In Purity Town: Prayaag Akbar's Leila


Leila: A Novel by Prayaag Akbar is set in the near future in an Indian town (one may call it Purity Town) where the obsession with 'purity,' caste, class, and community has reached its high point. In this town, a mother (Shalini) searches for her daughter (Leila) who was taken away from her, many years ago, because she and her husband refused to succumb to the new divisive and controlling social order.

The narrative of the novel begins in medias res. It oscillates between the present, where Shalini searches desperately for Leila, and the past, as Shalini recounts how she met her husband (Riz), Leila's childhood, and her days at Purity Camp. Woven seamlessly into this story are descriptions of various aspects of Purity Town. These descriptions are puzzle pieces. When one puts them together, they reveal a dystopian world that is perhaps not so different from our own.

A familiar hierarchy

The insignia of the Council that governs the 'walled' town (where each 'sector' is enclosed within walls) in the novel is a pyramid (an "onyx monstrosity" with a white tip). This pyramid structure is reflective of the town's 'eternal' social order that "found the fissures and crannies, pried the city apart like volcanic rock." At the top of the social hierarchy are the small population of rich merchants, factory owners, builders for the British (hints at a form of neocolonialism), and all those who helped raise the new city. These are the privileged flag-bearers of 'purity,' who promote, in the name of ancient culture, the division of the world on the basis of surnames, communities, castes, and creeds.

At the bottom of this structure are the masses: the large population of people residing below the network of flyroads (a network of roads built several feet above the ground), in dilapidated apartment complexes, or in slums at the edges of Purity Town. Among these people are the Slummers who can be found wading through garbage, looking for things to sell. Caste exists alongside class. The upper sections have flyroads so they do not have to see the "impossible filth" below. Despite the filth that covers the streets, the people of the town, ironically, pursue the idea of 'purity' relentlessly. The notion of 'purity' is invoked not just in terms of physical filth but also in association with caste, religion, and gender.

This is a hierarchical arrangement that one is not unfamiliar with, though one may happen to ignore its dystopian dimensions especially in the present-day. It is a hierarchy that determines and is determined by infrastructure, political institutions, and religious and cultural practices in the world of the novel and in our own world. Religion, in the novel, is a significant element in the lives of people. Purity Town is a town of hypocritical man-gods, an idea that is taken from the contemporary Indian political and religious scene.

Women of course, of course women

In all divisive and controlling societies, there is an attempt to control women's sexuality, since to maintain 'purity,' it is imperative that there be no mixing of sectors. Shalini and Riz belong to two different sectors. After their marriage, they move away from their respective home-sectors to settle in a location that is inhabited by those who do not succumb to the social order by choice and by those who are forced to live there because they have been outcasted from their own sectors. Shalini is later sent to Purity Camp, which, in the words of Dr Iyer, is a camp for those women who have 'sacrificed' their purity.

However, the women that Shalini and the readers meet in Purity Camp are not weak and gullible women who may easily give-in to forms of control. In fact, as Dr Iyer himself remarks, they are women who are aware of what they stand against and are ready to bear the consequences of their actions. Shalini says,

These were strange and beautiful women with the courage to slash at every expectation.

Once outside the camp, these women are made to live in crumbling residential complexes located on the outskirts of Purity Town, so they may not pollute the rest, and perform peon duties at various ministries of the Council. Shalini recognizes that there are certain benefits of living at the margins. At the margins, there are no walls and sectors and the social structure can be challenged as there is an intermingling of people from different sectors, people who carry their anger within them.

Forms of control

The Council practices various forms of control to not allow the anger of the masses to manifest itself as any form of revolution. Forms of control are used to keep rebellious (even 'anti-national' tendencies) in check. First and foremost, the Council uses certain agents of control. In the novel, they are referred to as the Repeaters. The Repeaters, as Shalini tells us, are a loose band of armed men in their twenties and thirties, who guard the communities and patrol the walls. They are seen forcefully entering the homes of people and beating them to pulp. Interestingly, nobody knows how closely associated the Repeaters are to the Council but it is an acknowledged fact that they are more important to the Council than they let on.

