Leela’s Book by Alice Albinia – Book Review
Mahabharata as a story continues to inspire everyone who reads the story. Especially when trying to understand the basic human nature. And its multiple hues of grey. Every reader picks up a favorite character that touches him or her most. And tries to find those traits in people around them, in stories that they read. Sometimes they can mix and match and create stories inspired by epic characters and real life characters. But every author who writes inspired by the epic has a key character that they want to write about. Vyasa the narrator of the story has intrigued Alice Albinia the author of Leela’s Book.
Especially the fact that he impregnated three women, two of whom were sisters and not ready for the same. And a third one who was a servant maid. Ganesha is another favorite character of the author. And she carves out a tale of rivalry between the two characters Ganesha and Vyasa.
Author has very skillfully mixed mythology, current day interpreters of mythology. The reincarnation of epic characters with a dose of fantasy where the writer of the epic tries to control the flow of the story for his favorite character Leela over her many incarnations. What I liked about the story is its treatment. The ability of the author to write a non-linear story, joining various dots through the narration. Though the so called secret is known to the reader even without her telling it explicitly at the end of the story. Reading the story was like untying a series of knots, where you could see what is beneath the knot but you still want to open the knots.
In the beginning, it took me some time to get what the author intended to say. In the middle, I loved the book as the characters kept getting introduced, as unconventional relationships kept getting established. But towards the end I wanted the book to finish as I knew what is happening. And what will eventually happen? There are too many characters, none of them leading a normal life. And all of them engaged in some non-conventional relationships. There are two families that are already related. But not many know about it. And are now tying another knot between them. And there is a hidden knot between the two brothers-in-law.
As a protagonist, only by way of the title of the book, Leela’s story reaches a logical end. But the book leaves you thinking about what happened to the other characters? What happened to the staunch Hindu’s pregnant daughter married to a Muslim? What happened to the young Muslim couple of Nizamuddin Basti and their mothers? And what happened to the adopted son the of protagonist? What will happen to the newly found half British daughter of Vyasa? And most importantly how does Vyasa react to the sudden revelation of his daughters that came from different women he impregnated.
The Leela’s Book more or less revolves around Nizamuddin in Delhi. The two facets of it – one that is called Basti i.e. area around the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya and is inhabited by poor people mostly Muslims. And the other that belongs to the rich and famous who mostly identify themselves as intellectuals. The author seems to have lived in this area. And she is definitely fascinated by it, especially the Basti. She goes on and on describing each and every lane of Basti, the same nala every time the scene moves there.
I think the book could have been much smaller. But for these repeated descriptions. I also did not get the parallel stories of the two servants from Basti, the rape of the girl and the link of ayah to the family. A lot of loose ends have been left or they got edited out to keep the story to its 400+ page size.
Re-writing Mahabharata is not easy. That too if you try to rewrite its craft of weaving endless stories into one story. My compliments to the author for attempting to do that. But I guess you need many more pages to experiment that. My unsolicited suggestion is that you need to close each story in the main story. You cannot leave half of them midway. I liked the idea of stretching the character of Leela and Meera over many incarnations but would have liked the characters to be more chiseled. My learning from this book is the fact that in Mahabharata every sub story finds its logical end.
A bit abstract, but yet grounded in mythology and revolving around the area of Old Indraprat and a poem that helps join all the dots.
Read Leela’s Book if you like stories inspired by Mahabharata, read if you like nonlinear narrations.