Book Review: Leila By Prayaag Akbar

[no spoliers]

This is a review of the Book by Prayaag Akbar, and NOT the Netflix series.

Leila is set in the not too distant future, when the social fracturing and economic inequality in Indian society leads to a nation divided into cloisters based on linguistic and caste identity. A grassroots leader who claims to be representing the interests of the socially disadvantaged vaults into power at the head of a sweeping political movement. A brutish army of “repeaters” – a epithet earned by their tendency to chant slogans and parade – enforces the movement’s moral and social standards. The nation is in decline, clean air, potable water, and security are at a premium. Climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure make life a challenge for all but the most privileged.

Shalini, the protagonist, grows up in a prosperous household that sees its fortunes decline as the traditional structures of privilege are eroded by rising economic inequality, social fracturing, and climate change. She marries her high school sweetheart – a Muslim – and together, they move to a neighbourhood where cosmopolitan intercultural couples like them lead a life that seems insulated from the turmoil outside.

On the evening of a party hosted by them, a group of repeaters attack their home, kill her husband, and send Shalini to a re-education camp. Their daughter goes missing. The novel, set sixteen years from the party, follows Shalini’s efforts to locate her child with the back-story revealed in non-linear flashbacks.

As the father of an intercultural child and someone who is concerned about inequality and climate change, this novel fuelled my private anxieties about India’s future. Akbar has concocted a compelling tale that could be considered the average-case outcome of current-day events. This novel is a thought-provoking read for anyone who is unsure about the long-term outcome of our direction as a nation.

As a novel though, Leila is a bit rough at the edges. It feels as if Akbar wrote this book in the last three weeks of a twelve-month deadline and sent his second draft to press. Given the complexity of the themes in this book, Akbar had a choice to make this book about a quest, a tale of personal misfortune, or a social commentary. He tries to do all three, and ends up with a hodgepodge that is part Die Hard, part Animal Farm, and part Nineteen Eighty Four. Two thirds into the book, a weak plot twist breaks the suspense and the ending is totally predictable.

Regardless of its technical deficiencies, Leila remains a compelling read and an important commentary on inequality, class, and climate change in the Indian context.

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Review: Bombay Shaving Company

I have been using a straight razor with replaceable blades for the past 18 years. It started during my college days as a private protest against the ludicrous price of Gillette Sensor blades. The habit endured – with my horsehair brush and a straight razor, I could go from Weekend Stubble to Monday Debonair in under four minutes. The added bonus was that a year’s supply of Wilkinson Sword blades cost me less than a single Gilette Sensor cartridge. As I grew older and became a little more plastic conscious, I stuck with the open razor because a tiny sliver of steel every two weeks casts a lesser ecological burden than the blister-packed cartridge-du-jour with six (or whatever they’re up to now) blades in a plastic housing.

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My Old Straight Razor

This Christmas, I received Bombay Shaving Company’s six-part shaving kit as a present. Now I’m usually skeptical of these internet-only brands that “reinvent” the classics for 10 times the price. After all, my straight razors cost between INR 40 and INR 120, and the Wilkinson Sword blades cost about INR 15 for a packet of 5. The tubes of shaving cream and after-shave balm included in the box were fancier than my usual Old Spice shaving cream and after shave lotion.

In the box were two 10-packs of Feather razor blades. Feather blades, made in Japan, are widely regarded as the best wet-shaving blades in the world, and BSC now had my full attention. The included razor is a solid metal item, very well constructed, and impeccably balanced. Also included, is a faux badger brush. I’ve always been skeptical of these nylon shaving brushes, but BSC’s brush does the job and does it well. Goodbye horsehair.

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My new Bombay Shaving Company kit minus the gimmicky scrub

For many men, the morning shave is a meditative and mindful rite of self-care. BSC’s kit certainly supports this. Having been my daily shaver for the past ten days, I’ve enjoyed the experience with the brush and the razor, and the insanely sharp Feather blades make for a very comfortable shave. BSC includes a second razor head – marked “aggressive”. This piece, visually indistinguishable from the regular head barring the letter “A” marked on it, makes the blade cut closer to the skin. This seems to work best for my mature and somewhat rough growth.

The included shaving cream and after-shave balm are good, and have a pleasant modern fragrance. My wife seems relieved that I’m transitioning away from alcohol-based after-shave lotions and the consequent “white face” dryness that she finds unappealing.

With shaving products, re-supply of consumables is always a challenge, especially if you use uncommon products. BSC is cognizant of this, and all the in-box items – razor, brush, accessories, Feather blades, and in-house cream and balm, are available at competitive prices from the Company’s website.

BSC is not without gimmicks though. They include a scrub – touted as a pre-shave exfoliant to prepare one’s face before a shave. Well, a razor blade is perhaps the most effective exfoliant on the planet. As long as you use a proper shaving cream, you will be taking all the dirt and dead skin off your face with your razor itself. But again, this is more a matter of personal preference than shaving canon.

The only area for improvement is the fragrances. Bombay Shaving Company offers only one fragrance – a contemporary fragrance that will not appeal to all men. In my opinion, the fragrance in the after-shave balm is pleasant, but lacks depth and complexity. They need to diversify their range with at least two additional fragrance types – a ‘spicy’ type  with a musky/woody base such as Tabac or Old Spice; and a citrusy classic eau-de-cologne variety similar to 4711 or Premium. These two fragrance lines will drive customer “stickiness” among a major proportion of wet shavers – else most “converts” like me will return to them only for the Feather blades.

In my opinion, BSC makes the nicest shaving kit that I’ve encountered in ages, and is a must buy for the man looking to drop the hideously expensive and gimmicky multi-blade systems.

Note: This is a review of a kit that I received as a Christmas present from a family member. Bombay Shaving Company has not offered me any incentives for this review.