Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

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Shortlisted   —DSC Prize for South Asian Literature2018

Longlisted   —Bangalore Literary Festival Book Prize2018

‘Manu Joseph's new novel is a daring, page-turning thriller, filled with anger and wit and some of the loveliest sentences you will read this year’—Zoë Heller

Bold, stylish and deceptively witty, Manu Joseph’s gripping new novel poses searching questions about political forces and religious division—with an ingenious twist. 

On the day that Hindu nationalists and their controversial leader have won a spectacular election victory, a large apartment building collapses in Mumbai. The rescue operation finds a single survivor trapped under a beam.

The only person able to reach him is Akhila Iyer, a medical student who is also a notorious prankster. Crawling through the rubble to administer first aid, she finds him mumbling in delirium that a young Muslim couple are on their way to carry out a terror attack.

Elsewhere, an intelligence agent, Mukundan, is assigned to shadow two terror suspects, one of whom is the teenager Laila, sweetheart of her street. Time is running out and the chase is on…

Pervasive in its comic realism, wicked in its humour and broad-based in its canvas, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is a fierce, profound and illuminating portrait of our age of globalisation and populist politics.

Disclaimer Magazine

13 July 2018

Manu Joseph started his novelist career with a bang: his 2010 debut, Serious Men, won that year’s Hindu Best Fiction Award. An examination of caste in contemporary India, the novel was praised for its discussion of the reality of living as a Dalit; in doing so, Joseph crossed lines of language, as the lower castes are often excluded from Indian literature written in English.

It is no surprise that Joseph’s latest, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, continues on the same socially aware path, tackling racism, poverty, police malpractice and chauvinism, to mention but a few of its themes. Nor has Joseph grown wary of crossing lines and opting for provocative solutions. The novel’s social commentary gains extra momentum – and, undoubtedly, some unhappy audiences – by drawing no lines between fact and fiction. The story is rife with allusions to real life characters – the current prime minister is cast as the populist Hindu nationalist leader Damodarbhai – and its central plot is an allegory to the Ishrat Jahan case of 2004, where a group of ‘suspected terrorists’ were killed by the police in Ahmedabad.

“THEY STAGGER OUT LOOKING BEWILDERED. THAT BAFFLED FACE, WHEN BOYS FALL OFF TRAINS BECAUSE THEY WERE DANGLING FROM THE DOORWAYS"

From this tinderbox of true events as his backdrop, Joseph builds a sharp thriller that offers thrills and social criticism even to readers uninitiated in the Indian political landscape. When a building collapses in Mumbai, the only survivor still stuck in the rubble turns out to be an unidentified man whispering potentially fateful information to his rescuers: a terror plot has been set into motion, with a car heading towards Ahmedabad. To add to the precariousness of the situation, there only way to the informant is through a tunnel too narrow for the rescuers to crawl into. The task of extracting vital information falls upon a bystander and medical student Akhila – who just happens to be a well-known social media prankster and social critic as well. The highest levels of Indian security find themselves facing a doubly dubious case: can they trust an informant who has just survived the collapse of a building and is barely conscious? And how do they know what they are being told is not just another of Akhila’s pranks?

“IS A MALE FEMINIST ALLOWED TO WATCH POLE-DANCING?”

Elsewhere, in the town of Mumbrai, Joseph zooms in on the school girl Aisha who tells the story of her sister Laila – the family’s breadwinner after their father’s death – and how she has set out on a road trip with mysterious Jamal. And, at the same time, the young agent Mukundan finds himself chasing terror suspects on the Gujarat highways, in a mission with no clear plan other than that time running out, fast.

With all these narratives – with politics and a landslide election victory of Hindu nationalists thrown in as an extra backdrop – I cannot help wonder if Joseph is not attempting to squeeze in slightly too much content into a mere 200 pages; there is the real risk of becoming as estranged from reality as 24 or Grey’s Anatomy, where the everyday work of secret agents and doctors is made even more stressful by adding love tangles, falling aeroplanes, and threats of mass destruction to their otherwise hectic careers. But Joseph navigates the risk with elegance, producing a page-turner that does not tumble over its own complexity, and remains true to its factual base.

Still, something had to be sacrificed to fit in the intensity and action, and in this case that is character development. Aisha is the only narrator the reader gets to know somewhat; it is through her that the inequalities – racial and social – of Indian society are highlighted in a way that hits home. As for the other characters, though, the reader is only offered a scratch of the surface. Akhila’s motives, for example, remain a mystery: we are told that her political activism and desire to become a doctor stem from her being abandoned by her Maoist mother, but other than that, the reader is left in the same position as anyone in Akhila’s life. The hard-core would-be doctor and endurance athlete clearly has a tough outer core, but what drives her actions remains a mystery.

