The Price of Pu­rity

India Today - - LEISURE - —Ja­son Over­dorf

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.

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