Interview Lit for Life

Love and other jihads: Prayaag Akbar talks about his novel, 'Leila'

Prayaag Akbar believes that his experience of growing up as a religious minority in Delhi shaped Leila

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel, Leila, is set in a near-future Indian city, with elements of both Delhi and Mumbai, in which cosmopolitanism has yielded to an extreme form of tribalism in which people live in caste or religious ghettoes, and are forced to rigidly follow the rules of their community. Shalini, the novel’s narrator, is devoted to the city’s lost cosmopolitanism, and commits the ultimate crime of marrying a Muslim man. The consequences of her rebellion are appalling: her husband is murdered, and her daughter, Leila, kidnapped. The novel follows Shalini’s quest for Leila, in a city where individuality, love, and the pursuit of happiness are despised. Excerpts from an email interview.

A number of reviewers have cited Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a likely influence on Leila. Was The Handmaid’s Tale a significant influence, and what other books or writers influenced Leila?

I am a great admirer of Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale, but to me there are important differences in the approach and effect of the books. Shalini searches for Leila in a very different context, one that is shaped by a number of the most urgent concerns of Indian society. Atwood explores a gendered dystopia, something I would not presume to write. While Shalini suffers a great deal of gendered violence, there are different forces creating her world. There are many writers I read very closely, but J.M. Coetzee has to be up there. You learn something about writing from almost every page with him, but specific to my efforts with Leila, I learnt a lot about building a world in the background, with this glimmer of grim human spirit, from books like The Master of Petersburg, Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians.

 

I read Leila as opposing two visions of India: one in which free individuals are allowed to shape their own lives versus one ruled by what Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls “the tyranny of compulsory identities”. What in Indian politics and society provoked your own dystopian vision?

I’m very glad you see it this way. To my mind, in India we are constantly told who we are. It doesn’t really matter whether we feel this or that or any other. I suppose my experience growing up as a — relatively deracinated — religious minority in Delhi brought this home quite sharply. Much later I began to think what that meant for society. Why it was so important for us to ascribe these minute identities of caste and subcaste to each other. When I started out as a reporter, I’d often take long train journeys, and I began to play a game with whomever had the sleeper opposite me, where I would not reveal my last name for as long as possible. It was amusing and instructive — and more than worrying — to see the kind of discomfort it would generate.

Leila is a relatively rare example in modern Indian fiction of a male writer using a first-person female narrative voice, and it is a story of maternal love and longing. What came first — Shalini — her character and her story — or the dystopian city?

Since my first encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills I have wanted to write a novel like it. That book gave me a sense that a male writer could write absolutely effectively in a woman’s voice, a mother’s voice. I felt that very strongly. I wonder if women agree.

Leila began with Shalini and her daughter. The dystopic elements came later. It took a great deal of effort to get Shalini to sound true, and I was glad to have an excellent editor, who managed to find each instance where I strayed, or a kind of masculinity entered, some male notion of what being a woman is like.

Leila came out in April 2017 and was presumably finished in 2016. If they lived in India in 2017, Shalini and Riz, your novel’s central couple, would be accused of “love jihad”.

Are events on the ground making Leila look more like realism than speculative fiction? The Hindu Yuva Vahini, for instance, are a lot like the novel’s Repeaters.

The story became sharper and more potent as my anger grew from reading the continuing reports of social violence that has been enabled by the BJP’s rise to power. It’s interesting, because the societal divisions, the atomisation that I write about, is a longstanding problem of Indian society. It is the communitarian violence that always seems to be ramped up, and as I tried to show in the novel, it is directly linked to the philosophical rhetoric of those in charge.

You’ve written this novel after a decade or more as a full-time journalist. How do you think journalism has prepared you for, or informed your fiction writing? And how do you plan to balance these two distinct writing careers in the future? I’m far from the only reader to hope Leila isn’t a one-off.

I travelled a fair bit in my time as a reporter, and journalism opened India up to me in a way I don’t think many professions could. It also taught me to write directly, to try to grip the reader’s attention with each thought. I do hope to be able to continue with journalism and write fiction. I enjoy working on other people’s copy. It helps me see what works and what doesn’t when I am writing.

The interviewer is a writer based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 12:02:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/love-and-other-jihads-prayaag-akbar-talks-about-his-novel-leila/article22382409.ece

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