Despite this certain shallowness, Joseph succeeds in delivering what is undoubtedly most expected from him following Serious Men: political and social commentary that does not shy away from uncomfortable truths. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous may not be a literary masterpiece, but it definitely is a political and social one.

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Nudge

25 May 2018
Absolutely nothing escapes the sharp wit of Manu Joseph in this intelligent and entertaining thriller. It’s a novel that grapples with the dark side of modern Indian life but manages to be funny and eloquent at the same time. That is quite an achievement in a novel that seethes with anger. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous deals with the hypocrisy of the Indian political system (the rigid ideologies and corrupt politicians). Joseph also makes room for a pop at the security services, extreme nationalism and the police but also the liberal left – all failing the people. Behind every joke is a serious intent and you will find yourself getting the message loud and clear. I was tempted to use the word complex here because the themes encompassed in this satire are many fold but the presentation is so straightforward, so light, it’s easy to follow. Even if you do not have any knowledge of Indian politics you will love it. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is jam-packed with ideas and reads as smoothly as the best page turners do. Joseph has a way of getting to the nub of the issue and of being able to highlight the polarising and the absurd in human interactions. It’s a brave novel too because it’s no small act to challenge the Indian State Security Bureau. Its Election Day in Mumbai. Miss Akhila Iyer is a nearly qualified doctor (soon to be heading for Johns Hopkins to study neurosurgery). She is a fiercely independent woman, she grew up with parents so dedicated to the communist cause that they had little time for their daughter. Miss Iyer is very much a rebel with a cause, she spends her time making videos and sketches for her blog that lampoon the nationalists, the liberal elite, environmentalists, Marxists and misogynists. In fact, everyone is on her list. She is motivated by exposing hypocrisy, the main theme of the novel. That includes those who mean well but are misguided. In one sketch, “How Feminist Men Have Sex”, a male character gives all the right answers about how to treat women fairly when what he means is exactly the opposite. When the interviewer sees the man’s Blackberry she quips about owning one too: “I had a problem with its keypad. The buttons were so small. Fiddling with it was exactly like searching for my G-spot.” Sarcasm works. Miss Iyer also compares attitudes of the people to power to the idea of allowing yourself to sign a contract and be spanked (a la 50 Shades of Grey); she likes to shock. You can also take it that nothing in the following dark quote is meant literally: “He did not ask a mob of Hindus to slaughter Muslims. Damodarbhai did not send the thugs who massacred and hacked and raped, and burnt children alive. There is not a shred of evidence. Hundreds of millions of Hindus know that. That’s why they worship him. Because he is innocent.” When an earthquake causes an eighty-year-old building to collapse in the Prabhadevi district, Miss Iyer is drawn to the disaster. On the way she is set upon by four nationalist thugs who beat her for her blog attacks on their candidate in the election, Damodarbhai. They walk away chanting his name, “Da-Mo, Da-Mo, Da-Mo” (a thinly veiled reference to the current prime minister of India, Mr Modi?) Miss Iyer sees half-naked people, shrouded bodies and disoriented survivors wandering around the scene of the tragedy. When the army arrives and the rescue work begins Miss Iyer helps. She crawls through a gap in the rubble to reach a seriously injured man. He asks her the time but then whispers something that will set off a chain of events: “At first she feels he is not making any sense but slowly his words gather force and meaning.” The army and the National Intelligence Bureau mobilise. A young Muslim couple are about to commit a terrorist act. Despite the fact that the man in the rubble appears to implicate two Muslims, there are none living in the collapsed block; where does the information come from? No one really cares, the hunt for Jamal and Miss Laila begins. Two and two can make five it would appear. Are they terrorists about to commit a terrible crime or are they lovers? Or maybe friends on a trip? The authorities say that Miss Laila is armed and dangerous. Joseph’s role as a journalist underpins the research for this novel. It deals with history, ideology and the dangers of nationalism and echoes real events in India. The writing is beautiful, insightful and elegant: “The problem with reverence in this country is that some people convert it into a folk dance.” Joseph is a fine story teller and creates interesting character. A truly original and I think important novel. One that is also an awful lot of fun to read.
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The Observer

13 May 2018
Manu Joseph’s third novel, set in the world of Indian politics, police and bureaucracy, is caustic, occasionally comic and determinedly controversial. But there’s a thriller lurking beneath too: a man is found trapped in the rubble of a collapsed Mumbai tower block, whispering about a young Muslim couple about to carry out a terror attack. References are made to the real-life Ishrat Jahan case from 2004, in which a group of “suspected” terrorists were killed by police. Joseph regularly jolts the reader out of his fictional world, though not always successfully, ultimately making the novel easier to admire than to love.
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