page itself, the nurse who assisted in the birth of the girl ponders over how the female child is stronger at birth than the male but later on becomes the one who suffers. The nurse attributes this as being ‘a fact of life’ which is not really true because being feminine or masculine is not a fact of life but rather a cultural construct. The system of patriarchy conditions women to expect suffering in their life. Anything that is exploited or oppressed is associated with the female sex. For eg. it is ‘mother’ earth and never ‘father’ earth. The novel is replete with such redundant stereotypes. Murthy may have wished to challenge them but she does not do a good job as she merely states them with no attempts at challenging them much like any commonplace Indian soap opera.
Moreover,her writing does not have the emotional depth that is perhaps required in such a sensitive story. Most of her attempts at philosophy(through Anupama) are also blunt and shallow.
Although, ‘Mahashweta‘ educates the reader about leukoderma and the debilitating superstitions that even ‘educated’ Indians follow, the novel becomes a drag to read. It reveals the hypocrisy of the Indian society in their attitudes to leukoderma but does not do so in a profound, erudite and personal manner.
Final Verdict: It is best to skip ‘Mahashweta‘ altogether. If you really want to know more about leukoderma, then contact you nearest dermatologist. Or if you don’t have the time, then just click here to know more!