Once, as I was driving home late at night, I saw a box-like van with tired shapes huddled against each other. Certain that these were camels being illegally transported to slaughterhouses, the animal rights activist in me fumbled for her phone and sped to get close enough to the van to capture evidence of the violation and the truck’s number plate. When I was about twenty feet away, I realised what I had mistaken for the rumps of camels were the arms and torsos of men pressed close together. If they had vests on, they were dirty. Their eyes were red. Their arms reached up to hold on to grips from the instinctive fear of falling if the truck were to brake suddenly, though they had no room to fall. They must have been migrant labourers, being driven from a construction site to the makeshift shanties where they would be housed for the duration of their contracts. This daily journey, the culmination of long hours for which they were paid so little that it made more economic sense to ferry and house them than to employ local labour, would be uncomfortable enough to ensure that wherever they collapsed, perhaps on a ragged cloth in a shed heated through the day by its tin roof, would be a relief.
My mind kept returning to that image as I read Prayaag Akbar’s Leila. That is the world he conjures in 200 pages, a bleak universe where hope is a speed bump. Where did those men in the truck bathe? What emboldened them to bring children into the world? What made them travel great distances to break stones, carry bricks, and inhale dust? What gave them the courage to dream?
Leila is, on the surface, a mother’s quest for her lost daughter, last seen on her third birthday. But it is also the story of the walls we build, in our cities and in our heads. What do we protect, and against what are we protecting it? The idea of an inexorable authority constantly closing in is an undercurrent, the axis around which several stories are braided, each a study of futility and strength, submission and determination, more Sophie’s Choice than 1984. It might be tempting to classify Leila as dystopian or futuristic. But it is not quite a dystopia, rather an exploration of the ways in which power shifts — the rules change, but the corruption remains, with the beneficiaries and the victims swapping places. If it is futuristic, it invokes a future that is not too far away. If Leila has a genre, it is perhaps a counterpoint to magic realism.
Long ago, when I first stumbled upon One Hundred Years of Solitude, I closed the book, both content and depressed — all the books I ever wanted to write were already contained in those three hundred and fifty pages. How, I thought, could so many stories, so many worlds, so many ideas, be brought between two covers? Yet, this “cornucopia” would be visited by authors across the noisier parts of the world — Latin, Asian, African. In a dauntingly ambitious first book, Prayaag Akbar creates a The Pesthouse-like universe, an inversion of the cornucopia, a black hole sucking in the stream of bounty that once issued from the mouth of the horn.
Full disclosure demands that I mention I wrote on cinema for The Sunday Guardian when Prayaag Akbar headed the features department. While our interactions were few, his emails were always warm, and he was inevitably gracious in person. While I cannot claim to know him well, I have followed his journalistic writing over the years. When one is about to review a book by someone who is likeable and talented, one does hope it will meet, and ideally exceed, the expectations one has formed. But even if Akbar were an obnoxious megalomaniac whom reviewers were itching to humiliate, I imagine they would find it rather hard not to love the first 40 pages.
The journey begins with the cover, two figures, a parent and child perhaps, walking by a gigantic wall, and the titular name Leila, so evocative it is almost onomatopoeic. Layla of Layla-Majnun, she who, among all the legendary leading ladies of love stories (Shirin, Juliet, Anarkali, Heer, Amaravathi), was the one who drove her lover so insane with desire and longing that we know him only by his epithet, The Madman. Laylah, meaning night, most famously in Alf Laila wa Laila, a thousand and one nights of cheating death by storytelling, a test of patience, a lesson in the quiet resistance of tyranny. It is night in the book, six thousand nights, unrelenting even when the sun pours into flesh and mind.
The world that Akbar evokes is not frightening so much as credible. We already live in a world swerving so sharply to the right that we can barely see the centre. It is happening in the US, the UK, France, and India. We have taken it for granted in China, in North Korea, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Israel, in Zimbabwe. The events that precipitate the premise of the book are entirely plausible, and so Leila saddens rather than scares me.
