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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Manu Joseph

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To purchase Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Title: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous
Author: Manu Joseph
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 211 pages
Availability: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous - US
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous - UK
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous - Canada
Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sharp, and darkly humorous; quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 13/5/2018 Ben East
The Hindu . 28/10/2017 Zac O'Yeah
Hindustan Times . 5/1/2018 Vrinda Nabar
Outlook India . 13/10/2017 Saikat Niyogi

  From the Reviews:
  • "(C)austic, occasionally comic and determinedly controversial. (...) Joseph regularly jolts the reader out of his fictional world, though not always successfully, ultimately making the novel easier to admire than to love." - Ben East, The Guardian

  • "The story heads off in increasingly puzzling directions, making it clear that this is not a run-of-the-mill potboiler with a lucid core, but rather a post-plot, post-narrative pun on the idea of thriller writing, set in a superficial world of YouTube channels, where stand-up comedy replaces reportage. (...) If thereís a semblance of plot, itís a plot that ultimately doesnít matter, except as a mechanical device, the camera to snap our mental selfie with." - Zac O'Yeah, The Hindu

  • "The mounting suspense, biting humour, comic irony, fact, and fiction on this rollercoaster ride merge together when the sum of the parts is finally disclosed." - Vrinda Nabar, Hindustan Times

  • "Miss Laila is a novel of barbed comments and bitter irony, but delivered in easily digestible bursts. The pace is brisk, the chapters short, the tenses present, the texture smooth. When Joseph cuts to the chase -- quite literally -- itís a gallop to the finish, with an ingenious shuffle of time. Itís a page-turner that divagates often, but never imposingly." - Saikat Niyogi, Outlook India

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is set in an India in which the Hindu-nationalist Sangh is a powerful (and thuggish) force and a leader after their own heart, the very Narendra Modi-like Damodarbhai -- also called 'DaMo' --, has consolidated power in the latest election.
       The fairly short chapters move back and forth between several of the main characters. Among them is Akhila Iyer, who comes to the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Mumbai, and volunteers, as the only person small enough, to crawl through a makeshift tunnel to a lone survivor, and to assist him as best she can until he can be rescued. Then there is Mukundan, a: "soldier of the Sangh", who is driving a car: "hired by the Intelligence Bureau, six license plates stashed in the boot", who has been charged with tailing Jamal; the Intelligence Bureau has information that Jamal is headed for Ahmedabad, five hundred kilometers away, but he is to be intercepted at a tollbooth ninety miles short of his destination; Mukundan is to play no role in the abduction of the suspect, merely tail him up to that point. Jamal is high-caste Hindu who converted to Islam for the love of a girl eight years earlier; to Mukundan's -- and then the Intelligence Bureau's -- surprise, he picks up a girl before he heads for the highway: Laila, the second oldest of six sisters and one brother who lost their father two years earlier, the enterprising Laila now essentially the head of the family. There are also some chapters focused on Aisha, Laila's younger sister, who looks up to her very much -- but, like their mother, is concerned about this trip she is going on. Finally, there is also AK, the shadowy figure who is to be named National Security Advisor in Damodarbhai's new regime, and Professor Vaid, following events -- the Mumbai earthquake survivor as well as Mukundan on Jamal's trail -- and determining how to proceed.
       Akhila is something of a provocateur, posting videos of interviews and confrontations online -- pranks challenging 'Philosophical Thugs': those that oppose Damodarbhai, but whom she sees as barely different from the: "patriarchs of the Sangh on the other side". Akhila's mother was one of those, a: "classy commie who went into the jungle to start a revolution" -- failing her cause, and her daughter, miserably in the process. This has marked Akhila, and she acts out accordingly, exposing the vacuity and futility of many of the well-meaning supposedly radical efforts of others. Of course, she manages to attract the ire of the DaMo followers as well -- she even gets beaten up (though not badly) at the earthquake-site, before she begins her repeated trips down the narrow tunnel to help the lone survivor.
       Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous has no sympathy for the followers of Damodarbhai and their toxic (Hindu-)nationalism, but diagnoses much deeper and more widely spread fundamental flaws in the Indian state and people. His stylized prose -- a staccato of sentences, of matter-of-fact observation, stark and to the hearts of the matters, with no judgement in the tone -- is coolly effective. He maintains a certain distance and neutrality in even the most critical of observations -- as in the describing the badly flawed state security apparatus and how, nevertheless, it maintains its undeserved status:

So many heroes. Yet, they almost always lose. In any other line of work, they would be sacked and replaced by more effective people, but in the battle against villains, the union of dud heroes has ensured for itself an indestructible job security.
       Joseph's approach of shifting perspective in chapters, with only limited overlap in the various stories, ultimately resolves in an unexpected way, a neat little novelistic flourish that is effective -- and also makes the story all the sadder in its implications, showing the badness to be more deeply entrenched than previously thought (even as he does offer a glimpse of hope for at least a small righting of the wrongs that have happened, eventually).
       Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous doesn't quite leave a sour aftertaste, but Joseph doesn't curry favor with the reader. The near-neutral presentation of so much of his description, without judgment, makes for something of a coldness that might be off-putting; certainly, he challenges readers' sympathies -- especially with Akhila's uncompromising and often very in-their-face pranks, as well the similarly complex Mukundan and the path he long follows.
       Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous is a thoughtful, well-conceived novel, with characters of surprising depth, even where they seem almost simply sketched, presenting a society and a political culture so crushingly overwhelming (like that natural disaster that easily brings down the building at the start of the novel ...) that the individual can seem completely helpless to act. But Joseph's characters do act, and act out -- sometimes ineffectively (Jamal and Laila's fate is ... not good), sometimes perhaps awkwardly (such as Akhila with some of her provocative videos), sometimes not in the moment (Mukundan ) but nevertheless. It is a somewhat bleak novel, but also a surprising hopeful one -- and not just in its final, distant promise.
       An interesting and largely successful variation on the novel of the leaning-towards-totalitarian (and police-)state.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 August 2019

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Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous: Reviews: Other books by Manu Joseph under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Manu Joseph was born in 1974.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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