Prayaag Akbar on his novel Leila: Almost every privation, indignity in the story is reality already
Prayaag Akbar's Leila is set in an India, probably not too far in the future, where factionalism has become synonymous with integrity, and division based on it pretty much the only important rule
The modern American dystopia as imagined by a number of its auteur directors or writers has much to do with its two largest obsessions, oil and water. Only as recently as late last year, has someone like Jordan Peele put the cat amongst the pigeons by conceiving a path-breaking, internalised horror of realities woven around America’s problems with race. It is rather belated of a country that has played host to more than a century of struggle for the civil rights of those seen as ‘different’. It is perhaps unsurprising, that India has never seen or read the exaggerated tilt of a mind that intends to illuminate further and beyond the pay-wall of everyday conscience. We know what happens, but what if it keeps happening, happens more often and after a point, is the only thing that happens? Are we prepared to, even hesitatingly see beyond the standard aberrations of our times? In case you are wondering how, Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila will help.
Leila is set in an India, probably not too far in the future, where factionalism has become synonymous with integrity, and division based on it pretty much the only important rule. The key here is that the rules are enforced by a few, on a certain few more than it is on others. In this eclipse of human dignity and freedom to choose, Shalini, the novel’s protagonist, goes against the tide. And pays, as her husband, and eventually her daughter, Leila, are taken away from her. She sets out on a journey to find her, a horrific tableau of bureaucracy and middle-men, a chastening world where dignity is a matter of opinion. As soon as one starts reading Leila, there is the question of why did Akbar choose the voice of a mother. “There are different kinds of relationships within families, but to me a mother and daughter seem to understand each other in a very special way — even when they're not on the friendliest terms, there is a deep bond there that the rest of us don’t get to experience. Shalini is separated from her daughter by all that is going on around her, but she manages to sustain herself through the most horrible circumstances because of this love for her daughter,” he says.
The biggest strength of Leila, perhaps, is the fact that it does in no way feel eerie or unfamiliar. To an extent that is even the point. As you read the book, memory as a reflex maps it to incidents that you have read, seen or experienced. If you can’t recall any, then you probably live under a rock, or perhaps need to read the book more than anyone else. If you can, you know, what lies ahead. Yet it feels, peculiar in that it draws our knowledge out of the strongbox of wisdom, to the outlandish and wary landscapes of a future we are trying not to predict. Which is also why, Akbar in his writing refuses to meditate along with the protagonist, as if to say to the reader, ‘all you’. “Shalini’s plight is such that it did not seem to me, while I was writing, that she would be meditative or ruminative in the manner of some other narrators in novels. She is not interested in pontificating about the world. She wants to describe it to the best of her ability. Most of all, she wants to find her daughter. That is her urgent desire,” he says.
A lot of things in Leila are as you would expect, if you have read a Cormac McCarthy or an Orwell; the essential nomenclature, the language of a time in keeping with the premises, morbid imagery and so on. To put things into Indian context much of these are based around religion and caste, India’s two greatest obsessions. Beyond that, Akbar doesn’t hold your hand, but only follows Shalini’s search for her daughter. But that search only begins in the second half of the book. The first half is dedicated to placing Shalini in this milieu as a curiously un-updated, well-to-do child, untouched by the vividness surrounding her. It remarks of privilege, which Akbar has smartly — though frustratingly for some — written around. “It is an essential part of living in India if you are from the ‘comfortable’ classes. We have to stop ourselves from thinking about so much that we see — the poverty, misery, abject ways of living — because we would be overwhelmed by sadness. I tried to capture that in the book. My protagonist, Shalini, has to wake up to certain realities because they catch up with her cloistered, safe life. As the story unfolds, she learns to see again. I wanted to inspire that in the reader, to think afresh about the world we live in. To look at whom we exclude, how we do it, again,” he says.
Except for the one moment in the book, there are no photo-snapping, heart-stopping turns of narrative. For someone looking to read into a hell hole, a Mad Max like fury-filled rampage of the written kind, a falling person’s view of McCarthy’s The Road, or even the beguiling politics of Orwell’s 1984, this isn’t it. Primarily, for the reason, that our hands are at a different kind of work, and familiarity with that work makes Leila all the more real. It is a mirror, made in India. There are, however problems. Though Akbar’s prose is simple, almost journalistic, it fails at times to drive emotion. Also, too much of the journey has been fit into too little. And too little time is spent on meditating over what the protagonist learns. Perhaps, it is down to the fact, that most of the meditation here has to be done by the reader. Whatever be the result of that meditation, Leila as a book is like a kick to the gut which, worse, feels like a constantly recurring déjà vu. It exists both in the past and the future.