This is a review of the Book by Prayaag Akbar, and NOT the Netflix series. There are no spoilers in this review.
Leila is set in the not too distant future, when the social fracturing and economic inequality in Indian society leads to a nation divided into cloisters based on linguistic and caste identity. A grassroots leader who claims to be representing the interests of the socially disadvantaged vaults into power, at the head of a sweeping political movement. A brutish army of “repeaters” — a epithet earned by their tendency to chant slogans and parade — enforces the movement’s moral and social code. The nation is in decline, clean air, potable water, and security are at a premium. Climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure make life a challenge for all but the most privileged.
Shalini, the protagonist, grows up in a prosperous household that sees its fortunes decline as the traditional structures of privilege are eroded by rising economic inequality, social fracturing, and climate change. She marries her high school sweetheart - a Muslim - and together, they move to a neighbourhood where cosmopolitan intercultural couples like them lead a life that seems insulated from the turmoil outside.
On the evening of a party hosted by them, a group of repeaters attack their home, kill her husband, and send Shalini to a re-education camp. Their daughter goes missing. The novel, set sixteen years from the party, follows Shalini’s efforts to locate her child with the back-story revealed in non-linear flashbacks.
As the father of an intercultural child and someone who is concerned about inequality and climate change, this novel fuelled my private anxieties about India’s future. Akbar has concocted a compelling tale that could be considered the average-case outcome of current-day events. This novel is a thought-provoking read for anyone who is unsure about the long-term outcome of our direction as a nation.
As a novel though, Leila is a bit rough at the edges. It feels as if Akbar wrote this book in the last three weeks of a twelve-month deadline and sent his second draft to press. Given the complexity of the themes in this book, Akbar had a choice to make this book about a quest, a tale of personal misfortune, or a social commentary. He tries to do all three, and ends up with a hodgepodge that is part Die Hard, part Animal Farm, and part Nineteen Eighty Four. Two thirds into the book, a weak plot twist breaks the suspense and the ending is totally predictable.
Regardless of its technical deficiencies, Leila remains an important commentary on inequality, class, and climate change in the Indian context.