It would take away from the effect of the book to reveal plot elements. But its very first sentence is a punch to the gut: “My husband thinks we cannot find her.”. In coming to terms with the horror of the one thing that is arguably worse than the death of a child, the narrator tries to retain her sanity through detachment, seeking validation simultaneously from science and instinct. Her language is both visceral and contemplative:
“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.”
In the middle of descriptions of the quotidian, lines leap out at the reader that cast an entirely different perspective on what has just been said, in the style of Doris Lessing, who, after several pages of taking a character through the streets of London would say,
“Put her brain, together with the other million brains, women’s brains, that recorded in such tiny loving anxious detail the histories of windowsills, skins of paint, replaced curtains and salvaged baulks of timber, there would be a recording instrument, a sort of six-dimensional map which included the histories and lives and loves of people, London—a section map in depth.” (The Four-Gated City)
Here, after taking us to a hillock of reeking garbage, Akbar writes, “Of the scavengers only the rats and humans remain, hardy, hard to dislodge.”
Among my favourite passages in Leila, is one about a toy train. Don’t all of us remember those rides, when we toddled out of our mothers’ arms on to brightly coloured seats, excited, panicky, and devastated by that first separation, the sadness we felt in passing them on every round cancelling out the joy we felt upon spotting them in their places as we spun through the circuit, a ritual which would be repeated as we stayed away from them a little longer, in our kindergarten classrooms, and still longer through school and then longer and longer with every jump in education and career? It stays with us, the horror of separation mixed with the high of self-sufficiency, the relief in reunion mixed with resentment at the perceived loss of independence. We are always those children, and for a long time we believe our mothers are adult enough not to be moved by the silliness of it all, the excitement and panic and devastation and joy and horror and relief and resentment.
Perhaps the bond between mothers and daughters is so lasting, so unbreakable, because it is forged when we understand that they too felt all we did, even before we become mothers. As children, daughters long to be their mothers. We wear their clothes and lipstick and bindis and jewellery. We appropriate their mannerisms, and assign dolls and younger siblings to play us when we play them. We smile and frown like them, we adopt the inflections of their voices,we style our hair like theirs. As we grow up, we roll our eyes at their fashion sense, and change their wardrobes and faces to fit our tastes. And through all the exchanges of “Who wears powder these days, Ma?”, “For god’s sake, get a haircut that suits your face!”, and “Stop using that horrible shampoo and take this, here”, which must seem acrimonious to our fathers and brothers and husband and sons, we form an exclusive friendship that we guard jealously. We whisper together about things to which those men will never be privy, we giggle and argue and cry and hug and turn to each other in a way that suggests neither of us needs anyone else. Leila is the story of what happens when that relationship is not allowed to exist. It astounds me, even annoys me, that a man can accurately get into our heads. I tried and failed to spot a flaw in the portrayal of this relationship, and the void its denial leaves. I found myself thinking, instead, that this is perhaps why women pity mothers who have only sons, and why the most horrific thing that can happen to a woman is to lose her mother.
The landscape of the narrator’s mind is mirrored by the physical, a post-apocalyptic world which sounds so real it is as if the author has lived it: “You saw snakes twisting across the road sometimes, their scales left a faint sodium slather on the tar.”
The immensity of her sorrow and helplessness are contained in poignant similes, “A bee that fights its way out of a beer first performs muddled rotations of the mug, looping wider and wider in the afternoon air. That’s what all of us were like at the Camp. Doing desperate little things so we could remember what was normal.”
The author’s intuitive understanding of human nature, of the illogic of human thought is what makes the characters so relatable. One is ashamed when her dress is lifted, not because her panties are on public display, but because she had sprinkled them while urinating earlier. The narrator is like all of us, reliving moments and realising too late how different things would have been if only, if only, if only…, recriminating herself out loud in the hope that someone will tell her it was not her fault, blaming everyone else so that she can live with herself. Her indecision, her impulses, her guilt, her rage become ours.
That’s why the opening chapters are a triumph of storytelling.
