Book name: Leila
Author: Prayaag Akbar
Publisher: Simon and Schuster India
Price: Rs 599
Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila has at its heart an uncanny sense of urban architecture. Right from the tall, dark towers that make up its futuristic cover, it takes a sharp look at verticality as an idiom in our society, particularly in the context of upward mobility. Leila imagines the cruelty of a space where walls and towers have consequences beyond the physical; Akbar shows us the cognitive affects of living in a very precise kind of insularity in Leila and it’s hardly a surprise at a time when urban dystopias are making a big comeback across media.
In Appupen’s 2015 graphic novel Aspyrus, we’re shown a winged beast that lures/traps a forest boy chasing the dream of a vertical city. Ominous visuals gradually swallowing up residents also feature in JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975). Its opening lines have a chilling description of Dr. Robert Laing who, while eating a dog, reflects on unusual events in the apartments. The city is a spectre, where technocratic aspirations give way to a kind of madness deemed necessary for survival. Akbar’s work stands somewhere in between; it isn’t about technological doom as much it is about cultural policing.
The nomenclatures in Leila’s premise are significant. The city is ravaged by the armed (often without uniform) scrutiny of a “loose band of men”, known as the Repeaters. They’re the saviours of a pure community and work for the Council — another fishy group of the politically powerful. They ensure that localities remain “self-enclosing”, and real estate listings are like matrimonials: Brahmins-only, Yadavs-only and so on. Some years ago, the Repeaters had taken away the daughter of an inter-religious relationship, that of Shalini (the narrator), and her husband Riz (who is killed).
Shalini (a fairly privileged mother)’s, choice of “liberal” parenting in the East End comes under increasing suspicion as Naz (Riz’s brother) fails to convince her of the brand of conservatism he follows. Her fate is altered tragically soon. A party she throws is interrupted by the Repeaters who assert, “Purity for All”. There is no negotiation possible with this group. “Your daughter will be raised by the council. For her sake. We want an ordered society. Parents like you, she would never see the value in our way of life. Never fit in.”
A society reliant on building more boundaries between caste, class and gender, Leila’s story offers many nuances on what constitutes privilege and the layers of grey underneath it.
A widowed Shalini is an acute victim of surveillance systems. Ruthless guards and techniques make it mandatory for residents to seek permission for walking in and out of their restricted spaces for the most ordinary reasons. Women’s bodies and activities are inspected continuously; Shalini wonders at one point in the novel, “It’s still a surprise that Warden Khanna knows so much about my life. How does he keep track of every woman in the building?”
This rise in policing women finds due semblance in a recent urban dystopia called The Lesson by Sowmya Rajendran. Here, the control of women’s rights make fodder for reality television. In Leila too, honour resides in vaginas and fighting it can land you in the Purity camp, like it did for Sana, who dared to start a campaign against khatna (female genital mutilation). Sana brings an interesting point to light: although education for girls was available, women weren’t supposed to use it to empower themselves (“They want us in college, but they don’t want us to think. That is what’s dangerous”).
These paradoxes dominate the novel. It comes full circle on the subject of class prejudices with the character of Sapna, who fulfils her rise to a higher, “cultured” society by marrying a man under a council member. It is also hinted that she stole Shalini’s kid Leila and renamed her Lakshmi (a Hindu name), not to mention that now the Repeaters work at her beck and call. Sapna is our classic victim turned perpetrator but through her, we also get an insight into the kind of discrimination she faced at the hands of Shalini as a domestic help. In fact, Leila is about crores of women like Sapna, whose very act of dreaming is seen as a crime. Because even as inmates the privileged get such facilities, that are unthinkable for a working class inmate. “Our crime is to be born”, she says. In Akbar’s next, I would love to read a story from her narrative voice.