The Price of Purity
Leila by Prayaag Akbar Aleph Book Company 224 pages, Rs 453
This elegant dystopian novel, about a future where mob rule has forced all India into colonies segregated by caste and creed, opens with a scream. In the scrum to enforce the anti-pollution measures of ‘Purity One’, the daughter of Hindu Leila and Muslim Riz has disappeared. The novel’s depiction of rampaging moral police offers other horrors for the liberal reader too: If this is science fiction, it veers grimly close to reality.
A literary novel, its payoff is emotional. The story of Leila’s search for her daughter—for whom she endures a Maoist-or ghar
wapasi-style reeducation through drugs, therapy and isolation in ominous Towers—is indeed moving. Akbar’s prose is poetic without pretense. In service of the story, there’s no self-aware bombast to draw attention to the writer at the expense of his characters.
That said, the book is best when at its least futuristic. The world of Purity One is not exotic enough to offer the thrills of genre fiction or the further-removed future of literary scifi like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But in describing Leila’s initial courtship by and marriage to Riz, when full segregation has not yet been implemented, Akbar delivers a sharp portrait of the tensions of class, caste and creed underlying every interaction in today’s India.
The nightmare he presents is a convincing one—albeit predicated essentially on the expansion to society’s elites the rules that are today the status quo for the masses. At the birthday party where Leila’s daughter disappears, a thug-cum-politician from the Repeaters—a sort of Residents’ Welfare Association crossed with the Bajrang Dal— voices a call that ominously echoes the one sent out over radio waves in Rwanda during the genocide. “Each must protect our walls, our women, our communities,” he shouts. “Go forth and do your work. Once again we will reach the pinnacle of the world.”
Sound familiar? These days everybody in India seems to be talking of restoring its past glory, while in Rwanda in 1994, “do your work” was a euphemism for the hard labour of hacking Tutsis to death with machetes.