Arts Illustrated

September 1, 2020

Beyond the Wall

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila forces us to recognise the walls we’ve built, both in our minds and in our societies, and ask ourselves honest questions about why we guard them so tenaciously.

Poonam Ganglani

The first time I came across Leila, I hesitated. It was at a literature festival in Bhutan in 2017, by which time I’d lived away from India for nearly seven years. The book was on sale after a talk by Prayaag Akbar. It stared at me from a wooden table beneath a tent, the sturdy black walls on its bright orange jacket foreboding, and vigilant of the two figures walking past. I picked it up, unwrapped it, and ran my thumb down the gold foil on the spine. I turned its pages and inhaled the woody scent of ink on paper. And then… I put it back down. Not yet, friend, not yet. I had the distinct sense that the time hadn’t quite come yet for me to read the book.

Leila found me again some time ago. By then, I’d moved back to India, experiencing it from the inside but with the fresh residue of an outsider’s eye. There was, it seemed to me, a new, mutating type of democracy in the country, a more entitled sense of street justice. Expressions of dissent were still ubiquitous, but now somewhat tethered to caution. I sensed it in conversations with friends, in news reports, in my own heightened awareness. Perhaps these things had always existed and had merely reached a certain point of conflagration; maybe my time away had also caused my own sensitivity to flare.

Prayaag Akbar, Leila.
Prayaag Akbar, Leila. First Published April 17th 2017 by Simon & Schuster India. ISBN-10: 978-9386797305 ISBN-13: 978-9386797308.

But when Leila and I did cross paths the second time around, my observations felt sharply aligned with the universe between its covers. There were traces I recognised in the all-pervasive Council, with its thuggish Repeaters for eyes, ears and fists. The sector walls, preserving the higher rungs of society while casting aside the scavengers and misfits, seemed to give physical form to an increasingly intolerant perspective. A rigorous idea of purity gripping society and like a claw, prying it further and further apart, didn’t seem like such a remote reality.

It is within this frighteningly familiar universe that Akbar tells the story of Shalini, a social anomaly, a weed that has to be clipped for having made refractory choices in love, marriage and value systems. She is, eventually, one heartbreaking night, wrenched away from her three-year-old daughter Leila and her husband Riz by a gang of Repeaters. She is sent first to Purity Camp and later to the Towers, a dumping ground for outcasts. Over sixteen years she festers there, propelled only by the ghosts of memory and her undeterred quest for Leila. Recounting her past as she reaches a pivotal point in her search, Shalini often struggles to both resist and come to terms with her world.

‘One part of our brain is forever building things like cars and planes and letters and phones, things that pull us together, while another part of our brain – the safety-first part, the part that keeps us alive – that is trying its best to keep us apart,’ says Shalini, who confronts some harsh truths about her own outlook along the way. ‘It’s telling us we’re too close to one another, the world outside is too complex, too frightening… We need to break into groups or our brains will freeze from fear. We haven’t changed. We still think like animals.’

It is this complex female protagonist and her dizzying experiences of love, loss, resignation and hope that Akbar inhabits in Leila. He does it with a honed skill, patiently uncovering the edges of Shalini’s character, pulling us into the deep eddies of her emotions, all the while capturing the nuances of the female psyche in beautiful, sensory prose. ‘I wanted to write a story about a mother and a daughter,’ says Akbar, when I ask about his choice to take on a female narrative voice for his debut novel. ‘There’s something very special about that relationship.’ In the course of writing the novel, Akbar had several conversations with his mother about her relationship with his sister, something he was envious of growing up. ‘A mother and a daughter understand each other even at the peak of their fighting and the relationship matures in such an interesting way. It’s a very deep bond.’ The rupturing of that bond and the consequences that follow are what Akbar chose to explore. ‘How does someone recover from that? What keeps them living through that kind of trauma? That, for me, was the hold of the story.’

The social and political dimensions of Leila, rather than consuming the narrative, interact with the central human story to steer and shape it. ‘I was interested in writing about overarching political forces and their impact on personal lives,’ says Akbar, who wrote Leila over five years, during which time events taking place around him left an  imprint. ‘When I was with Scroll, there was an incident where a reporter was attacked by a mob and that really shook me. So the novel is not about a particular ideology, but about a kind of political action, a vigilante action that is becoming increasingly legitimised in India.’

While Leila is rooted in an Indian context, its message clearly has global resonance, with a UK edition published in July 2018. To these times of growing insecurity, tightening boundaries and displacement in many parts of the world, Leila feels a fitting and aesthetic response. As Shalini puts it, ‘Anyone who can afford it hides behind walls. They think they’re doing it for security, for purity, but somewhere inside it is shame at their own greed. How they’ve made the rest of us live. That’s why they’re always secluding themselves, going higher and higher. They don’t want to see what’s on the ground.’

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