This, it would seem, is the perfect age for dystopia. As the world careens headlong into the horrors of climate change and rising fascism, as the deep-rooted violence of patriarchy is slowly laid bare, as hate and fear-mongering increasingly become the language of politics, dystopian fiction seems particularly suited to make sense of our times. Dystopian literature has long been an effective way of exploring the messes we humans are so good at creating. It takes the worst of society’s very present, very real inclinations and takes them to their extreme logical conclusion, heightening society’s ills to a point where they can no longer be ignored. Indian author Prayaag Akbar joins the ranks of sharp, devastating narratives with his debut Leila that explores a future where humanity is at the mercy of social divide.
Most conversations about the genre of science fiction and fantasy (SFF), or speculative fiction — within which falls the subgenre of dystopian (and its converse, utopian fiction) —tend to be West-centric, ignoring the rich and diverse traditions in the rest of the world. South Asia has had a long tradition of SFF writing, even if it wasn’t always explicitly categorised as such. Apart from the fantastical jinn and pari filled dastaans in our oral tradition, from the mid-19th century onward there has also existed a tradition of SFF novels and short stories in Urdu, Bengali, Tamil and other vernaculars. In the smaller subgenre of dystopian and utopian fiction, South Asia has produced remarkable works; RokeyaSakhawat Hossain, for instance, was a Bengali sci-fi writer whose English-language short story Sultana’s Dream (1905) and Bengali-language novella Padmarag (1924) are masterful narratives of feminist utopias. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, one of the best Urdu humourists of the 20th century, dabbled in speculative fiction with his satirical Bees Sau Gyarah (1950) set in the then-distant nightmarish future of 2011. More recently, Bina Shah set her novel Before She Sleeps in a futuristic South West Asian city where women have no rights over their own reproductive systems. Akbar’s Leila is a worthy addition to this set, creating a world which is not only horrifying, but horrifyingly plausible.
Leila tells the story of Shalini, a once-wealthy woman who is now at the bottom of the political and social hierarchy of a digitised, heavily surveilled city ruled by the faceless, autocratic Council. The Council has segregated the city’s population into sectors separated by 60-foot walls and connected to each other by “skyroads.” This segregation — based on class, caste and religion — means each enclave has its own rules and rituals of marriages, births, deaths and eating. In order to avoid “impurity”, sectors even privatise their air by enclosing themselves within large air-conditioned domes. Failure of residents to abide by the orders of “purity” results in being sent to a prison, called the Tower, for “purity training.”
When the novel begins, Shalini is in the Tower, taken away from her husband Riz and three-year-old daughter Leila because they refused to live in a walled sector, choosing to make their home in the East End, the only remaining unwalled and “free” neighbourhood. But soon the Council gains more power and its militarised forces overrun East End, punishing its residents for failing to live in the sectors assigned to them according to their religious and caste identities. Forced into servitude to atone for her “sin” of not complying with the Council’s rules of purity, Shalini has been biding her time for 16 years, trying to break through the barriers thrown up by the city and find her daughter. Interspersed with the present day are Shalini’s memories of growing up in a city which is becoming increasingly preoccupied with notions of order and purity. Through Shalini’s position as a wealthy, privileged woman in the old order, we see how the city began to rely more and more on the idea of caste and religious purity, as economic crises become the trigger for social and political violence that propelled the city into sectarian authoritarianism. For instance, the Council uses the growing water crisis in the city as justification for its call for separate walled sectors for each religious and caste community, and the city’s residents gravitate to the seeming order and clarity in the Council’s plans, even as it increases inter-religious and inter-caste hostilities.
The most effective dystopian narratives are those that build their worlds on specific aspects of whatever society they are interested in engaging with, and Akbar builds his world with great skill and insight. The main premise of his novel is the physical segregation of the city; it is easy to trace the roots of this to the housing segregation widespread in many Indian cities. However, it is startling and disconcerting to see how easily it parallels greater contemporary South Asia, including Pakistan: water shortages, for example, are used to aggravate already simmering sectarian divisions. Reading of enclaves for the privileged, while the already marginalised are pushed even further into spaces between the walls, one can’t help but think of walled communities here in Pakistan that promise tidy gardens, roads and schools while slums continue to expand outside them.
The juxtaposition of Shalini’s past and present explores her relationship to, and even complicity with, this new world order. She has memories of her own conduct that served to reinforce caste and class divisions, despite her otherwise progressive politics and her opposition to the ideology of the Council: she makes her daughter’s ayah — a lower-caste woman — sit on the floor instead of the furniture and use separate cutlery and glasses and, while the city experiences a severe water crisis, the privileged Shalini plans a birthday party for Leila around an artificial pool, using her family’s wealth and her class privilege to disregard the needs of the larger city. It is through this concurrence that the reader, slowly and subtly, realises that the difference between Shalini’s and the Council’s actions is merely of scale: the Council is reinforcing, at large, ideas of social division that are already ingrained in many of us.
An especially affecting moment is when Shalini’s search for Leila leads her to a rubbish covered slum that exists alongside the walled sectors. These spaces are where the most marginalised live and picking garbage is the only source of income allowed. As she talks to two women who explain how the air-conditioning dome of the adjacent walled sector set fire to their slum, Shalini is forced to reckon with her own privilege, even under this new order. One woman tells her, “The Tower is where they put high-borns. The people who broke their rules. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilet, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.”
The society Akbar portrays in Leila is, in many ways, a mirror to the one in which we live. His prose is engaging, the narrative tension of Shalini’s increasingly desperate attempts to reunite with her daughter keeps the reader in its thrall. But it is his astute look into contemporary South Asian society’s worst impulses that makes Leila a truly groundbreaking entry into the dystopian genre.
Faber and Faber, US