This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express
LEELA'S BOOK Alice Albinia
LEELA'S BOOK Alice Albinia
In The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor came up with the sterling premise of grafting The Mahabharata onto the post-1947 Indian political scenario. Though it suffered somewhat in execution, it remains his best work. While it’s a pity that more Indian authors writing in English haven’t examined the possibilities of re-imagining and subverting the country’s epics and myths, there’s consolation to be found in Alice Albinia’s first novel, Leela’s Book.
This, too, takes as its starting point the interweaving of some of The Mahabharata’s tales with contemporary India – specifically the epic’s origin and mode of transmission -- and it does so with skill and verve. Albinia’s first book, a work of non-fiction about following the Indus to its source, was notable for its empathy, insight and linking of past and present. One finds the same qualities in her novel.
It features a bustling cast, comprising members of various families brought together on the occasion of a wedding. Each one is impelled by his or her particular desires, and many episodes are handled with a touch of Austenesque mischievousness that occasionally brings to mind Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
The Leela of the title, when we first meet her, is returning to India with her husband after two decades in New York to attend the nuptials of Sunita and Ash in New Delhi. The former is her husband’s niece, betrothed to the son of Shiva Prasad, senior functionary of a right-wing party and a “guardian of the national identity, saviour of pure India”. The oily Shiva is at loggerheads with the crafty Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, Ash’s father, a louche Sanskrit scholar, for the way in which he interprets Indian mythology. Leela is connected to Vyasa, too: she’s the adopted sister of his wife, killed in a road accident years ago, and there are deeper secrets that they share.
Some of the others who clack against each other like billiard balls against the city’s shifting surface include Aisha, a demure maidservant; Humayun, a chauffeur driven by impulse; the bohemian, London-returned Bharati, Vyasa’s daughter; Pablo, a journalist attracted by Bharati who uncovers a generation-old concealment; and Ram, Bharati’s brother, who has a fling with Ash. As though these weren’t enough, there’s also Linda, young British academic and friend of Bharati’s, whose role, it must be said, comes across as a tad contrived.
Given all of these people and their separate arcs, it would have been wise to include a list of characters at the beginning of the novel; fortunately, Albinia is deft in plotting their appearances and re-appearances.
Over and above all this is the benign presence of Lord Ganesh, who, as he himself reveals to the reader, has created and then set all these characters in motion to rectify his centuries-old dispute with Vyasa over the manner in which the latter composed his saga. (There’s even a section featuring Leela’s varying avatars over different periods of Indian history.) The elephant-headed one now attempts to write his way back into the epic and discredit the “Vyasa Propaganda Machine”.
As such, references to The Mahabharata are everywhere, some explicit, others to be inferred. Leela, like Ganga, refuses to tell her husband anything about her past. She and her sister are compared to Amba and Ambalika, and at one point, Bharati declares that she wouldn’t mind having five boyfriends at the same time. There’s also a parallel to Ganesh and Vyasa when Shiva Prasad narrates his memoirs to a scribe.
Characters aren’t the only thing Leela’s Book is teeming with. In these pages are to be found rape, fire, police brutality, elopement, surprise revelations and furtive coupling underneath a food-laden table at a wedding venue. In the midst of all this, it also records the changes in New Delhi, be it of attitudes of rich and poor or the composition of its neighbourhoods. Though the capital is clearly the backdrop against which the characters’ stories unspool, the book also segues into London, New York, Mumbai, Kolkata and Santiniketan
Ultimately, as Ganesh informs us, he succeeds in his efforts to “reunite siblings, to bring together mothers and daughters – to remove from my characters’ lives the obstacles that impinge on their happiness – and to expose Vyasa’s wrongdoing”. It’s been said often enough that what is not in The Mahabharata does not exist elsewhere. By imagining and then bringing to life aspects that are not in the epic as we know it, Albinia has created a charming and capacious work of fiction.