Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph

Review published on May 25, 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.

Paul Burke 5/4

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph
Myriad Editions 9781912408108 pbk May 2018

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