By Michelle D’costa
Prayaag Akbar is the author of Leila, an award-winning novel that Netflix is now developing into a series. It will be published in the UK and much of the English-speaking world in July 2018. He is a consulting editor at Mint.
On April 20, 2018, Leila completed a year. In this interview we discuss his book primarily.
Michelle D’costa: In Leila, from the first page, the reader is aware that Leila is missing and that her mother is haunted by this all the time. Manu Joseph’s Illicit Happiness of Other People has a hook too, in which the reader knows Unni has taken his life and his father looks for closure. Do you think a story needs to have a hook among other things like good language, memorable characters, realistic dialogues, etc.?
Prayaag Akbar: There are different approaches to how you want to transmit information to your reader, and there is certainly no right or wrong way. Even the same writers don’t usually repeat the same technique in different novels. Take Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous, also by Joseph, in which many key revelations only appear in the latter part of the text.
The consideration was simple for me. More than “hooking” the reader, I had to be true to Shalini, my narrator. Finding her daughter was her obsession beyond all else, so it made sense that she would discuss this first in her narrative.
MD: In a couple of places online, I noted that you don’t like classification of your work into categories such as speculative fiction, etc. as it is limiting. But for the sake of this question let us think of Leila as speculative fiction. The ‘walls’ from the book reminded me of a story titled “The Insert” from Indira Chandrashekhar’s short story collection, Polymorphism which I thought was a brilliant depiction of building walls and breaking them down. What made you set Leila in this world that is ours but not quite?
PA: Setting Leila in a world not quite ours allowed me to think of our own world in sharp new ways. It allowed my imagination to travel in ways it might not have otherwise. I could examine existing social and political forces beyond the veneer that ideology and rhetoric provide.
MD: Someone asked me recently about where I lived in Bombay and he said, ‘Oh how predictable, it is a Mangalorean Catholic area.’ I didn’t like the tag ‘predictable’ so I questioned my mother about it. She said it was a coincidence and had nothing to do with ethnicity. When I read Leila, I was reminded of this. Talking about sectors in which people live in, in cities, you had mentioned in an interview about your difficulty in finding a place in Bombay. Do you think people ‘choose’ to live with their ‘kind’ or in a way is it imposed indirectly/directly now?
PA: I believe it is a function of the caste system, which affects every South Asian religion and community. This is why we have this kind of segregated living in India’s villages, towns, and cities. And this is why, despite the myriad forces that are supposed to shape our urban spaces, our cities have managed to reproduce an ancient form of demarcated living.
MD: Your book is obviously inspired by the cities you have lived in – Delhi and Bombay. You have consciously blended them here. Two books that come to my mind is Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character set in Delhi and Em and the Big Hoom set in Bombay, both writers have used ‘place’ quite differently in the books. Do you think there is a Bombay/Delhi/the great Indian novel?
PA: I don’t believe in the concept of a single great novel. It seems horribly reductive and dismissive.
MD: Ursula Le Guin could talk about political issues through her fictional place, Orsinia. In Indian fiction recently, Manu Bhattathiri has created Karuthupuzha. When I asked him why an imaginary place, He said, ‘To be honest, a fictional town makes me less accountable. I can wander with my imagination without having to be factually correct.’ Is Leila set in an imaginary place to absolve itself of any political correctness/accountability (among other reasons)?
PA: I don’t think, as a writer, you can absolve yourself of the social responsibilities of your work. Writing is an act of representation. Whatever you say about your own fictional world is in actuality a statement of the world around us because it has been imagined and shaped in our existing world.
MD: Leila is being adapted by Netflix into a series. Most writers have known to dislike the adaptations of their works. How is your experience?
PA: I’m looking forward to seeing the show very much.
MD: There are three ways one could pronounce Leila. In The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, the character Tochi is haunted by his name even after he has left India. Do you think a character’s name is essential and that a writer must be very thoughtful about it or is it only that certain stories require that kind of effort?
PA: Of course, the names of your characters are very important.
MD: Leila won the Tata literature Live First Book Award. How has it helped the reach of the book and do you think awards matter for Indian fiction (in English)?
PA: I can’t say about the impact of such awards because we don’t get feedback like that from publishers, but I can say it was an honour and a pleasure to receive the award.
