Book review

The future that ‘Leila’ presents is already here, and all of us may be responsible

This novel is a mirror to our selves and not just a forecast in fictional form.

The most terrifying futures are the ones contained in the present. Like seeds already planted, it’s only a matter of time before the stalks push their way up through the dark, loamy earth, their reality undeniable in bright sunlight. Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila is set in such a future – a future that is, in all but the details, really already here.

The locale is an unnamed city crisscrossed by “flyroads”, from which cars descend only to make their way into gated sectors, protected by unscalable high walls. The sectors are strictly segregated by caste and community: “the Tamil Brahmin Sector, Leuva Patel Residency, Bohra Muslim Zone, Catholic Commons, Kanyakubj Quarters, Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Maithil Acres, Chitpavan Heights, Syrian Christian Co-op, Kodava Martials...”. This is a world in which all possible divisions of caste, religion and class have been publicly embraced, each “high” identity zealously guarded and physically engraved into the city’s architecture.

Belonging and unbelonging is decided by birth, and mixing is strictly discouraged. All the good schools have been bought up by individual sectors, so that children cannot possibly forge friendships with anyone not like themselves, as they once might have done in a “mixed” school. The sectors are green and leafy, with wide avenues and bungalows “encircled by hillocked lawns”. Above the sector walls rises a Skydome, inside which the air is filtered by purifiers “working day and night”.

Meanwhile, beyond the “high sectors”, outside the walls, and far below the flyroads, lies a desolate world of Outroads, negotiated in buses by Slummers who live in a “noisome meld of human waste and rotting vegetables”, breathing air that is thick with smog, industrial effluent – and what the purifiers draw out. For all those who live in the Slum, entering the high sectors is a privilege, not a right, and is only possible if you have managed to get a job as a maid or driver or gardener in one of the high homes.

This, of course, involves a screening process – “Tip Top Maids (Choose religion, caste, birthplace; Be Safe, Be Tip-Top)”, runs one advertisement – and if you’ve managed to clear that, the queue at the sector gate will still involve a full-body search whose intrusive humiliations have been normalised literally into the everyday.

Sharply, recognisably Indian

If any of that sounds chillingly familiar, well, that’s exactly what Akbar intends.
Like other recent fictional dystopias – think of Margaret Atwood’s work (not so much The Handmaid’s Tale, but the more recent The Heart Goes Last) or the British TV series Black MirrorLeila conjures up a sinister world in which we have willingly exchanged our freedoms for an imagined security, predictability, convenience, order. Unlike Atwood or Black Mirror, though, this future is not premised so much on a dehumanising extension of the technological present.

There is some technological advancement here – the network of flyroads (“From Singapore, America, everywhere they’re coming to see it. One sector to another, above all the mess,” says one bureaucrat), or the Skydome – but in Akbar’s nightmarish vision, a future India displays just as unimaginative and lazy a take on scientific improvement as it does in the present. We cannot think beyond flyovers and air-conditioners. We cannot summon up the political or civic will to produce clean, well-run cities for everyone, so we carve out enclaves in which the elite need no longer face the horror of the lives of others.

It might include a Nazi-style “Purity for all” two-finger salute, but this world is sharply, recognisably Indian – in its obsessive policing of caste and class boundaries, with women’s bodies as the violent site of that policing, but also in its aesthetics. If the lawn-encircled bungalows bring Lutyens’ Delhi to mind, the monumental city wall called Purity One which encircles the political quarter and where people pray and tuck their prayer petitions in crevices evokes Feroze Shah Kotla. The Repeaters bring to mind the many toxic bands of vigilantes spawned by our increasingly unemployed republic: from the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena to the Bajrang Dal and, most recently, Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini.

Noose of conformity

The creation of this brutal yet utterly normalised universe was for me the book’s biggest draw. But Akbar’s ambition extends further – he wants us to view this world through the eyes of a character who is both like and unlike himself. Shalini is unlike Akbar because she is a 43-year-old woman. But they share a class background – as will most of Akbar’s Indian readers.

Forcibly parted from her daughter – the eponymous Leila – sixteen years ago, the present-day Shalini seems in a permanent state of limbo, her only sense of a future dependent on finding Leila again. From the dull thud-like marking of Shalini’s lonely days in the isolation of the Tower, Akbar takes us back into the happier time of her childhood and youth.

Shalini’s memories bear all the signs of cosmopolitan poshness – being taken to the Sheraton by her parents, going for piano class, making out with her boyfriend on the school bus. (Even Shalini’s metaphors display her – or is it just Akbar’s? – well-travelled poshness: a child’s fleshy feet have “toes like white tulips”; a boy pops up “like a prairie animal”; rust crumbling off a gate “glitter[s] like sushi roe”.) Cosseted from the outside world, Shalini’s life seems calm – if anodyne.

But when the boyfriend becomes her husband, Riz and Shalini’s private life becomes a threat to public order. Shalini is forced to recognise that their decision marks them out even in their upper class circles: where one by one, “school friends had put aside teenage and college romances, found someone from their own sector when it was time for marriage”. And as the noose of conformity tightens around their world, they find themselves increasingly cut off – even from those who seemed closest. As in Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, when it comes to the crunch, it is each one for herself.

Who’s the victim?

In his book How Fiction Works, critic James Wood argues that literary characters are too often subjected by critics and readers alike to “an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to ‘know’ them; they should not be ‘stereotypes’; they should have an ‘inside’ as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should ‘grow’ and ‘develop’; and they should be nice.” “So,” Wood concludes scathingly, “they should be pretty much like us.”

He goes on to mock a particular critic for suggesting that two particular old male characters were not disapproved of enough for their lecherousness by the writer who had created them. “The idea that we might be able to feel that ‘ick factor’ and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two ageing and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator,” writes Wood.

Seeing the world through the eyes of characters who are unlike ourselves is, of course, much of the point of reading fiction. But what if we are led into a fictional universe by a character who seems a lot like us (as Shalini will to most Indian readers of English literary fiction), shown the barbarism of a particular universe through her eyes, and then – after we have begun to identify with her suffering -– suddenly confronted with her flaws? This is perhaps the most remarkable thing Akbar does in this book. He lulls us into believing that we are victims, the besieged – and then by pushing us to see Shalini’s blinds spots, he forces us to confront ourselves.

Leila, Prayaag Akbar, Simon & Schuster.

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