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Through a lite lens

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous; Manu Joseph; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹499

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous; Manu Joseph; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹499

Manu Joseph infuses protagonist Akhila Iyer with anger and awesomeness, but not the darker aspects of a woman’s life — biases, failings and paranoia

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, Manu Joseph’s third novel, does many things well. The story is loosely based on the Ishrat Jahan encounter. Miss Laila... does not lend new insight to the case. But it does bring fresh perspective through its fictitious characters.

The opening chapters, though, are weighed down by Joseph’s compulsion to be funny. He lends cumbersome asides unlinked to the story. For example, a character is being introduced as optimistic. The narrator suggests that such people view themselves as immortal. (This is relevant to the story). So far so good. Then the narrator adds, “People find immortality amusing because they do not believe they deserve it.” (This is not relevant.) And then an aside to this aside. “Like a gorgeous spouse.” (This is certainly not relevant). The jokes are distracting.

As the novel progresses, Joseph’s cleverness withdraws, his journalistic eye kicks in, the pace picks up and the story begins to take centre stage. He begins the novel by playing with narrators and this, in the final chapters, allows him a compelling and breathless introduction of the Ishrat Jahan non-encounter to Modi’s India.

But this non-review is not about that. But about Akhila Iyer, the novel’s protagonist, and what she tells us about well-meaning misogyny. Akhila is young and fit. She’s a doctor on a break from Johns Hopkins, and a socially-conscious prankster who pulls pranks on Left-liberals. With good looks, sharp brains, a sound conscience and an ability to save lives, Akhila is a post-feminist hero with a sense of humour. (Post-feminist because she also draws attention to the fake feminism of fake feminists, in a video called ‘How do Feminist Men Have Sex’. Presumably because she believes that the most pressing problem facing feminism today is fake feminism, but we’ll come to this in a bit.)

Meanwhile, Akhila is also identified as wildly optimistic and, as a consequence, brave. This is a glaring inconsistency. Akhila’s pranks are evidence that she is more interested in dwelling on human flaws and hypocrisies; someone too busy dismantling heroes to think the world is capable of good. But the narrator insists she is a positive person, so we go with it for now.

Her pranks promise to be the heart of the story, a literary tool, just like the perverse games of Ayyan Mani in Serious Men and Unni’s cartoons in The Illicit Happiness of Others. But they don’t deliver. They are busy disseminating Joseph’s ideas about hypocrisy. They do a good job as a compilation of Left-liberal ideological loopholes, but a feeble one of serving Akhila’s character.

(After one such prank, P Sathya, an agrarian journalist with views not unlike P Sainath’s, speaks meekly, wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and calls Akhila a “corporate bitch”. Like a Britney Spears reference in an Eminem song, it is too crude to be clever, but just enough to be funny.)

Akhila’s first prank — ‘How do Feminist Men have Sex’ — sets out to prove that “modern men who claim to be feminists without the experience of living in a female body are frauds.” That they’re just as horny as everyone else.

It is here that Joseph truly loses the plot. Akhila’s arguments are facile and out of touch with reality. Joseph fails to understand that feminists have more urgent worries than to separate real feminists from the fake ones. He also fails to understand that there’s nothing to be gained from such a witch-hunt, because all real feminists started out as fake feminists (which means there’s hope for Joseph yet).

Joseph uses Akhila to demonstrate that he understands women’s problems. He describes how outnumbered she feels in a crowd of men, and how she uses a bag to cover her breasts. This is an ability Joseph has demonstrated before — a deep insight into the violence of sexual transgressions performed on women. But this is only foundational-level feminism, one that views it as a safety/modesty issue.

In exchange, he offers his damaged female characters sympathy, anger and awesomeness. But the darker aspects of life lived as a woman — biases, failings, paranoia, Akhila does not have.

In an interview, Joseph identifies Akhila as someone he “would be in love with at another time.” This articulates the problem with Akhila. He does not view her as someone he could have been; instead, as someone he could have desired.

(Joseph holds onto this prism of desire for women-viewing as his birthright, just like Justice Katju, who fought valiantly for his right to compare Shazia Ilmi to a flower. Joseph exercises this right in public too, having once complimented a female audience member at a literature festival for her appearance, when her question was about his book. Of course this right exists, but demanding it is tone-deaf).

It seems natural, then, that Akhila, by design an object of Joseph’s desire, would read only a bit better than a Sidney Sheldon protagonist introduced thus: “She was beautiful and had an IQ of 170, and nature had taken care of the rest. But she found her looks a disadvantage. Men were constantly propositioning her or proposing, but few of them bothered to try really to get to know her.”

Joseph is too busy giving Akhila credentials he admires to make her complex or interesting. He objectifies her in exchange for giving her a shrine. Which makes Akhila just another kind of Feminism Lite: she remains simple and amazing. Not someone he could have been with the flip of a coin but, instead, his fantasy woman.

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is worth reading anyway; it marks a significant moment in Joseph’s work. In spite of the subtlest misogynistic underpinnings, he appears to be finally having some fun. Perhaps if he has enough, he will allow himself a break and do some listening next.

Sneha Vakharia is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer

Published on October 27, 2017
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