A dark In­dian fu­ture of clas­sism

Prayaag Ak­bar’s de­but novel is a dark vi­sion of the fu­ture, not too dis­tant from the chasms of class and caste that char­ac­terise today’s In­dian land­scape. Bhanuj Kap­pal re­ports

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Bhanuj Kap­pal is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Mum­bai who writes about mu­sic, protest cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

We’ve been trained to think of dystopian fic­tion as prophecy, as a warning of dark times to come. This is an im­pres­sion that is en­cour­aged by the genre’s links to science fic­tion and its ex­plo­rations of how tech­nol­ogy in­ter­acts with to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism – whether it’s the Stal­in­ist panop­ti­con of Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984, or the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic tech­noc­racy of Yevgeny Zamy­atin’s We.

Im­plicit in this read­ing of dystopia is a self-pre­serv­ing – and usu­ally self-de­lud­ing – sense of op­ti­mism, that how­ever bad the fu­ture looks, we’re not there yet. But at its core, the best of dystopian fic­tion is less an in­ter­ro­ga­tion of imag­ined fu­tures, and more a wit­ness to cur­rent re­al­i­ties. And that’s ex­actly what makes Prayaag Ak­bar’s de­but novel Leila such a grip­ping – and ter­ri­fy­ing – read.

“I’m not as in­ter­ested in what may come as what al­ready is,” says the 35-year-old jour­nal­ist-turned-au­thor, who is also the son of noted for­mer jour­nal­ist and cur­rent In­dian min­is­ter of state for ex­ter­nal af­fairs M.J. Ak­bar. As a re­porter and edi­tor, Ak­bar has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on caste, class, com­mu­nal­ism and the myr­iad other fault-lines that dom­i­nate the In­dian po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

With Leila, he con­tin­ues to en­gage with the same themes through fic­tion. “Many of the ideas that en­tered the book I first touched upon in my jour­nal­ism. I am try­ing to show how we al­ready live. Yes, I have ex­ag­ger­ated cer­tain as­pects of our ur­ban lives but al­most ev­ery­thing in the novel goes on around us al­ready.”

At over 205 pages, Ak­bar con­structs a city-world set in an un­spec­i­fied near-fu­ture where the forces of ex­clu­sion and trib­al­ism reign supreme. The priv­i­leged live in the se­cu­rity and com­fort of pri­vate en­claves, di­vided by caste, re­li­gion and community, 60 feet walls sep­a­rat­ing them from the filth, grime and de­grad­ing poverty of the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. This rigid hi­er­ar­chy is presided over by the name­less, face­less city coun­cil and po­liced by vig­i­lante thugs known as “re­peaters”. Those that are not killed for break­ing the rules are sent to “The Tow­ers” out­side the city – re-ed­u­ca­tion camps for the out­casts that refuse to fit in.

The city of “Pu­rity One” is a fun­house mir­ror re­flec­tion of the re­al­ity we live in. The fix­a­tion with pu­rity – ge­netic, morally – re­minds us of how class, caste and reli­gious an­tag­o­nism all re­volve around the fe­male body, of how en­dogamy is cen­tral to so­cial seg­re­ga­tion. In the re­peaters and their vi­o­lence, we can see the in­creas­ing bel­liger­ence of In­dia’s vig­i­lante mobs, as seen in the lynch­ings of Mus­lims and Dal­its ac­cused of cow slaughter. The sec­tors evoke both the “se­ces­sion of the elite” of Gur­gaon’s lux­u­ri­ous and exclusive gated com­mu­ni­ties and the “veg­e­tar­i­ans only – a eu­phemism for “up­per-caste Hindu only” – hous­ing so­ci­eties of Mum­bai.

“I be­lieve we don’t pay enough at­ten­tion to how caste shapes our cities,” says Ak­bar. “There is a logic to it: why shouldn’t peo­ple who have sim­i­lar eating or liv­ing or reli­gious views gather and live to­gether? The ques­tion I try to look at in the book is, who does that leave out?”

The sec­tor walls them­selves work as al­le­gories for the in­vis­i­ble walls of class and caste that al­ready ex­ist, carv­ing out en­tirely dif­fer­ent spheres of life for In­di­ans phys­i­cally sep­a­rated by a mat­ter of me­tres.

“In Delhi, the city in which I grew up, our res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hoods are called ‘colonies’ – it is a British-era term, I be­lieve, that we have glee­fully adopted,” says Ak­bar. “In some senses the term is per­fect: th­ese colonies ap­pro­pri­ate pub­lic thor­ough­fares, dis­al­low ‘un­de­sir­able’ peo­ple [low-in­come pedes­tri­ans] from en­ter­ing.

“There is some great an­thro­pol­ogy that ex­am­ines how all of us in In­dia view pub­lic and pri­vate space – why we are so ob­sessed with keeping our own homes pris­tine while the garbage and filth gathers just out­side the walls of our home.”

