A peek into the dystopian world
02 April 2019
Born in Calcutta, Prayaag Akbar studied economics at Dartmouth College and comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He has been an editor at scroll.in and the Sunday Guardian and a reporter with Outlook magazine. His award-winning reports and commentary have examined various aspects of marginalization in India. His work has appeared in Caravan, The Cricket Monthly, Mint, Indian Express and India Today, among others. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and their cat.
In this interview with Swetha Amit, Prayaag talks about the inspiration behind his book, caste system and being a non-conformist.
‘Leila’ is a powerful and a gripping tale of a mother’s journey in finding her missing daughter. What was the inspiration behind this book?
I began writing the book because I was interested in how large-scale political shifts can have horrible, huge consequences for families, for people’s lived lives.
The setting in your book appears to be a dystopian society. Which cities did you derive inspiration from while penning down this book?
I drew primarily upon two cities I have spent many years in, Delhi, where I grew up, and Mumbai, where I have lived for the past six years. The privatization of public spaces in Delhi, its gated residential colonies, its all-powerful (resident welfare association) RWAs — all of those made it into the books in different shapes and forms. After spending some years in Mumbai, I have come to see how badly it is fragmented by caste, by religion, how difficult people find it to live with different communities. That is a central aspect of the protagonist Shalini’s world.
There are several themes dealt with in your book-one of them being coping with loss of loved ones. What prompts people to find purpose in their life when they have lost everything?
That was one of the things I wanted to investigate in my book. When is the human spirit defeated? How, when we have lost everything, can we find the courage to go on, to continue to fight for our rights, for our freedoms?
Your book showcases the caste system that is very apparent especially when it comes to residential premises. While the world is progressing in other aspects, why do you think mindsets of people with regards to caste and religion haven’t?
Caste is an incredibly resilient and adaptive institution. Ambedkar wrote about it so well over a hundred years ago, yet, remarkably, his remains the best analysis of its current formations — he was able to see it for what it is rather than what it claims to be.
It is also showcased that your protagonist who was a non-conformist and a sort of a rebel was met with a lot of criticism and disdain. Do you think it’s hard for individuals who possess an independent streak to thrive in the society today?
I don’t. Individualism is always prized, even if governments might not prize it.
Aspects of parenting styles are also talked about in your book where the protagonist is criticized for her parenting style. What is your take on this considering many working parents tend to use the help of babysitters with regards to their toddlers?
I was not “criticising her for her parenting style”, but trying to depict a social reality that I have witnessed around me, and indeed participated in.
The setting in your book also mentions the importance of walls in the structure of the society. As a writer, is it important to have a defined structure or is it fine to just go with the flow at times?
I don’t believe in boundaries in writing. I learn from a lot of different styles of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And you should be free to go where your imagination takes you, without worrying about what people will do, or what the government might say.
How did you feel when Leila bagged the Jury award at Crossword book awards in the fiction category? Did you anticipate such an overwhelming response?
It is a wonderful feeling. I won two awards for the book and was shortlisted for a couple more — I honestly could not have anticipated this kind of support and response.
Lastly what are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?
I will be teaching writing at Krea University, a new, very impressive institution opening later this year in Andhra Pradesh. I hope to begin work on my second novel alongside.