After successfully avoiding the curse of the second novel that impressive debutant novelists dread, the only question that journalist Manu Joseph’s third novel had to answer was something that haunts a batsman in top form. Will the law of averages finally catch up? No, it hasn’t. Joseph’s Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous further establishes him as one of most engaging storytellers and insightful interpreters of our times. With the rigour of lean and unsentimental prose, the novel weaves a gripping tale set in contemporary India and echoes all the key whispers and screams that mark country’s conversations with itself.
For a novel having ambitions of a thriller, running along parallel strands of understated satire, Miss Laila is economical in having just the right number of well-etched characters. Joseph resists the lure of overpopulating the plot, and that helps the narrative with characters which either strike an instant chord or get room to grow on you. They include a quirky student of neurosurgery Akhila Iyer, who not only revolts against the memories of her left-wing activist mother but also plays pranks, in form of short films (talking to a gathering called ‘Stand-Up Anthropology’), to expose the hypocrisy and chinks in arguments of all shades of political opinion and activism- right to left. The other key character is, obviously, Laila, a 19-year-old girl from the Mumbra suburb of Mumbai, who is an unsuspecting target of a chain of chilling events planned by the State.
In an apparent departure from his two earlier novels, Joseph opts for two women as lead characters in his third one – a task he executes with remarkable aplomb. That doesn’t rule out space for finely crafted male characters like Mukundan, a low ranking officer in the Intelligence Bureau. He not only gives a peep into a particular type of male thought but also holds the strings of much of the developments in the novel lying buried under the debris of a collapsed building in Mumbai.
It is, however, right-wing patriarch Professor Vaidya who evolves in the course of the novel to take a neutral look at developments, and, in moments of reflection, comes up with a cultural review of Akhila’s pranks. He grows closer to Akhila’s worldview. His view of activism, developed over decades, is one of the dense but striking parts of the book. Delivering a lecture in Delhi, the Professor says:
“Activism is always a feudal system in which nobodies are in the care of somebodies. It begins in a special moment when the elite of a system become the underclass in another system. When the elite of a system become the underclass in another system, they search for a moral cause to restore balance of power. This is popularly known as activism… Activism is always a retaliation of the elite, always couched in morals and always a feudal system where the strong employ the weak, the poor, the demented, the suicidal, the semi-literate and other losers of the society.”
Its contemporary time frame and themes entail that Miss Laila also has a few thinly disguised characters that are easily identifiable in your daily consumption of news. So you have Damodarbhai, Black Beard, AK and P Sathya to exercise your imagination and chuckle at the wit and insight with which they have been portrayed.
Carrying on his gift for conveying the sense of family, even a dysfunctional one, through child characters (as he did with Thoma Chacko in The Illicit Happiness of Other People), Joseph puts Laila’s younger sister Aisa to great narrative use- mirroring the fragilities and resilience of her family as seen through Aisa’s anxieties, small joys and hope.
What, however, is most innovative about Miss Laila is the use of pranks as a literary device. Akhila satirises the Right’s eccentricities with her prank-film White Beard. Then, the improbability (even impossibility) of men devoid of experience of the female body talking about women’s thought processes and causes is depicted through How Feminist Men Have Sex. The fault lines of Arundhati Roy’s brand of left-wing rhetoric are shown through The Most Expensive House in the World. Akhila takes potshots at the assumptions of distress journalism and false diagnosis of farmers’ suicides in her film Nobel Series and targets the Irom Sharmila school of activism in The Longest Hunger Strike in the world. The prank-dripped satire complements the narrative, and for the most part, the novel is a breezy read sprinkled as it is with mini-chapters of even two pages.
The significance of the book’s title only sets in when after a page-turning journey towards the end one discovers the fate of Laila – coming to haunt public memory with a traumatic, though contentious, recollection of the State’s violent ways of dealing with lives who were just hoping to return home next day. Without saying much, the novel positions Laila as the target of a poorly executed and state-administered violent prank. That leaves Mukundan with the yearning and hope of revealing it when pranksters are not that powerful. In doing so, he hints at the strategy for finding out all the pranks that define the republic.
In 2006, in the afterglow of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago, V S Naipaul said that novels had outlived their utility and were likely to be replaced by cinema as a powerful form of storytelling. He perhaps didn’t anticipate writers like Manu Joseph, who can illuminate both worlds and combine fine storytelling with riveting stuff for screen adaptations. Miss Laila, like Joseph’s earlier works, is destined to be adapted into a cinematic version. While how much of his perceptive world and insightful observations can find a cinematic expression remains to be seen, Miss Laila will certainly find a mention whenever one talks of a fictional chronicling of contemporary India – its anxieties, eccentricities, violence, possibilities and secret thoughts.