Manu Joseph’s Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous: Read an excerpt
In his new novel, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, Manu Joseph takes a hard look at not just the political class and law enforcement agencies, but also “the good folks”. In this excerpt, Mukundan, an intelligence agent, is on the trail of two terror suspects.
Mukundan has never chased a woman. Even in that department he waits. He is not a romantic perhaps. That way he is not harmful to women. He wonders what it is to pursue love. Men who chase women, what is it that they whisper to their sweethearts? Do they ever speak the truth, which includes speaking all the truths? Do they say, ‘I will always be yours’? That makes him laugh, probably because he is alone in a car and people do things when they are alone in a car just because they can. ‘Sweetheart, I’ll always be yours because no one else might want me or I might be too frightened to stray, for that is what faithful men are, darling, unwanted or cowards.’ How can the Romeos be so sure that the women they seduce would not be happier with other men, better men? Jamal’s wife, for instance, would be destroyed in a few hours. Because of him. The romantics are probably men who have the gift of pomposity, selfish little men with an evolutionary advantage in a world where there is another kind of men, men who wait.
As Mukundan is available and the world of lovers and spouses such a miserable place, he hopes to become a beacon for at least women in doomed relationships, women who have seen through the farce of the men who pursued them. Once he discovers a way to let women find him, his life would be crowded with women, hopefully happy women – there have to be happy women – happy women who would regard him as an object of sex. But then that is not how women are made, no matter what the posh may say on television chat shows.
He is a fan of a woman who writes a weekly column in Malayala Manorama on the strange theme, ‘English books that will never translated into Malayalam’. Last week she reviewed a scholarly book, Why Women Have Sex, written by two serious professors. After a decade of research they believe that women mate for exactly 237 reasons. One of the reasons why women have sex, apparently, is that they want to. And love has nothing to do with it. The columnist mentions this with some sort of triumph. But there are 236 other reasons why women have sex. Treacherous reasons, terrifying reasons. Reasons that even women do not know are reasons.
He has to be vigilant. A life without meaning is fragile, it can collapse any moment into purpose.
Something is wrong. Jamal has skipped the turn. He is not headed towards the highway. He is going deeper into Mumbra. What’s going on? Has he got a whiff of the tailing?
The space between the blue Indica and Mukundan’s WagonR has accumulated four cars, a dozen motorbikes, a lost ass, and a water tanker chased by a gang of urchins who are trying to open the tap in the rear, ignoring the threats of the driver that he would kill them.
After about five minutes the Indica stops by the wayside, in front of a small bakery. Mukundan contemplates stopping. That would not be conspicuous in the chaos. If he continues, he would be ahead of Jamal in less than a minute. He decides to keep moving. It is never a bad idea to shadow a man by being ahead of him.
As he overtakes the parked Indica, he gets the clearest view yet of Jamal, who is calm but whose gaze is fixed on something ahead. Moments later, Mukundan sees what Jamal sees.
A striking young woman in a light-brown salwar-kurta crosses the road. She is crying in a tense, angry sort of way.
She is marching across the street with a small plastic bag that is stuffed with things. She does not have a handbag, which is odd. Almost every woman can afford a handbag these days. She is too preoccupied with her immediate trauma to look where she is going and she bangs into a cyclist. The cyclist, an old man, shouts at her but she keeps walking. After crossing the road she turns left, towards Mukundan’s car. She seems to know where she is going. She walks past his car, towards the Indica, which is about twenty metres behind him. In the rear-view he sees the front passenger door of the Indica open. The young woman gets in and shuts the door, but the Indica does not move. They are talking. It has to be about the reason why she is crying, what else can they be talking about? After about a minute, Mukundan is still not too far ahead of Jamal on the slow road. He is certain that the girl would leave the idle car soon. But then the Indica moves and merges with the traffic.
Mukundan does not have to try too hard to let Jamal overtake him. As the Indica passes him, he gets another glimpse of the young woman. She is not crying anymore. She is a pretty girl with a very red nose. Would she like his poems?
She must get away from that car. She has to just open the door and walk away. That is all she needs to do. He hopes she has nothing to do with terror. He wonders why he hopes that.
In a few minutes, Jamal and the girl are on the highway, racing towards Ahmedabad, into a trap where some deadly cops wait for a blue Indica with the registration number MH02-DJ-687.
What must have lured her into the car? What hope, what lies?
He waits for an hour to see if the girl would get dropped off somewhere on the highway. That does not happen. He has no choice but to make the call.
‘Jamal is on the highway.’
‘He is in the blue Indica.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Sir, there is a girl with him. There is a girl in the car.’
Boss is so taken aback he lets out a sound that is certainly not a word.
‘What do you mean there is a girl with him?’
‘He picked up a young woman, sir, and she is in the car with him. It appears that she is an acquaintance, very close maybe. She is family or lover or an employee or something like that.’
Boss is silent, which is not unusual. But the man is silent for too long. Then he begins to bark at someone. Boss’s reaction suggests that he has no clue about the girl, she was not on the radar.
She probably has no idea what she has got into. She is Jamal’s armour, that is what she is. Jamal imagines that the system would not take a man who is with a young woman in a little blue hatchback seriously.
What does he think, the State fights terror by standing on the roadside and looking for solitary men in SUVs?
‘I am here.’
‘Sir, what do we do about the girl?’
‘This is going to be messy.’
Excerpted with permission from Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph, published by HarperCollins India.