A woman falls in love with a man from a different religious community. They get married in spite of some mild reservations from their respective families, have a child, and settle down elsewhere. But, in the end, the wrath of moral custodians of the State catch up with them. The couple is assaulted, the man probably left to die, the woman taken to a camp, away from her daughter. Nobody knows what exactly happens to the three-year-old girl.
At a glance, the plot of Prayaag Akbar's debut novel Leila seems devastatingly everyday, until you pause over the fact that it is set in "the near future". But that moment yet to come feels uncannily familiar, too, even as you find yourself navigating through a lexicon especially crafted for the purposes of fantasy.
Apart from Leila and her parents, Shalini and Rizwan, their friends and family, Akbar's novel features the Repeaters (who operate like vigilante groups), the Slummers (so called after the neighbourhood they live in), the Purity Wall (which rends the unnamed city into two parts, inhabited by the Haves and the Have-Nots), and the Tower (where the wretched misfits and outcasts are carted off).
In spite of its futuristic framework, Leila feels scarily close to home. We live in a place and time where it's not unusual for strangers or neighbours to come sniffing up to our fridges to check for contraband meat — and unleash havoc, should their suspicions are confirmed. A chosen few breathe air purified by devices inside the comfort of their air-conditioned drawing rooms, while the great unwashed struggle to keep their tattered lungs together.
Set amidst the heat, dust and grime of a world on the verge of a terrifying tipping point, Leila is a riveting reminder of where we are headed. There is, for instance, an unforgettable scene of an elderly man driven to the edge of insanity by the heat that's boiling the city in which the story is set. The air of menace is such that you could cut it with a knife — and the next time, someone knocks on your car window as you wait for the lights to change, you will find it hard to turn away from them with a studied air of indifference.
The appeal of Leila, like any successful novel, transcends its brief of fantasy fiction. In the end, it moves us because of its investment in the humanity of its characters, their scarred lives but big-hearted love.
At the core of Leila is a reflection on the human condition that doesn't baulk the distraction of fanciful nomenclatures or the formal rules of a dystopia. Beyond all its shattering prophecies, Leila is a tale of heartbreak, experienced by a woman for her husband and daughter — but also for everything else that once anchored her to the illusion of safety.
Akbar builds up the quest narrative deftly, with unflagging pace, and with frequent detours into the past. When we meet Shalini, she's 43, hallucinating about her husband, who may or may not be alive, but fixed in her belief that her daughter, who must be 19 then, is still alive. The force of Shalini's conviction is such that it takes her to those corners of the city where she could be held as a trespasser and subjected to the harshest of penalties. But every obstacle she encounters makes her more determined to carry on with her mission. As we follow her, we become privy to her history as well as the sinister workings of the moment she finds herself in.
In spite of its tight structure and pace, Leila suffers from a touch of verbosity, especially in the early parts, and a propensity for clumsy metaphors, a little too many adverbs and adjectives, which feel out of place in a narrative that is meant to evoke a chilling premonition of doom. A more clinical prose, shorn of excesses, may have complemented the mood of the story better.
Leila (₹599, 212 pages, hardback) is published by Simon & Schuster India.
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