Besides control through agents, there are more direct, internalized, and effective forms of control that the Council (and governments around the world) practice, some of which Akbar explores with minute observation and impeccable skill. Firstly, there are the ideas routine and work ethic. Shalini says that the Council is determined to instill discipline. Once disciplined to follow a routine, people tend not to waver, tend not to think about anything else besides the timed tasks at hand. Samuel Becket has famously said that "habit is a great deadener." Moreover, a work ethic centered on the idea of exhausting people till all they need is their beds and sleep further negates the possibilities of resistance. Coupled with this is the illusion of security; the government promotes the idea that all citizens are protected by law.

Instilling a sense of guilt is yet another way through which governments control their citizens. The idea of guilt and the ways in which governments exploit it has been explored in the works of writers like Franz Kafka (The Trial) and thinkers like Sigmund Freud (Civilization and its Discontents). Freud, for instance, writes,

Civilization... obtains mastery over the individual's dangerous desire for aggression... by setting up an agency within him [the super-ego that generates a sense of guilt] to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.

In Leila, Shalini feels guilty in marrying Riz and having to undergo rigourous paperwork to do so. She says,

It wasn't against the law, but they made you feel like you'd done something terrible.

Finally, the Council decrees that people must be isolated and live in perpetual fear. It exploits loneliness, not allowing people to connect, building physical and metaphorical walls between them.

Modes of resistance

Perhaps the most important way to resist such control is through thought. There is a reason why the 'crime' of thought and the Thought Police in George Orwell's 1984 are particularly terrifying. In Leila, a inmate of Purity Camp called Sana makes a telling remark regarding the 'liberal' attitude towards women's higher education. She says,

It makes them feel they've been very benevolent to us, to the young women... Look how it used to be. Look what we allow now. They want us in college, but they don't want us to think. That is what's dangerous.

To think is to question, to question is to take the first step towards resistance. An important aspect of thought is memory. In Leila, Shalini refers to remembrance as an alarm, a siren that plies round her head. While at Purity Camp, she says,

That's what all of us were like at Camp. Doing desperate little things so we could remember what was normal.

Remembrance is significantly linked to story-telling. At Purity Camp, women from different walks of life share their stories of love and injustice. Shalini finds herself, night after night, weighed down by these stories that came from every side, demanding submission. This act of connecting beyond the sectors, beyond the assigned identity markers, through the power of words is important and subversive. 

Thought, in the novel, also translates into action. People choose to live outside walled sectors, in wall-less communities; they admit their kids into the few existing 'mixed' schools; people find their ways around the Repeaters, creating fake identity cards to move across sectors; there is political graffiti on the walls that serves as visible signs of protest; there is the news of the Slummers setting fire to trash-mountains in landfills; and there is Shalini's incessant search for Leila.

Have we heard this story before?

The story of Leila seems to be one that we have heard before. This, I believe, is because of two reasons. One, a number of tropes and themes in Leila have been inspired by certain iconic dystopian works including Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Two (and perhaps more importantly), what we witness in the novel is not very far from what we experience in our immediate environment. The novel is so close to our reality, our society.

The novel hits the nail right on the head. It is a warning, a wake-up call, a red flag, a slap-in-the-face. The contemporary relevance of the novel cannot be undermined. It warns against a divided society where the sense of difference (of class, caste, creed, and so on) among people is used by governments to exercise control and even perpetuate hate towards certain groups.

Here, I am thinking of the recent debates surrounding the #NotInMyName campaign in India. The marches and the campaign, initiated by the documentary film-maker Saba Dewan, to protest against the recent instances of communal and caste-based violence in India, received criticism for being Brahminical in its inception. A number of responses to this criticism popped up on the inter-webs. In an article titled "Is #NotInMyName All Equal to Brahminism?", published on Raiot, Trevor Jeyaraj makes an excellent case for the campaign as an effort to come together even as the contradictions among people remain unsettled. Jeyaraj writes,

If we do not stop whatever is possible, that dreadful day is not far when a Dalit who is a Hindu will start lynching a fellow Dalit Muslim because the former was more Hindu than he was a Dalit and the latter was Muslim First and thus a lesser Dalit in the former’s eyes.

This is perhaps exactly what Prayaag Akbar's Leila, like its more popular and critically acclaimed contemporary work Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is trying to tell us.
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Leila: A Novel by Prayaag Akbar, published by Simon & Schuster India, 2017.

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