At its core, Leila is an ex­plo­ration of how ab­stract po­lit­i­cal forces af­fect the daily lives of peo­ple – specif­i­cally the 43-yearold pro­tag­o­nist Shalini, and the daugh­ter that was taken away from her 16 years ago.

Born into priv­i­lege, Shalini’s class pro­tects her, her hus­band Riz and their daugh­ter Leila from the grow­ing tur­bu­lence of so­ci­ety around them, even as their in­ter-faith mar­riage rubs deeply against its new mores. That is, un­til one day it doesn’t.

The nar­ra­tive re­volves around Shalini – now pushed to the mar­gins, her hus­band dead – and her search for Leila, the ab­sent daugh­ter who re­mains the cen­tre of her life. It is this search – and Ak­bar’s sen­si­tive and in­sight­ful ex­plo­ration of Shalini’s in­ner psy­cho­log­i­cal world – that gives the story much of its emo­tional heft.

“In my mind I was al­ways clear that Leila is the cen­tre of this story, just as she re­mains the cen­tre of her mother Shalini’s life,” says Ak­bar. “To me there is some­thing very special about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a mother and daugh­ter. They don’t even have to be par­tic­u­larly close but they un­der­stand each other in a deep and pow­er­ful way.”

Ak­bar also clev­erly side­steps the trap of ide­o­log­i­cal speci­ficity, in­stead fo­cus­ing on the in­sti­tu­tional mech­a­nisms that en­able op­pres­sion and the very hu­man fac­tors that fuel it. “One un­de­vel­oped the­ory I have is that ide­ol­ogy is used in pol­i­tics like a coat, or a var­nish, some­thing that gives in­tel­lec­tual le­git­i­macy to a more pri­mal emo­tion – whether that is ha­tred or fear or the de­sire for as­cen­dancy,” he says. “I wanted to deny the coun­cil and the re­peaters the bal­last and le­git­i­macy that ide­ol­ogy of­fers.”

Nor does he give Shalini and Riz – sym­pa­thetic as he is to th­ese char­ac­ters – a free pass on the elitism and in­dif­fer­ence to in­jus­tice that hides be­hind their ap­par­ent cos­mopoli­tanism. When her daugh­ter’s nanny men­tions that their slum hasn’t re­ceived wa­ter in three years, she is dis­mis­sively scep­ti­cal – “they tend to mag­nify their woes, hop­ing for sym­pa­thy, some kind of handout”, she says in book.

“You didn’t un­der­stand the first thing about your own home, your own city,” a doc­tor at The Tow­ers tells her, when she’s brought in for re-ed­u­ca­tion, an in­dict­ment of lib­eral com­pla­cency that stuck with me for days.

“I wanted to cap­ture our own com­plic­ity,” says Ak­bar. “How we as up­per-class In­di­ans qui­etly per­pet­u­ate the mas­sive in­equities that de­fine our so­ci­ety and the ways in which we ab­solve our­selves of guilt about this.”

Ak­bar’s writ­ing is tight and un­re­lent­ing, never let­ting our at­ten­tion drift too far from the twin poles of Shalini’s fear, self-re­crim­i­na­tion and the pain of sep­a­ra­tion – from her daugh­ter, her family, ev­ery­thing that rep­re­sents the il­lu­sion of safety – and her un­flag­ging de­ter­mi­na­tion to find Leila de­spite the odds. Apart from an ex­tended flash­back in the mid­dle, the nar­ra­tive is non-lin­ear, hostage to the whims of Shalini’s mem­ory. The world of “Pu­rity One” emerges in fits and starts, in ser­pen­tine rever­ies in­ter­rupted by bursts of ac­tion. The prose is vis­ually evoca­tive – some­times breath­tak­ingly so – his turn of phrase find­ing the pro­found and the in­sight­ful in every­day sights, sounds and thoughts.

Leila does have a few weak­nesses – snatches of over-writ­ing in the first few chap­ters, a couple of minor nar­ra­tive threads that are never re­ally re­solved – but those are minor quib­bles in what re­mains an ex­cel­lent lit­er­ary de­but.

I wanted to cap­ture our own com­plic­ity. How we as up­per­class In­di­ans qui­etly per­pet­u­ate the mas­sive in­equities that de­fine our so­ci­ety Prayaag Ak­bar Au­thor of Leila

Gian­luca Colla / National Ge­o­graphic / Getty Im­ages; Si­mon and Schus­ter

A slum in Mum­bai. Prayaag Ak­bar, be­low, sets his de­but in the fu­ture city of Pu­rity One, a world of elit­ist gated com­mu­ni­ties, poverty, vig­i­lante thugs and re-ed­u­ca­tion camps, based on present-day In­dian so­ci­ety.

Leila Prayaag Ak­bar Si­mon and Schus­ter, Dh66

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.