Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2018

Leila, by Prayaag Akbar

The blurb for this novel likens it to an Indian Handmaid’s Tale:

Leila does for the barbarity of contemporary Indian nationalism what The Handmaid’s Tale did for the yoke of patriarchy. It is urgent, gripping, topical, disturbing, and announces a talent we’ll be talking about for years to come. – Neel Mukherjee

But I think this novel has greater currency than that.  A novel which explores the development of gated communities to keep out The Other has its origins in Apartheid South Africa, in the White Australia Policy, and in contemporary refugee ‘management’.  At the domestic level there is the emergence of gated estates in wealthy western nations.  All those apartments with keycodes for the front door and burglar alarms on ordinary suburban houses.  Electric operated gates that only an owner can open.  All these are intimations of an obsession with security and a fear of Outsiders.  And as Leila shows, while the novels segregates its walled communities by religious disposition, it’s as much about protecting possessions (including women) as it is about maintaining ‘purity’.

The story begins with Shalini performing a ritual in remembrance of her daughter Leila who was ‘taken’ sixteen years ago when she was three. Gradually the reader realises that the husband beside her is dead, and that Shalini is surviving on memories.  But despite her ostensible cooperation with the rules of ‘Purity One’ , Shalini is a determined woman and she fervently believes that she will be reunited with Leila soon.

The walls that surround The Towers are explained.  Purity Towers is a high-rise of solitary widows sedated into submission and where no children are allowed.  The rules are enforced by ‘wardens’ who are really spies looking for any evidence of non-conformity.  Shalini is 43 now, and she was brought there against her will when she was 28.  Her city has been segregated into sub-groups, separated by massive walls and armed guards at the gates through which workers from the Slums pass in and out, submitting to intrusive ID checks, strip searching and a change of clean clothing on their way.  Within, everyone has the same religion. Busybodies poke through Hindu garbage for bones which would indicate the eating of meat.  This is a dystopia of extreme intolerance and an apartheid built on diversity not of skin colour.

Through flashbacks intersecting with the present, the story tells of Shalini and Riz, who married despite their parents’ mild reservations because she was Hindu and he was Muslim.  The walls were emerging then, and so the young couple moved to a liberal area called the East End where women could dress as they pleased in jeans and T-shirts, and they could party to western music and entertain their guests with a diversity of cuisine—and alcohol too, if they wanted it.  But it is not Riz who (as Shalini’s mother had warned) becomes more religious as time goes by, but his brother, Naz, who transforms from a cheeky, rebellious teenager into a man whose wife must wear an abaya and hijab.  And besides the religious scruples which make Naz condemn his brother’s lifestyle, he also has a monetary motive to cause trouble: Riz as the elder brother stands to inherit the family wealth.

But while the reader’s sympathies always remain with the bereft Shalini, the author does not overlook her complicity in the greed which has warped her society.  In the summer when the heat is in the middle 50s, it finally dawns on her that her servants have no relief from the stifling air and relentless heat.  She learns, eventually, that the SkyDome which allows its residents to live in air-conditioned comfort blasts hot air across the slum areas, starting uncontrollable fires.  She realises that in her comfortable East End home, where they had embraced all the mod cons of modern life, they had not thought to introduce modern cleaning tools for her servants who still had to scrub the floor on their hands and knees.  And in shame, she remembers the occasions when she had bullied Leila’s nanny Sapna because she could.  She had power because she had wealth, and Sapna had neither.

The real reason for the walls, the voice of the long-dead Riz tells her, is greed:

‘Anyone who can afford it hides behind walls.  They think they’re doing it for security, for purity, but somewhere inside it’s shame, shame at their own greed.  That’s why they’re always secluding themselves, going higher and higher.  They don’t want to see what’s on the ground.  They don’t want to see who lives here.’ (p.244)

Leila is a novel that invites its readers to think about class, privilege, and sustainable living, not just in an India emerging as a economic, industrial and technical powerhouse, but in the rest of the world as well.

Goodreads tells me that the book has been optioned as a ‘Netflix original’.  I hope it’s going to be possible to see it without subscribing!

Author: Prayaag Akbar
Title: Leila
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2018, 263 pages, hbk.
ISBN: 9780571341313 RRP $24.99 AUD
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: Leila

 


Responses

  1. Sounds well worth reading Lisa. A book about gated communities that made a big impression on me, and that has lasted though I last read it nearly 25 years ago is T Coraghessan Boyle’s The tortilla curtain. I read it in the US and then encouraged my reading group to read it which they did. This one, though, sounds a bit more dystopian like A handmaid’s tale is.

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    • I just looked that up at Goodreads and it says it was published in 1995 – so that is a long time ago, I didn’t realise America had gated communities back then because they are a comparatively new phenomenon in Australia.

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      • Yes, they had some very near where we lived in Southern California – and we were there from 1990 to 1993. You know Australia – we follow the US, but about 10 or so years behind!!

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  2. ENJOYED THE BOOK AND THE COVER, SO ALONE IS PERFECT, CHINA

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    • Yes… actually the cover reminded me of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, so until the book revealed otherwise, I was thinking along the same lines for the child’s disappearance.

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  3. Sue has beaten me to it. I was going to mention Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain which is a superb look at all kinds of issues including the vast differences between the haves and the have nots.

    Dare I mention I live on a gated estate? The gates were added about 10 years ago to prevent non-residents coming in to walk their dogs that would poo everywhere and not get cleaned up, but there were other more serious incidents (a mugging, some burglaries & vandalised cars). Access is only denied during the hours of darkness and all day Sunday.

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    • Yes, I can see that it’s not a simple issue to resolve. I got a shock when I drove out through Glenroy and saw all the cars on their suburban windows, and since it’s not a wealthy area, it could only mean that they were stealing from each other. What keeps us safe where I live is that we all know each other, by sight and often by name. But I think that will change as McMansions start to take over and the fortress mentality takes over.

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      • The problem is when suburban residents replace their picket fences with giant brick walls… suddenly the whole character of a street changes and becomes very forbidding and ugly.

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        • Interestingly Canberra has a rule forbidding front fences, so we don’t have picket fences or brick walls at the front of our houses – though hedges are allowed. Our house is on the bend of a crescent so our backyard would be open to the street like a front yard. We have not fence at the front, but the original owners got permission to install a brush fence to provide a private back yard.

          Apartment or townhouse complexes might have walls/tall fences but not homes.

          Canberra was also known for schools not having fences – but that’s changed a bit now for safety reasons though I think they are not standard.

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  4. Our local council enforces friendship among neighbours by an obligatory drop in the height of the side fences at the front of the block.

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  5. I think it’s interesting that it’s not just the West looking forward to a not too distant dystopian future. And in India (as depicted here) as in the West a major part of the problem is the rise in religious fundamentalism.

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  6. I bought this when I was in India earlier this year – haven’t got round to reading it yet but will bump it up the list.

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  7. […] Prayaag Akbar: Leila (Simon & Schuster, India) See my review […]

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