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.