An exclusive extract from Manu Joseph’s ‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’
Manu Joseph's thrilling third novel casts a keen eye on not just law enforcement officials and politicians in flared shorts, but also investigative journalists, environmental activists and the good folks. Illustration by Amruta Patil
Mukundan is unable to guess the nature of the relationship between Jamal and the girl. He is yet to see an indisputable sign of love in the blue Indica, like kissing, or a hand reaching out to squeeze flesh or a man throttling a woman. But then the Indica has been travelling at over eighty kilometres an hour, and it has not stopped or slowed down since it left Mumbra. Some lovers are careful on the highway, perhaps.
He has tried to gather some information about the girl from his friends without revealing that he is shadowing her at the moment. They had the tone a lot of people in the Bureau have when they speak to him. They talk down; they are affectionate, but they talk down because he has always made it very clear he is not as smart as they are. It is not entirely a lie. There is something about speech he has not fully mastered. He has thoughts of reasonably good quality but they do not emerge as speech. It is as though he is always forced to speak in a foreign tongue. Even to him he often sounds intellectually austere, like when brown cricketers are forced to speak in English during post-match press conferences. But he does not mind his handicap, which probably does not have a name, hence not considered a handicap. When people speak to him, they lower their guard, say things, a lot of things.
The world is filled with people who wish to impress when they speak. It is not a bad idea at all but there are advantages in being underestimated. That, too, is the art of conversation.
No one seems to have any clue about the girl. Mukundan has no doubt that Jamal and the girl are very familiar with each other. The only thing he is not sure about is whether they have met without clothes. Jamal does not have a sister. Maybe she is a cousin, a niece, or an employee.
If they are lovers, what is it that she sees in a man like Jamal, a married thirty-five-year-old man with kids who is stupid enough to be shadowed by the Bureau? What do women see in most men anyway? You look at girls laughing in the company of their men and you would think humour is a very common male talent, which it is not. Shouldn’t love be the reward for the clever alone? The rest must receive only loyalty, which is a very different thing. But the world does not work that way. But then, to imagine love as high tribute is to fall for the historical lie of lovers. Love is probably a lower emotion than its reputation. That thought always comforts him.
He is the sort of man who, if he ever gets entrapped in love, would turn out to be a good eternal husband. He knows that, and he fears his own captivity. At a level of living it is smart to be a good husband because it is smart to be good. He understands morals as a system of logic. In most situations there is usually only one right path and millions of wrong turns. And everyone, in a given era, in a given place, knows what is right. If you forget your time, if you forget your place, there will be trouble.
Maybe he is a bit naïve when it comes to women and sex. When his niece was born, after he saw her in the cradle, he could not masturbate for a whole week. Sex seemed like such a depraved act of violence. With the angelic face of his infant niece in his head, he even started having dreams about the general welfare of women. And in his waking hours attempted another poem. About a reporter with the Malayala Manorama, who has got the greatest journalistic scoop of the century. He has stumbled upon a stunning secret that is eventually headlined, ‘All Lost and Stolen Girls in the History of Humanity Revealed to Have Been Forced into Stenography’. The story has an extraordinary impact on society, especially fathers, who lose their fears. They release their girls from their hawkish vigil. Girls suddenly find the freedom to roam their towns, like boys, and they begin to thrive.
Mukundan has worked hard many nights on the poem, but the words just won’t come.
As it usually happens to a discreetly pursued car, the blue hatchback begins to assume bleak human qualities. It looks stupid, debased and tragic, its haste comical because it is only racing towards a carefully laid-out trap. A little blue car duped by the republic, a young intelligence officer on its tail. How did these fools get into this situation when life is actually somewhat beautiful, and easy too, no matter what writers say?
He has always found the shared tragedy of a couple heartbreaking. Something particularly sorrowful about the togetherness of man and woman in misfortune, even if they are not lovers. He would not want to look at their faces when their destruction begins, in a few hours.
He wonders why the Bureau has planned to capture Jamal this way. Why not just pluck him at home, or when he goes to the market. There would be too many witnesses? And, maybe they want to take him with his supplies, whatever it is that he is carrying in that bag or in the boot of the car. Also, Boss wants to know if he is going to pick up any interesting characters along the way. Apart from a young woman, that is. Men, dangerous men, that is what the Bureau is looking for.
Mukundan hopes a miracle would occur, that the Indica would stop on the highway and the girl would get away. She is probably only getting a ride to a relative’s home, who lives in one of those gloomy grey buildings by the highway.
The phone rings in his shirt pocket. It is Boss. ‘Sir.’ ‘Is the girl still there?’ ‘Yes, sir.’
‘We have to extract her before we take the car.’
‘We have about five hours to do that, if they don’t stop anywhere. But we can’t have a situation where Jamal changes his plan.’
‘We just want the girl out of the car, that’s all. Nothing else should change. We want him to be on course, we want him to come to us. We’re waiting.’
‘But we don’t want the girl.’
‘Got it, sir.’
‘We extract the girl without Jamal changing his plan.’
‘If you have a plan let me know. Don’t intervene until then. If things change, call.’
‘The thing is, Jamal might collect more people along the way. We are interested in those people.’
‘Jamal threw his luggage in the backseat, sir.’
‘He is not expecting anyone in the backseat, sir. Or maybe there are a lot of things in the boot, sir.’
‘Let’s wait for a while, let’s see if any men board. And then take a call.’
‘I’ll be in touch.’
‘We have to extract that girl.’
Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous will be released by HarperCollins India on 18 September.