Saturday 2 March 2019

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, by Manu Joseph

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Manu Joseph thinks you are trash.

It does not matter if you’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor, upper caste or lower, or somewhere in the middle of each duality; he thinks you are trash.

If it’s any comfort, he thinks he’s trash, too.

Why does it matter what Manu Joseph thinks, though? 

Fair question, that. He’s a journalist, as are many others, and not being on TV, is not important enough to issue certificates of nationalism either. So why does his opinion matter?

It matters because he has a voice and he is not afraid to use it. It has become quite common among right-wing commentators to brand writers as ‘liberals’ and lump them into a corner alongside the ‘intellectuals’, whose opinions must be discounted as driven by ideology. This is quite ridiculous, really, because India’s greatest literary giant, Chetan Bhagat, has broadly been a cheer-leader of the current government, as has Amish Tripathi, which makes it quite surprising that the ‘writers’ are reviled thus.

But Manu Joseph, ah well, now that’s another matter. He does hate the right-wing, you know. Enough to make them the apparent antagonists of his book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Indeed, on the surface of it, this short novel, featuring two quite sympathetic female protagonists and two quite unsympathetic male protagonists, seems to be an attack on the current dispensation. Thinly-veiled references to the Great Leader Modi, his caporegime Amit Shah and the mystical AK Doval abound. The extent to which the party and more importantly, the RSS, have infiltrated higher echelons of the security apparatus is hinted at, and much of the set-up of the story would, or should, make a reader nod his head in quiet agreement—tinged with pride or disgust, perhaps.

So what’s the story of Miss Laila?

Given that much of Joseph’s non-fiction writing lacks a comprehensible argument, flow or point, it is important to mention here that, short though it is, this novel does have a story. But to talk about Miss Laila’s story would be to give away much of what makes the book so interesting. Suffice to say that it exists. 

It is based on a not-so-recent event that was fairly controversial when it occurred—back when there needed to be a reason for killing a Muslim—and constituted a minor blip in the meteoric rise of India’s man of destiny. But I am getting ahead of myself. Miss Laila doesn’t appear in the narrative till much later.

Instead, we are introduced first to Akhila Iyer, stand-up comedienne and maker of prank videos. A minor tremor in Mumbai leads to Akhila venturing to check on the damage in the neighbourhood. Instead, she ends up embroiled in a strange, complex terror plot, becoming the only connection the ‘establishment’ has to a member of a terrorist sleeper cell. 

Then there is the erudite old bachelor Professor Vaid, the prominent intellectual backbone of the Sangh, able to articulate more shades of bigotry in one line than his foot-soldiers can through essay-length Facebook posts. 

Finally, there is Mukundan, the government heavy in charge of tailing Miss Laila,  when she is revealed to be armed and dangerous, who is not quite sure if he’s driven by duty or ideology and is apparently trying to be a decent bloke according to a very flexible definition of decency.

As Akhila zips between her present mission and her chequered past, as the Professor expounds mentally on the various shades of indoctrination that he has at his command and as Mukundan debates the ethics of premeditated murder versus accidental collateral damage, we find that we are laying bare not just a one-time political hot potato, but the casual bigotry that infects our society and the ease with which institutions, scruples and laws can be subverted and brought to serve a toxic, hate-filled ideology.

The characters follow their pre-ordained literary paths, converging into an unexpected ending that is suitably disturbing. Whether it leaves room for hope, or is a monument to despair is something that I think an individual reader will have to decide for himself.

Oh, and it reminds the reader that Manu Joseph thinks he’s trash. 

You see, the right-wing reactionaries and the bigots and xenophobes are the obvious targets of Joseph’s words. But his sharper weapons—his satire and his cutting wit—are reserved for the other side of the aisle. Left-leaning writers, rich upper-caste liberals who sympathise with peasants, self-proclaimed male feminists, all the apparently well-meaning members of the chattering classes are skewered and roasted with far more gusto than the Professor and his cadres. One can almost visualise the pleasure in the writer’s face as he attacks the leftists and the liberals (who are not, contrary to what your WhatsApp forwards tell you, always the same people), the NGO-types and the intellectuals.

However, the great weakness is Miss Laila remains its lack of intensity. Hovering over the political and social implication of what he writes, Joseph steadfastly refuses to delve deeply into any of the issues he raises, whether the hypocrisy of the intellectual class or the depravity of the religious ideologues. Despite the felicity with language, the pacing, and a proven ability to use words to evoke an emotional response in readers, Joseph steps back and avoids making it truly hit home in the way he surely could.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to say that, though. A writer, especially one as good as Joseph, is entitled to write what he wants, and his frankness and willingness to speak the truth as he perceives it is worthy of appreciation for its own sake. To expect more, to want a more compelling, more evocative narrative from him is like asking a Wizard not to be late—a Wizard, as we know, is never late; nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to—and we must trust that Joseph gives his readers precisely as much as he means to.

After all, he thinks we are trash, so why should he give us more? 

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That's right, you're trash.


  1. Percy, I loved your review more than the book. My only contention is that he does not even scratch the surface of the issue. And, I am glad you mentioned it eloquently. :)

  2. Very well written review, Percy. Catching up with your lovely reviews.