What Prayaag Akbar’s Leila Says About the Caste-Illiterate Upper Class

Pop Culture

What Prayaag Akbar’s Leila Says About the Caste-Illiterate Upper Class

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Almost a month before the release of Netflix’s Leila, Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old MD student from Mumbai committed suicide. A government-appointed panel says that Tadvi was ragged and not discriminated against because of her caste, but horror stories have emerged of how she was harassed because she belonged to an Adivasi community.

Based on Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous novel, Leila begins with Shalini, a mother lighting a candle in the memory of her daughter who was separated from her 16 years ago. Though it is set in the future, the complications of Leila responds to the current times, which seamlessly dissolves Shalini’s agony and Tadvi’s suffering. Despite the differing position they occupy in the ladders of social heirarchy, they’re tied together by the oppression they face: while the former gradually experiences discrimination, the latter most likely lived with it since birth. Even though the story centers around a mother’s search for her missing daughter, what it really focuses on is eking out the grim, yet honest map of a country that has cut itself into pieces. It is a map traced by our everyday prejudice, a map that Akbar believes, mow exists to a point beyond denial. Leila’s world is here in the vacuum left by each breath Payal Tadvi could not take.

Leila follows Shalini, an elite, well-to-do woman who marries Riz, a man from a different religion – a thought that causes some discomfort in most geographies and communities even today. In the book’s “dystopian” universe, segregation is the only constitution: the privileged live in walled cities that are categorised by community, religion, or caste. The elite prize here, is “purity”, a vague form of political identity that they claim, preserve, and extract through the militant violence of men known as “repeaters”. After Shalini moves in with Riz, they shift to a society for “mixed”’ couples and she gives birth to Leila. On her third birthday, however, Leila disappears in the midst of a raid which also results in Riz’s death. In the aftermath, Shalini is ostracised to “The Towers”, a purity camp designed to resuscitate obedience for the need of “purity for all” in the “social rebels”.

The world of Leila is naturally reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the surveillance politics of George Orwell’s 1984. Its borderlines, however, are entirely made in India, a country obsessed with the matrices of religion and caste. In the country, religion is an abreast identity, often the prefix of one’s lifetime. But beneath religion, there is a sophisticated mesh of caste, class, creed, and community that often dictates functional realities. One’s identity then, is a pre-declared socio-political position at birth. Here before you learn your blood type, you learn your caste and religion. Naturally, Leila sees its walls erected in the imagined hierarchies of the mind, before they appear on land itself. Like Leila, in the real world, purity is the preserve of the caste or the community elite; the ones who exercise free will while others merely answer to the call of their racial identity.

Our societies may look shinier, the walls taller, but inside, the minds are crippled, ignorant, and worse, in denial.

To understand the essence of Leila, it is perhaps essential to read Akbar’s essay on caste, where the author mentions the various ways in which upper-caste Indians have deluded themselves into believing they are not casteist. “Caste has proved itself a resolute, nimble institution, surviving the dramatic political and economic transformations of three millennia. There is no question of it having disappeared from either the rural or urban context,” he writes. It’s this privilege of the upper-class that Akbar unrelentingly attacks through Shalini in Leila. Although personal, Shalini’s journey, echoes the social deafness of most privileged men and women in India. People who over-elaborate their progressiveness but remain blind to the segmentations that widen due to their choices. Our societies may look shinier, the walls taller, but inside, the minds are crippled, ignorant, and worse, in denial.

In the book, Shalini refuses, initially, to register the decadence around her. Her father dies berating the inequality surrounding them, in vain. In a passage, she compliments the “fine system” that allows her boyfriend Riz to hire a 13-year-old cook from the slums to cook kebabs for them. The couple move into the “East End”, a plush sector of the city where affluent liberals throng swimming pools and parties, while the world outside suffers from drought. Though Shalini is discomforted when told about the plight of her domestic help’s living conditions – no water for three years – she remains unchanged. Until tragedy comes knocking at her door. It’s only later, while mopping floors in exile that she is eventually forced to contemplate why she never cared enough to buy her maid a “long-handled broom”.

Shalini’s social illiteracy mirrors that of most well-healed liberals who continue to drown their ignorance in privilege. Their blindness is premised on the idea that because they can afford to raise visual barriers around them, the view on the other side neither deteriorates nor affects them in any way. But while optical insulation works for the mind, it doesn’t as much for the body. The body is religious, even if the mind isn’t. Shalini is always destined for the Towers even though she assumes the paradisiacal East End will be her refuge. Later, in the book, she meets an old neighbour who has, with time, accepted the inevitable. “We have to bring up girls the right way,” she tells Shalini.

This statement rings a bell. Powerful men do not hesitate to morally castigate women, even their opponents, like we saw during our election campaign this year. Women have been picked at for laughing loudly and rapes have been blamed on everything from jeans to chow mein. Because there are many who believe that the girls haven’t been raised right.  

Leila need not be called fiction then; it need not even be declared futurist or prophetic. It exists now, in your society, in mine, or at least within a few miles around us. Leila’s greatest prophecy is not the imagination of a future, but the articulation of denial and ignorance that prevents us from accepting that it is already here.