Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel ‘Leila’ was adapted into a Netflix series by Deepa Mehta. Starring Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna, and Sanjay Suri, among others, the series has six episodes and ends on a cliffhanger. I believe you should always read the book first and then watch its film or TV adaptation but, invariably, there are times I do the opposite. And I always regret it. Leila, the book is better than Leila, the series. The series is a little dramatized while the story in the book feels raw and real. Akbar writes well. It’s easy to conjure up scenes in your head.
Essentially a story about a mother looking for her missing daughter, Leila is set in a dystopian world—a world that seems likely in the near future. It’s unsettling because of its plausibility. The world is divided into ‘sectors’, according to religion in order to maintain ‘purity’. Protected by walls and guarded by Repeaters (young men given the authority to enforce random rules to keep separate people according to race, class, and religion), people need permission to enter these sectors. Anyone who doesn’t follow strict rules is harshly punished.
At the start of the novel, we see Shalini, the novel’s narrator, and her husband Rizwan, gearing up to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. Next thing we know, Shalini is in a ‘purity camp’—a place meant for women who don’t follow the rules. She’s lost her husband (he’s beaten brutally and probably killed) and her daughter (she vanishes along with her nanny, Sapna). From the camp, she’s sent to live in the Towers outside the city. As broken as her spirit might be, she’s determined to search for her daughter and 16 years on, she’s relentless in her pursuit.
Leila is a great commentary on how class and religion divide us. It’s a reminder of our bleak future if we continue to let traditional social constructs determine our actions. The book is also a heartfelt portrayal of maternal love, of the lengths a mother will go to care for and protect her child. Shalini, Akbar’s heroine, could be anyone of us. She’s not courageous or noble. She’s as good or bad as her circumstances. One minute you find yourself hating her for being so stubborn and then loving her the next as you see she’s trying and failing and yet not giving up.
Those who read and love dystopian stories will perhaps get a sense of déjà vu. It’s oddly reminiscent of the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. But Leila is dark and disturbing (and thus you are hooked) because it’s easy to imagine a future where things are happening exactly as described in the book.