Book Review: Manu Joseph’s India, Armed and Dangerous

‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’ is a book to slowly savour and turn in your mind long after it’s over.

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Manu Joseph’s <i>Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous</i> is a scathing commentary on our times.
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Truth be told, my first reaction to Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous was that of fear. Fear for an author I much admire; fear that living as we do under the thumb of an increasingly fanatic and ruthless regime, another voice of sanity would be pushed back. For Manu Joseph’s latest work is a scathing, barely-veiled portrait of contemporary India, where Damodarbhai, better known as DaMo, with his silver beard and 56-inch chest, holds sway over a country going saffron.

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous takes off as a thriller that unfolds during the course of a day. Akhila Iyer, a young hip woman with a taste for trouble finds herself conveying information from a delirious man caught under a collapsed building in Mumbai. He mumbles about real-time movements about a Muslim couple that sends the cops into a tizzy. On the other hand, Mukundan, a young Malayali intelligence officer and a closet poet, shadows Laila, a spunky 19-year-old who runs a family of seven and has been found in suspicious company.

As the story unfolds, the reader traverses back and forth in the protagonists’s lives and minds against the backdrop of contemporary India, where one is, irrespective of choice, never too far from power play. Apart from DaMo, who remains an elusive but colossal figure in the book (and his minions), there is Professor Vaid or the Patriarch, an old veteran of the Sangh with ears in the castle and on the ground. A Chanakya-esque character, the Patriarch is as shrewd a reader of humanity as he is experienced in the workings of power.

Joseph has always been more of a chronicler of inner journeys than that of drama, and Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is his first attempt at portraying a woman protagonist.

Akhila is a sharp but jagged character, who rebels against her extreme left wing legacy by humiliating liberals, Marxists, and ‘anyone in this country who eats salad’ through viral videos. In sharp contrast, Laila battles poverty and is determined to eke out a better life by whatever means available. Both nurse and fight personal tragedies.

A cover of <i>Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous</i>.
A cover of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
(Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India)

As with other Joseph characters, one is struck by the alone-ness of the central characters here too. They follow through their adventures with gusto but essentially, are islands - alone in their pain, desires and struggles. And each is a philosopher in their own way:

The creature in the mirror has always been a lonely person, like other old bachelors. Do the lonely deserve sympathy? Some surely, but most people are lonely because they, too, have rejected people; they have rejected lovers and friends who wished to be with them but were not good enough.
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Also striking are the tiny breather-chapters inserted within the main narrative that showcase frightening, real portraits of minds under the sway of charismatic politics. The young enthusiastic Sangh members whose patriotism and masculinity converge into hooliganism; the lawyer burning Korans on his terrace while chanting ‘DaMo, DaMo’; a 14-year-old imbibing his heritage of keeping the low-caste where they belong; the leader of a local Gau Rakshak Sena turning into a lyncher - they leave one cold with fear.

The conclusion of the book throws you off balance as well when you realise with a little shock what the narrative had been driving at all the while.

Once you get over the initial surprise of the topicality of the book, it’s easy to submit to Joseph’s signature chuckle-a-line yet scathing style. Sample this:

An extract from Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
An extract from Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
(Photo altered by The Quint)


An extract from Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
An extract from Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
(Photo altered by The Quint)

The narrative style is particularly interesting with only Akhila and the Patriarch being allowed first person narratives that give us direct access into their minds. They run parallel to the conventional third person narrative that - as in life - create worlds that are at once private and as perceived-by-the-other.

Manu Joseph’s latest book is a must-read.
Manu Joseph’s latest book is a must-read.
(Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India)

But critiquing right wing fanaticism as it does, the book is anything but blinkered. Joseph has little illusions. Akhila in fact, demonstrates repeatedly in her videos - with intriguing names like How Feminist Men Have Sex or The Most Expensive House in the World - how vain, vacuous and useless the so-called liberals ultimately are. Lost in posturings, they have little connection with reality - crucial if you want to wield any resistance against an authoritarian regime. As Joseph puts it:

In the battle between presumed good and presumed evil, good is hiring poorly. Does Ms Iyer see the plain fact? Evil is an equal-opportunity society where the darkest rise. Liberal heroes, on the other hand, are made in a very different sort of place, a place where the gentry suffocate honest competition. Here the midgets rise. What chance do they have against naturally selected arch-villains?
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is, undoubtedly, one of the most scathing social and political satires of our times. It’s funny even when it makes you reel in horror, and it makes you hope even in the throes of despair. It is a book that will make you think. It is a book to slowly savour and turn in your mind long after it’s over. Don’t give this one a miss.

(Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph is published by HarperCollins India and tagged at Rs 499.)

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