I have mixed feelings about a long flashback-of-sorts that follows this section. For most of the book, Akbar expertly withholds and trickles out information, giving us the sense of things rather than the facts. What happens in the past is told in short bursts of the character’s memories, random and tenuously connected to the present, as memory usually is. In this section, though, the narrative is linear, which memory rarely is. The sequential narrative could be interpreted as a result of the regime through which she has been put at the camp to which she refers, if that were the style employed throughout the book. Perhaps it would have felt like less of an aberration if the book were written in third person, where there is more scope for description — when we recollect, most of us remember emotions rather than events, and mundane enquiries run into one another.
One could conjecture that this interlude is a deliberate stylistic departure from the rest of the book, to show us a world that was better, happier, freer, or perhaps to tell us that life goes on despite everything. When we visit conflict zones — maybe the closest real-life parallel for the setting of the book — it often surprises us that optimism will endure, that people will fall in love and laugh and joke and plan for the future even as bombs go off around them. But the threat of a tightening vice, which casts a shadow throughout the book, even in references made to the same period to which the narrator returns in this section, is almost absent here. And then, suddenly, rules which must have paralysed the celebration of a wedding, are glossed over in a couple of paragraphs.
It is also in this section that the dialogue, crafted with finesse everywhere else, falters. It is as if these 20 pages exist only to bring us up to speed on the past, as if the author’s heart was not really in it, somewhat like the obligatory love interest or action sequence that a director reluctantly imposes on an otherwise stark film to accommodate the producer’s demands.
But, just when the narrative is in danger of becoming sluggish, Akbar almost impatiently moves back to the present, and the book holds us in its grip. What unfolds is the stuff of nightmares, the ones from which we wake up because the mind can no longer cope, and even the subconscious awareness that this is a safe space where our instincts for self-preservation can play out a drill dissolves with a jolt. What if we cannot wake up? We enter the universe of Leila.
There is a certain attention to detail that is characteristic of feminine writing, and the rigour that we associate with male writing. I was struck by a sentence,“I even did my eyebrows, at a small place that I see on my way back from work.” Most women know, but rarely think about, how the first thing that becomes a badge of despondency, a declaration of being beyond caring, are our eyebrows. Perhaps the difference between the arch of pleasant surprise and the shadows of grumpiness cease to matter when one is depressed; or perhaps we bestow this little bit of ugliness on ourselves as a kind of punishment.
And it would take something momentous to want to do one’s eyebrows in the world of Leila, created with so much verisimilitude that the reader feels suffocated. In one of its most chilling turns, a respite from all the grime, a dreamlike lapse into a different space, turns out to be a larger-than-life advertisement.
Another aspect of the book which stands out is that Akbar is unhesitant in calling out chauvinism across religions and communities. It starts off almost playfully, with the naming of housing societies in a manner reminiscent of IPL teams (my favourite is ‘Kodava Martials’), but then moves on to more delicate territory, and here he makes no concession to apologists. This is particularly important at a time when liberals tend to embrace all that faces prejudice from the majority, in a world where Linda Sarsour is hailed as an icon of progressiveness despite her conservative views on a range of subjects, including the hijab and Sharia. No one who uses religion to enforce a false morality is spared in Leila.
This is not a book that can be judged by parameters, where reviewers can weigh minimalism and overwriting and subtlety and cleverness and plausibility as if on a meter. You know a book is powerful when it starts working its way into your dreams. Over the three days I spent reading Leila, I slept restively. I dreamt that the people I loved most were sealed away from me, and could not —or would not — talk to me. When my alarm went off, it was the doorbell and I had seconds to save all that was most precious to me before an angry mob barged in. I would wake up and kiss my dogs until they yelped in alarm at this behavioural change in their relatively undemonstrative mother. When I finished the book, I needed P. G. Wodehouse to repair the damage — a tactic which I last employed after reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
It is the rare writer who can look back on his first book ten or twenty or thirty years into his career, and not wish he could un-write it. If Akbar were to ever regret as accomplished a debut as Leila, it could only be because every subsequent book of his would have overshadowed all that has preceded it, and we can look forward to a stellar body of work.
Nandini Krishnan is a writer and journalist based in Madras. Twitter: @k_nandini. Website: www.nandinikrishnan.