MD: You say in an interview that women and men are not really different in how we respond to situations and that it wasn’t a conscious decision to show how a woman responded to the loss of her child in Leila. Also, in your non-fiction piece, “Moving to Mumbai”, you address the patriarchal mindset of India. On how we are actually products of nature and nurture and how it is a choice to break free from them. The implied gender fluidity is interesting. Any comments?
PA: I suppose it’s a way of looking at the world. I am naturally drawn to, or interested in, the things that unite two sets of people rather than the things that differentiate them. There are differences in how men and women might react to various stimuli, but I do think the world is constantly telling us how we are supposed to behave as men and women, and that informs and directs our reaction to a great extent.
MD: You have mentioned A Pale View of Hills as an influence on Leila and that it took you years to get Shalini’s voice right. Did you read any books by women for this? In a recent article in Reader’s Digest, you mention books. I was surprised to not find any by a female author.
PA: I read a great deal of work by women authors.
MD: I loved Ishiguro’s Never Let me go. Many readers look at the book as ‘sci-fi’ and ‘dystopian’ but I found it extremely relatable and I had the same reaction when I watched The Handmaid’s Tale and when I read Leila too. Do you think it is an additional challenge for a writer to make a story feel ‘real’ and ‘relatable’ when it is likely to fall into categories of speculative fiction?
PA: It is absolutely essential for a story to feel real, no matter what world it is set in. I like the example of George RR Martin’s work. He had dragons and ice-zombies and so on, but what makes the story believable is how well he captures human vanity, greed, lust, depravity. He is a sharp observer of human frailties and this is what we identify with when we read his stories. Note how careful he is about distance and weather and physical aspects of the realm he is writing about. You can see, immediately, how badly the HBO show fell in almost all these aspects once they stopped using the books as a source. Their team of writers – who had worked on his books for so many years and created a hit show – did not understand these basic aspects of the world he had created.
MD: You seem to be a huge fan of Ishiguro’s work. What did you think of him winning the Nobel? This year’s prize is not happening, any comments?
PA: I was absolutely delighted that he won. I have loved and learnt from his work since I was a teenager.
MD: Leila was the first book published by Simon and Schuster, India. What were their thoughts on it and its addition to Indian fiction?
PA: You’ll have to ask them about this.
MD: You have blended Hindi and English in the prose. Do you think a writer must rely on footnotes or brackets to explain non-English words? (Junot Diaz fuses Spanish and English in his prose.)
PA: No, I don’t believe in footnotes with translations.
MD: How did you train yourself to write fiction as before Leila you have written only non-fiction? Any short stories?
PA: I had tried my hand at it many years before, but since I was a child I have loved the novel more than any other form of storytelling and I was determined to try my hand at it.
MD: I spotted some really good similes and metaphors in the book. Do you write poetry too?
PA: Thank you. Never written poetry though.
MD: I recently watched Kenny Sebastian’s ‘Why I don’t do jokes on politics in India’. We know that stand up comedians have been attacked for their sense of humour. Do you think ‘fiction’ itself provides the writer freedom to write what he/she wants to or does the genre provide an extra shield?
PA: Anyone should be free to write what they want, but I don’t think the people who react with violence to books are too interested in the literary category of those books. Many times they haven’t even read the work, so I don’t expect them to care about whether a book is science fiction or not.
MD: A friend of mine recently confided that she and her group of friends were harassed by a mob in Bangalore during a cake cutting in public (outside a PG) for polluting their ‘culture’. A scene from Leila reminded me of this aspect of moral policing. Do you think an artist/writer must speak about pressing issues to really make a difference in fiction (I can’t say about making a difference to the larger social aspect)?
PA: Writers and artists have different sensibilities and come to their work from a variety of positions and ambitions. There are no ‘musts’. Everyone should be free to write, sing, paint what they want.
MD: Leila will soon be published in the West. Are you working on anything else at the moment?
PA: I have just finished work on a short story and am a consultant on the project with Netflix. I hope to begin work on my second novel soon.
CD: Do you think a writer must be receptive to negative feedback after publication? And is it in anyway an opportunity to make future versions of the book better? In your case, for the Western publication.
PA: You should pay attention to everything that is written about your book, positive or negative, evaluate the merit of that critique, and decide whether it’s worth taking in.
CD: Chetan Bhagat has just been offered a six book deal. Any comments?
Michelle D’costa has work published in Coldnoon, Antiserious, The Madras Mag, and more. Do look up her blog here.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Women as the ‘displaced’: The context of South Asia’, edited by Suranjana Choudhury, academic and Nabanita Sengupta, academic, India.