A book review
Prayaag Akbar, a former deputy editor of Scroll and currently working as a consulting editor with Mint, has long examined various aspects of marginalization in India through his award-winning reporting and commentary. He uses these experiences in his dystopian debut work of fiction (soon to be adapted for the screen as a Netflix Original), Leila, set in a bleak near future in an unnamed Indian town where obsession with purity and one’s own caste and community reaches its worst peak. Written in a fast-paced prose, Leila tackles India’s centuries-old values and traditions, such as community, class, purity, and segregation that continue to impede the country’s progress since its independence in 1947.
Gripping from the very start, the novel follows the life of Shalini, an upper class woman by rearing, whose eponymous daughter Leila is snatched away from her at an early age. The bereft mother’s journey—searching for her daughter for sixteen years—constitutes the kernel of the story around which a disturbingly dystopian world is created. Soon she sees her once-cosmopolitan city gradually turning into a sectored, high-walled town where tribalism takes precedence over communal harmony as the Council decides the fate of its citizens. Repeaters, a savage group of men, patrol the city and guard its walls and implement the Council’s vision to segregate people in a highly structured society the motto of which is “Purity for all”. The narrator’s microscopic world unfolds the dissolution of the former India into an “ordered society”, which is grimly patriarchal and spearheaded by the Council that teaches people “rules bigger than themselves,” so they can never challenge any institution or “things bigger than themselves” controlling their lives.
Shalini’s tender remembrances of times past provide relief from the brutality of her new life, whose reality is only tolerable when she takes some pills prescribed by Dr Iyer, which “help [her] find peace” as they are “synthesized ... with great effort and ingenuity” by the Council’s best scientists. Her previous life is presented through glimpses of her father, her husband, her daughter and her later life at Purity Camp and in crumbling residential complexes located on the outskirts of a high-walled town. They are shadowy memories made all the more vivid by Akbar's brilliant prose, in which facts and history of contemporary India appear to merge into one another and reality and fiction become a kind of strange symbiotic mirage. The novel’s protagonist remarks: “That’s what this city is like ... Everyone tucked behind walls of their own making, stewing in a private shame, like I was that day. They can’t come out into the open. Anyone who can afford it hides behind walls.”
The metaphor of “wall”, undoubtedly, refers to bleak socio-political stereotypes of India that segregate its people and envision a deeply divided country. Akbar, through this smooth yet multi-layered prose, has actually portrayed a grim future of India based on its current trajectory.
However, Leila, at the core, is a very personal story of a mother in search of her only daughter. Every year on Leila’s birthday Shalini kneels by the wall with a little yellow spade and digs dry earth to make a pit for two candles, one for herself and the other for Riz, her Muslim husband, who was killed by Repeaters on the night when they had lost Leila. She sees her husband in hallucinatory dreams, talking to her and helping her to find Leila. As we always do in times of desperation, they argue, fight, and patch things up. At one point in her despondency, Shalini blames herself for losing Leila: “My daughter had been taken precisely because I could not protect her.” Her desperation and straightforward statements take readers deep into the story and leave them with no doubt that the author, indeed, wants to respond to the contemporary crises of the Indian society and politics through this intensely personal story.
It seems, however, that fighting against the “purity order” in society and the grim reality around, Shalini, too, becomes a victim of the Council at the end of her journey. Though still desperate to find her child, she wants to cave in to the Council’s totalitarian regime, as she reflects: “the world outside is too complex, too frightening. There are too many people, each one a potential threat. We have to find order in the chaos.” This is the world that the Council dreamed for its citizens and tried to instill into her head as well. So, this dystopia becomes her reality, her “Brave New World”, however terrifying it seemed to her years ago.
Redolent of classics such as Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, Akbar weaves a startlingly individual story of love and loss, in a dreary atmosphere of social divisions and religious difference. Akbar deftly paints a visual imagery of devastated lives of his characters in this profoundly written tale of a desperate mother looking for her long-lost daughter. Emotions of each character are laid bare in engaging prose, so there is no escape for readers from this bleak world.
Leila is Akbar’s brilliant contribution to Indian speculative fiction, setting the bar incredibly high for Indian writers of his generation.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters.