You all have to imagine that there are Bharatnatyam dancers here who have finished dancing so now we will light the lamp, says Nisha Susan, editor and founder of The Ladies Finger. The cameras start going off, making Susan cover her face with the book. The man in a blue shirt next to her laughs through his beard but recovers enough to hold his copy of the book up firmly and smile correctly. This is the Mumbai-based journalist Prayaag Akbar. He and Susan tear the covers off to show us the novel.
We are here for the launch of Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel, Leila. It is a Friday evening, but Crossword bookshop in Mantri Mall is a ghost town all by itself. It isn’t easy to locate, and even the occasional signs that read ‘bookshops on third floor’ are absent. Inside, the cashier has no idea there is a book-launch happening and seems to discover this only when asked for directions.
A huge yellow board reading Crossword stands timidly in the small square assigned for the launch. Rows of white chairs have been set up in two columns between shelves selling Shankar Nag DVDs and water bottles.
This desolation begins to grow when an emcee materialises and aimlessly walks around with a mic, repeating over and over that the book launch will begin in 5 minutes. Having scanned the blurb, he has decided that the book must be women-oriented, and inevitably ‘feminism’ becomes the theme of the evening. He begins asking questions about women achievers. Anybody who gives correct answers will be given chocolates.
Soon, the woman who had said Pratibha Patil discovers that there is always fine print behind such offers. She is called onto the first row along with her family, where they sit uncomfortably with their shopping bags and chocolates, thereby doubling the audience. In exactly seven minutes, they will leave.
A very old man in a fluorescent T-shirt and khaki shorts walks in holding a helmet under his arm. His calves are sculpted and thin green lines shoot downwards. All heads turn. He is introduced to Nisha Susan and Prayaag Akbar as the athlete ‘who came cycling all the way to Malleswaram for the launch’
Susan says she has never felt worse about herself, and for the rest of the evening, I stare at my fat calves recollecting cycling cramps from years ago.
Susan points to the blurb at the back of the book and observes that sometimes we don’t know what a book is about when we read the blurb. And many reviews have declared that Leila is a dystopian novel.
But the book is set right amongst us, she says.
Leila is set in a digitized city where walls divide communities and patrolling officers who are called The Repeaters enforce law and order. Even the schools in this world are bought by individual communities. And here is Shalini, in search of her long lost daughter, Leila. The walls are built high. They not only divide, but maintain purity because communities aren’t allowed to mix with one another.
This is not imagined and neither is it set entirely in the present. As writer Trisha Gupta’s review of the book points out, ‘The most terrifying futures are the ones contained in the present.’
So how did Akbar decide what and how much he wanted to add to the horrors that already exist? Not much, apparently. The walls in Leila are figurative. There are walls here in the real world as well. And he wrote about this because he wanted to write about things that bother him..
Susan recalls her days as a young reporter in Delhi, where she once had to write about the ban on street vendors. For you and me, it was just ok no Bhel puri anymore but there was a whole population of labourers who not only had to travel hours to get to work but now couldn’t afford cheap street food anymore. In a sense, it’s like sci-fi and also not. They couldn’t afford food or rent so they couldn’t stay in the city and had to be shipped in and out of the city for work. There is an odd power that architectures of the city have over its people and the walls in the book have the same power.
Susan mentions a review of Leila she’d read in which the fact that various communities in the book have their own names (Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Kodava Martials, and Catholic Commons) was likened to the names of IPL teams. She adds that they are happily cut off from everyone and that often characters in the book seemed happy with the situation.
Akbar proudly declares that he cheers for Delhi Daredevils even though he lives in Mumbai– making the audience guffaw.
The last question Susan asks makes her smile mischievously. In this world, what does the media do? She mutters something about occupational hazards and the cyclist smiles even more mischievously.
In his first draft, he put in a couple of TV journalists but decided to remove them completely because they seemed too much like caricature.
The session ended with questions from the audience: did social media have any role in the book and, soon enough, why did Akbar move from journalism to fiction.
The highlight of the evening was a little girl who dealt with the emcee single-handedly. Which famous boxer did Priyanka Chopra play in a 2014 film? The mic was thrust into her face and she stared blankly for a long time. The emcee decided to help her – the name is related to Jesus Christ. She said Mary Christmas and ran away.