First read: Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel ‘Leila’ is a fantasy of the near future

Walls have come up everywhere. Communities are boxed in. A daughter has been lost.

My husband thinks we cannot find her. His voice is raw from screaming. “When will you understand, Shalini? It’s been sixteen years.”

“You think I don’t know? Let’s get on with this.”

Riz looks at me, bobbles his head but doesn’t say anything. In the sinking light his old-man stubble glitters like salt grain. It is he who doesn’t understand. I’m almost there.

As we walk from the broad pavement to a small rectangle of grass he pulls out two candles from the satchel. Purity One, first of the sector walls, stretches out across us to the edges of the dusk, either end into the swirling ash. Gritty grey brick. Sixty feet high. Wrapping around the political quarter, sealing off the broad, tree-lined avenues, the colonial bungalows, the Ministries, the old Turkic gardens. The Council oversees the divided city from the political quarter, from behind Purity One.

Standing where we are now the wall is shimmering. Broad iridescent streaks, shifting in the way green and brilliant purple dance on the throat of a pigeon. (Pigeons infest this place.) Purity One is believed to have an inscrutable power. People come here to pray and plead. Take my own situation. I should be standing alone, yet here Riz is, by my side, etched sharp against the dusk as anything around us.

Not far from where we are there is a small room, abutting the wall. On the roof a white flag flutters the Council’s insignia, black pyramid, white tip. Hundreds of people shoulder past each other to get to this room. In the great heave all we see is a trapezoid of blue light where the double door extends above the devotees. A cage-like barrier divides the room; behind the wire squares is the holiest part of the wall, centre of the lowest line of bricks, painted ochre-like red. They worship this brick. They call it the first brick of Purity One.

Riz knelt to dig a hole in the earth. His back is badly hunched. Once there was a curving furrow of pebble-like muscles under each shoulder blade from hours every day on the squash court, but now, bent over the ground, he looked like a tortoise retreating into its shell.

I got down beside him, creaky myself.

“These are different candles,” I said, rolling one about my palm. Thicker, a spiral design wrapping neatly around the white wax.

“I found them near work. More expensive, but what the hell. It’s her birthday.”

He gave a tired smile.

“Smell them. I think she’d like this smell.”

We come to the wall every year on Leila’s birthday.

A karate teacher waddled a file of white-kitted children to an emptier stretch along Purity One. Within touching distance of the wall they stopped and bowed. A woman in a sequinned burqa was talking quietly with her daughters. One of the girls was in a purple headscarf with a scalloped hem, while the younger, perhaps not of age, was dressed in a T-shirt and tiered skirt. They inserted prayers written on scraps of paper into gaps between the bricks.

We brought out a plastic shovel from Riz’s bag. Along the yellow scoop the plastic had frayed and turned pasty white. The shovel was part of a set we’d bought Leila before a beach holiday. There was a sticker on the bucket, of a bear sliding down a rainbow, that she’d pick at. We bring the shovel every year but it’s too blunt, too flimsy for the dry, tight soil of this patch facing Purity One, the real work is done with our fingers. Soon we had holes two inches deep. We stood our candles in the earth. Packed the cavities with soil. Twenty minutes we sat and around us a scatter of bent and blacked sticks grew as the wind time and again guttered out the candles.

Purity One is the only sector wall that’s not impossibly filthy.

Everywhere else the stench is overwhelming, it hits you in the stomach. But no one seems able to do anything. Sometimes you see Slummers wading through the garbage, looking for things to sell.

A huge cheer went up. Two young men were visible above the thicket of heads, attempting the wall. They wore only white nylon basketball shorts with oilskin pouches tied at their chests, moving with upward pounces at unnerving speed, backs, calves, arms twitching and tensing, bodies bending double and right around like jackknives. One of the men was very dark-skinned. The other had a tuft of hair in the middle of his back. With the tips of fingers and bare toes they’d get a hold in the minute crannies and ledges between the uneven bricks, swinging higher all the time. The mob hummed with reverence.

“How strong, to leverage their bodies this way,” I said.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Riz replied. “This sheer face. How are they doing it?”

“Why not. Like those guys who pull giant chariots by themselves with metal hooks buried into their backs.”

“Or the Shias. Whipping themselves to mush.”

The dark man tensed into a crouch and sprung to a jutting brick above. He couldn’t grab on. As he fell through the air he hammered the wall with his fingertips, striking like a snake at its surface. On the fourth attempt the fingers stuck. His shoulder wrenched and his body twisted but he clung on with a soft, stifled cry. We exhaled as one. He swung like a pendulum from one hand, grinning down at us unflustered, until he found a niche for his other. Extending his legs, he swung them up over his head so now he was upside down, biceps bursting, lank hair falling in perfect glistening straights like granite rain. He took a foothold and pulled himself upright. Relief in the cheering now.

When I dream about Leila she is always in the distance, outside the light, but I know she has a warm, open face.

I still see her eyes, light like my mother’s, irises warm gold-brown pools in which the sun set ablaze radial chips of malachite, green and faintly black. She is impatient to meet the world, my little girl grown. She is taller than me. This makes me so happy. Sometimes she’s in school uniform, walking toe-heel, toe-heel, back arched, the proud shoulders and strong nose of all the women in our family.

Today she turned nineteen. Desires, insecurities, angers that I know nothing of, though I must’ve played my part in. I would know so little about her now. Maybe her laugh. When she was an infant I’d bring my face right to her nose and make a funny sound – “khwaaishhh” – and she’d squirm with delight, cackling with a deep, cadent lilt. Her laughter now will carry a kernel of that. So I come to Purity One on her birthday. To ask her for forgiveness. We didn’t respect these walls, so they took her from me. Sixteen years. Does she wonder sometimes where I am? If I abandoned her? I’ve read the books. She won’t remember. She was taken on her birthday, only three years old, so she doesn’t, can’t, remember. 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 scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms. I found a journal on early cognition in the library. One article said our first memories go back to two and a few months. We don’t remember how things flow into each other, how they are linked, but our minds can place, in the vast fog, discrete islands. Maybe she remembers accompanying me to the mall one winter morning, white-frame sunglasses on her head. A Santa greeting the customers walking in. Leila so thrilled by this her shoulders began to vibrate. She squeezed my hand, still trembling, tugging gently until we stepped out of the security-check line.

I could only see his unfitness. Thin-limbed, dark-skinned, sweating in the hard noon sun. Over the double doors forlorn clumps of cotton glued to the lintel. Peach foundation trickling down his forehead like muddy rain down a window. But Leila was transported. She ran to him, mindless of the stale, cheap duvetyne, its acrid whiff. She was laughing and he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles. I didn’t say a word.

“You want a present from Santa?” I finally asked. There were gift-wrapped boxes piled against the front window, clearly empty.

Leila looked confused by this. Maybe she didn’t know what Santa did. The suit, the beard, an image in some book come to life, this was what thrilled her. The burden of age is expectation. It leaves a judging eye. She turned to me and smiled in a lopsided way, as if suddenly aware of her excitement, and when I saw her expression, that gentle smirk, I felt her elation as if it were growing within me. Of course this place was enough. There was charm to be found here, there was nothing tacky. My baby’s full-beam happiness at its centre, and I as innocent as her, as untroubled.

All this. Why do I fool myself? Leila will remember something quite different, if she remembers anything at all.

Excerpted with permission from Leila, Prayaag Akbar, Simon & Schuster.

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