In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.
Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”
The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”
That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”
Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.
It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.
Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names? This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.
In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.
Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.
(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)