Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel brings to mind the frighteningly prescient Nineteen Eighty-Four

ByFarhad J Dadyburjor
Apr 15, 2017 09:13 PM IST

In his first sit-down interview, Prayaag Akbar talks about what led to the dark and disturbing vision of his fiction debut, Leila

It’s been heralded as one of the major fiction debuts to watch out for this year. Prayaag Akbar’s Leila is a dark, dystopian view of a city governed by boundaries and order – where the rules of the Council are imperative to obey or the Repeaters will violently punish you; where those who marry outside their religion or go against heteronormative norms are sent to Purity Camp; and people live in fear in gated communities segregated by their religion. At the heart of the story is 43-year-old Shalini whose daughter Leila has been snatched away from her, her Muslim husband Riz murdered brutally, fighting to maintain her sanity while being packed off to the Towers.

Prayaag Akbar’s Leila offers a dark view of a city governed by boundaries and order
Prayaag Akbar’s Leila offers a dark view of a city governed by boundaries and order

Urban jungles

Ask Prayaag what made him think of this nightmarish vision, and he explains, “I think there was a lot of angst in me as to how we live in our cities. I’ve spent most of my time in Delhi and now in Mumbai for the last few years, and in both these cities, I’ve seen this need for being self-enclosed. We have complete disorder on the roads, and so we have this idea that we can retreat into these communities, where we will be safe and maintain order. Like in Delhi, we have ‘colonies’, which is such an interesting word really, because they’ve colonised that space and put up gates all around. It is a way of claiming public spaces and making the space your own.”

He adds, “I might have exaggerated certain aspects, but most of what I’ve written about is around us. Like where we have vigilante actions, say the gau rakshaks, this mob justice – it’s always been around. The threat that we can destroy everything you hold dear because the systems aren’t in place – the assumption that our justice system will fail. And the worrying thing is how close we are to that place.... The purification camps, where errant women and men are taken to get pulled back into the Hindu fold. Or reconversion of someone from another religion... or the radicalisation of Muslim youth. I found it disturbing, this idea that the other person is impure because they are of this other religion. It is such a dehumanising concept. You’re saying these people are less than human because they need to be purified.”

Leila explores themes of longing, faith and loss, with a mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the story
Leila explores themes of longing, faith and loss, with a mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the story

But why have a mother and child at the heart of such a story? “I’ve always been convinced that the bond that mothers and daughters share is very special. I see it with my own mother and sister. It’s not always a friendly relationship, but it’s a very tight bond. And I wanted to write about this loss that she encounters. It’s not something that fathers and sons have, or that fathers and daughters have,” he avers.

While one may draw parallels to George Orwell’s frighteningly prescient Nineteen Eighty-Four with its Thought Police and Big Brother surveillance, Prayaag says the author who has most influenced him has been, in fact, JM Coetzee. “Even if he writes something set in a dystopian future or the past, the emotional core of the story is very strong. And that’s very important for me.”

Love and politics

Prayaag was a deputy editor at Scroll and has contributed to numerous publications. He is the son of MJ Akbar, the much-revered editor, author and politician. How much of an influence did his father have in him choosing the same professional path? “He has always been an influence on me,” Prayaag admits. “Mostly because we grew up around books and he would always ask me what I was reading. Books were something we’d discuss over dinner – and that’s been such positive reinforcement – because I’ve never stopped reading.” Would he try his hand at politics next? “No, never,” he chuckles. “That’s his thing – it’s not my interest at all.”

A few years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended Prayaag’s wedding. What was that like? “Can we please not talk about that,” he shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Prod him further, and he says, “I had all my Delhi liberal-lefty friends there and I could see their jaws dropping to the floor. And because my father knows a lot of politicians, there were already many political celebrities there... but when Modi walked in, the entire crowd just parted. And in Delhi, that’s when you know someone important has come, when politicians turn around and look. Then everyone was like, ‘Oh, I think he’s going to win the election’.”

From HT Brunch, April 16, 2017

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