Review: Leila by Prayaag Akbar
Prayaag Akbar’s impressive debut novel Leila uses a sparse, pared down prose to ask important questions not just about the usual suspects but about the country’s privileged liberals too.books Updated: May 27, 2017 09:05 IST
Leila, Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel, straddles the line between surrealism and a clear vision of the direction in which our society appears to be heading. Anchored by the heart-wrenching story of a woman’s desperate search for her daughter, Leila offers readers a picture of their potential future.
To call Akbar’s novel a dystopian fantasy is not quite correct. It does rely on all the elements of stories like Animal Farm — the protagonist Shalini lives in an India that’s sorely divided, with walled ‘communities’ distinguished by religion. A privileged Hindu girl, she marries an equally well-off Muslim boy even as the world around her marches towards segregation. They have a daughter, who is taken away for being ‘mixed’. Shalini is placed in an internment camp — suddenly forced into the life of someone completely at the mercy of an intrusive, autocratic State.
The narrative, written in first person from Shalini’s point of view, doesn’t waste a sentence. There are no stray words, no unnecessary flourishes. But this is not a fantasy novel: the details described were already reality in many parts of India, long before 2014. While reading about the community walls, and ‘paunchy’, ‘frustrated’ Repeaters — a clever name for the followers of an over watch Council that insists on conformity — the reader is confronted with real-time news of the RSS experiment to create ‘tall, fair, babies.’ When Shalini marries her husband Riz, the red tape surrounding their nuptials isn’t far from the experience of couples under the current Special Marriage Act. When the Repeaters march into Shalini’s house during a pool party to take Leila, her husband Riz stands at the stairs holding only a cricket bat to defend his family. A reader might be reminded of the Gujarat riots and stories of how victims in the Gulbarg massacre stood with vases and bats to defend themselves against a frenzied Hindu mob at their doorstep. That particular scene is a terrifying and accurate description of the flimsiness of an individual’s sense of security. This is where the book’s power lies: Akbar has not told Shalini’s story in a vacuum, and the resemblance between her fictional nightmare and our reality is soul shaking.
This is only amplified through the book. Deftly written, Leila starts slowly, sparsely. A reader is deliberately disoriented, put in the same place that Shalini would be after 16 years of oppression, desperation, and despair. Every word becomes important — imperative parts of a puzzle map whose solution might lead us towards the treasure of incorruptibility and hope that Leila represents. Akbar is a talented stylist and the sparse prose mirrors the empty, hollow society he is creating. To tell the story in Shalini’s voice is apt. Through her, Akbar subtly examines the guilt that lurks in the subconscious of anyone born with the advantage of caste or class. Shalini is high-handed. She screams at her nanny Sapna for the smallest indiscretions. Yet, her personality is tempered with a tenderness that comes from being high-born. Soft from never having witnessed anything truly gritty, she faints while watching a rally. The sight and smell of human congestion prove too much for her. She points to a naïve mural of stick figures holding hands around Earth as an example of the world she prefers to see. When her brother-in-law tells her she knows nothing about how the world works, it is the truth. The India she lives in is different from the country that she imagines.
The most touching portions of the novel come when this advantage is reversed. Shalini is sent to a Purity Camp, made to live in the Tower with other ‘lost’ women. When she’s made to wash floors using rags, she wonders why she never got her maid a long-handled broom that could have made life easier. Leila throws up important questions about the country’s privileged liberals. These difficult questions come up many times in the novel, subtly, casually. There are numerous mentions of child labour, of kids employed by Shalini’s well-to-do friends and family.
Throughout the book, Akbar forces Shalini, and the reader, to confront their worst fear: that the seething mob standing at our doorsteps has been created by acts of commission and omissions on our part, and their anger, while mobilized for another’s political gain, pre-exists.
Read more: Prayaag Akbar: The way we live
But, perhaps, a scarier thought may hit a reader. The mob is not different, or other. It is filled with individuals who want what every human wants: sanctuary, satisfaction, self-esteem, and a full stomach. At the end of the book, Shalini is confronted with her once-nanny Sapna. The balance of power reversed. The maid marries a peon who becomes the Council leader’s right-hand man. Now it is she who lives at the “centre of power” and Shalini enters her house as a servant would. ‘I have misread Sapna. What thirst to improve, to learn our language, our ways,’ Shalini thinks. It is ironic: this is the first time she sees Sapna as an equal.
A powerful debut, Leila knocks you sideways with its complex questions. Contrasting those, it is told simply and is remarkably accessible. This is possibly the best debut yet from the younger generation of subcontinental writers. A dark, wonderfully desi read.
Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist.