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

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Bold, stylish and deceptively witty, this gripping new novel by Manu Joseph 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.

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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Booklist

18 October 2019
On the same day that Hindu nationalist leader Damodarbhai—who says outrageous things that fan hatred of Muslims—wins election in India, an earthquake levels an old apartment building in Mumbai. One man is still alive in the rubble, and activist Akhila Iyer, who has had medical training, volunteers to tunnel through to the man to treat him. The survivor, who turns out to be an intelligence agent, starts mumbling about a man and a woman, suspected terrorists, setting out by car from Mumbai. The man is a married 35-year-old Hindi who became Muslim for his wife, and the woman is 19-year-old Laila Raza, a Muslim, the delight of her neighborhood and the prime mover of her fatherless family. The pair is pursued by violent state agents, who justify their actions in part by describing the gentle Laila as “armed and dangerous.” Contemporary India, with its caste system and pervasive sexism, is Joseph’s target here, in a novel that is part thriller and part political satire. Another winner from the acclaimed Indian author.
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Complete Review

28 August 2019
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is set in an India in which the Hindu-nationalist Sangh is a powerful (and thuggish) force and a leader after their own heart, the very Narendra Modi-like Damodarbhai -- also called 'DaMo' --, has consolidated power in the latest election. The fairly short chapters move back and forth between several of the main characters. Among them is Akhila Iyer, who comes to the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Mumbai, and volunteers, as the only person small enough, to crawl through a makeshift tunnel to a lone survivor, and to assist him as best she can until he can be rescued. Then there is Mukundan, a: "soldier of the Sangh", who is driving a car: "hired by the Intelligence Bureau, six license plates stashed in the boot", who has been charged with tailing Jamal; the Intelligence Bureau has information that Jamal is headed for Ahmedabad, five hundred kilometers away, but he is to be intercepted at a tollbooth ninety miles short of his destination; Mukundan is to play no role in the abduction of the suspect, merely tail him up to that point. Jamal is high-caste Hindu who converted to Islam for the love of a girl eight years earlier; to Mukundan's -- and then the Intelligence Bureau's -- surprise, he picks up a girl before he heads for the highway: Laila, the second oldest of six sisters and one brother who lost their father two years earlier, the enterprising Laila now essentially the head of the family. There are also some chapters focused on Aisha, Laila's younger sister, who looks up to her very much -- but, like their mother, is concerned about this trip she is going on. Finally, there is also AK, the shadowy figure who is to be named National Security Advisor in Damodarbhai's new regime, and Professor Vaid, following events -- the Mumbai earthquake survivor as well as Mukundan on Jamal's trail -- and determining how to proceed. Akhila is something of a provocateur, posting videos of interviews and confrontations online -- pranks challenging 'Philosophical Thugs': those that oppose Damodarbhai, but whom she sees as barely different from the: "patriarchs of the Sangh on the other side". Akhila's mother was one of those, a: "classy commie who went into the jungle to start a revolution" -- failing her cause, and her daughter, miserably in the process. This has marked Akhila, and she acts out accordingly, exposing the vacuity and futility of many of the well-meaning supposedly radical efforts of others. Of course, she manages to attract the ire of the DaMo followers as well -- she even gets beaten up (though not badly) at the earthquake-site, before she begins her repeated trips down the narrow tunnel to help the lone survivor. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous has no sympathy for the followers of Damodarbhai and their toxic (Hindu-)nationalism, but diagnoses much deeper and more widely spread fundamental flaws in the Indian state and people. His stylized prose -- a staccato of sentences, of matter-of-fact observation, stark and to the hearts of the matters, with no judgement in the tone -- is coolly effective. He maintains a certain distance and neutrality in even the most critical of observations -- as in the describing the badly flawed state security apparatus and how, nevertheless, it maintains its undeserved status:
So many heroes. Yet, they almost always lose. In any other line of work, they would be sacked and replaced by more effective people, but in the battle against villains, the union of dud heroes has ensured for itself an indestructible job security.
Joseph's approach of shifting perspective in chapters, with only limited overlap in the various stories, ultimately resolves in an unexpected way, a neat little novelistic flourish that is effective -- and also makes the story all the sadder in its implications, showing the badness to be more deeply entrenched than previously thought (even as he does offer a glimpse of hope for at least a small righting of the wrongs that have happened, eventually). Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous doesn't quite leave a sour aftertaste, but Joseph doesn't curry favor with the reader. The near-neutral presentation of so much of his description, without judgment, makes for something of a coldness that might be off-putting; certainly, he challenges readers' sympathies -- especially with Akhila's uncompromising and often very in-their-face pranks, as well the similarly complex Mukundan and the path he long follows. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is a thoughtful, well-conceived novel, with characters of surprising depth, even where they seem almost simply sketched, presenting a society and a political culture so crushingly overwhelming (like that natural disaster that easily brings down the building at the start of the novel ...) that the individual can seem completely helpless to act. But Joseph's characters do act, and act out -- sometimes ineffectively (Jamal and Laila's fate is ... not good), sometimes perhaps awkwardly (such as Akhila with some of her provocative videos), sometimes not in the moment (Mukundan ) but nevertheless. It is a somewhat bleak novel, but also a surprising hopeful one -- and not just in its final, distant promise. An interesting and largely successful variation on the novel of the leaning-towards-totalitarian (and police-)state.
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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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