Leila: A Novel
Author: Prayaag Akbar
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
It is not often that one encounters an Indian novelist who writes excellent English and whose chosen subject is exciting as well as intriguing, and that can be said about the present novel of fiction whose author has an impeccable writing background, with a father, M J Akbar, himself a one-time journalist and editor, and now a well-known politician.
One presumes that the subject is set in the future, a near-disastrous one, and yet, there is a mood of “déjà vu” throughout the chapters. Have we not experienced all the events in our own lifetimes? Hasn’t the country, its customs, its secularist culture changed before our very eyes? Castes, religions, untouchables (now called Dalits), didn’t they always exist? So why is one stunned while encountering real life incidents written so graphically by an author who obviously knows what he is describing.
Shalini, the first-person narrator, is obviously a Hindu from a “good” family, but then she falls in love with Riz, of another faith to which she needs must convert to marry her young lover. There is resentment in the community, but they live with it. There are so many other problems to face.
There are high-rise walls everywhere and communities live in these gated homes according to their caste, religion and income. They have gardens and tennis courts and swimming pools, but if you do not “belong” then you cannot enter except to sweep and clean these lovely homes for these lovely people.
Shalini and Riz have a beautiful child, Leila, who disappeared at the age of three during a violent demonstration arranged by goons who are now in power. Riz too, disappears forever and Shalini is now alone to search desperately for her child in her new poverty-stricken life, so different from the earlier one.
Does she finally find Leila? Can we know for sure? There is something dreadfully familiar about the happenings. Are they really part of the future? Are all these terrifying routines not part of our present-day existence? There is something so eerily “déjà vu” about Akbar’s translations of present-day events that have become so regular that we almost take them for granted, shaking our heads, hurting a little and then moving on.
The writer is diplomatic, and never mentions either community, religion or political entities, but it does not take too much thought to recognise actual and painful parallel lives. And yet one is shaken by the words even though they describe daily familiarities.
One must admit, however, the ending, to this reviewer, was too Indian filmi. Was it really a happy ending? Does it elicit tears but with a pained smile? That’s only one reviewer’s opinion, however. The book is well worth a read.