Manu Joseph came to Amsterdam in the summer of 2018 as writer-in-residence for the Dutch Letterenfonds. His task was to write his next novel but also promote his then most recent book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
Joseph is a prolific and much-loved journalist, writer, and social critic in his native India. He is the author of three novels, a comic Bollywood screenplay, and a new comedy series for Netflix that started streaming in 2021.
I knew none of this when Joseph gave a Master Class for the International Writers’ Collective. As one of teachers, I had come to help out. I certainly had no plan to buy Joseph’s novel. Then he charmed me with the sharpness of his wit and so I came away with a signed copy of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
The novel opens with Akhila Iyer, medical student and rising social media star who pranks liberal eggheads and patriots alike.
When she returns from a long run she finds her neighbours standing almost naked in the compound. Men in morose Y-front underwear, women crouched behind parked cars or hidden inside rings formed by other women who are not bare. Through the gaps in the cordons she sees flashes of naked thighs, waists, backs. It is Friday but that does not explain anything.Manu Joseph, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous (Myriad Editions 2018)
As a journalist, Joseph often went out for a run. He returned one day to find his neighbours in the streets. He ignored them like Akhila did. Joseph didn’t learn about the earthquake in Gujarat, whose tremors had reached Mumbai, until the newspaper called him to the site.
The inciting incident in Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is not an earthquake. Instead, an 80 year old condemned building has finally collapsed. People are trapped under the debris. Some of them are still alive.
This, too, Joseph witnessed once he arrived in Gujarat. A man lay trapped under a fallen wall. He blinked his eyes and mumbled but no one could understand his words. Joseph wondered: what if this man were trying to reveal some news of great importance?
In Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, the news is that a pair of Muslim terrorists are on their way to set off a bomb. The authorities are duly alerted and a manhunt ensues.
Joseph tells our Master Class about the genesis of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous. He says, male protagonists bored him. He wanted instead to write about two types of young women, both unsung in Indian literature. The eponymous Laila is the breadwinner of her family though she is only nineteen years old. Her five year old sister, Aisha, adores Laila. Joseph wrote Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous to explore the relationship between siblings.
When Aisha hides under the bed, Laila comes to comfort her:
Not under the bed but a few feet away, lying on the floor, resting her head on her palm, like Vishnu. It was a Sunday, the day she is not very busy. They talked for two hours about movies, food and Mumbai.
In the backdrop of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, Indians have just elected a Hindu nationalist politician as prime minister. Attitudes toward the Muslim minority turn increasingly violent. In this moment of triumph for a soon-to-be Hindu led India, news of a Muslim-initiated bomb attempt riles.
The lives of Laila and Aisha will soon intertwine with nationalist politics. Joseph tells the tale of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, through the point of view of multiple characters: the man trapped under the debris, Akhila who is the only person on site slim and athletic enough to crawl to him, little Aisha, and a shadowy nationalist guru known as Professor Vaid.
The Social Critic
The pacing of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is terrific. Short chapters and the constantly shifting point-of-view add to the tension. Is Miss Laila a terrorist? Will the nationalist thugs catch her? Can they rescue the poor guy in the debris? In the Master Class, Joseph confesses that, when he started writing Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, he thought he was writing a thriller.
Sadly, this is not the case. The Hindu nationalist politician is obviously Narenda Modi. The social commentary drowns out the story of Laila and her little sister Aisha. The climax of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous turns on one of the oldest tricks in the book.
I should have known better. It says right on the cover of my book that this is a scathing social and political satire. And yet, I feel a bit had as do many if not all of the characters in Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
There are faces only an Indian can make. Like that baffled face when he is shocked by the most logical outcome of his actions. He crosses the road like a cow, and he is startled by a truck. A vehicle on the road? How? He walks across the railway track, and he finds a train hurtling toward him. A train on a railway track? He is stunned. Cops who don’t wear bulletproof vests break into a house to fight militants, and are shot in their paunches. They stagger out looking bewildered. That baffled face when boys fall of trains because they were dangling from the doorways, when illegal homes built on infirm soil collapse, when pilgrims are squashed in annual stampedes inside narrow temples.
12 Mar 2022 | Karen Kao