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Why I Find Dystopia Liberating: An Insight into Handmaid’s Tale and Leila

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

I wish this story were different. I wish it were about love, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. I am sorry there is so much pain in this story. I am sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopia is commonly understood as a style of writing literature wherein the author imagines an alternative future, one of grave injustices and socio-political torment. The ulterior motive of dystopian literature is to disturb the stable state of mind and arouse a sense of vigilantism and sensitivity towards rights in the minds of readers. Dystopian authors are quite successful in doing so. Be it the gut-wrenching treatment meted out to women in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale or the sheer violation of rights by a cynical, imaginary, right-wing state in Prayaag Akbar’s novel Leila, readers often felt disturbed and dismayed by this portrayal of oppression. However, this same dystopia which a major chunk of people find perturbing, I find liberating. Very liberating.

One of the major reasons behind the association of liberation with dystopia is that though dystopia explains a future possibility, it is all about the present. The subtle signs of the present that we ignore have the potential of turning into a draconian and disturbing reality in the future. So, while these signs of the present are pretty successful in giving pangs of anxiety to me, when I think about dystopia, where there are no such subtle signs, no indirect snatching away of rights, where oppression hails but in a very outright form, where there is no art of propaganda, no veil of goodness, where everyone is well aware that there is something at fault in the state of affairs and that they have been reduced to the stature of a helpless worm in front of the state, I feel more relieved. In a dystopian context, everybody is aware of the danger to their lives, rights, and dignity and thus there is scope for resistance. However, in a context where a veil of ignorance and propaganda completely covers the sound minds of the masses, a mediocre society is created. One in which the scope of resistance is highly limited. In such scenarios, only a few people are conscious of the deadly threats a state-like structure is posing. This induces enough anxiety in me.

For instance, in The Handmaid’s Tale, fertility issues in women resulted in the emergence of a male-dominated totalitarian state called Gilead which reduced the position of a few women to ‘two-legged worms’ whose sole purpose was supposed to reproduce and give Gilead it’s progeny (called the handmaids) and a few women as the ‘chaste wives’ of Commanders (the commanders controlled political and international affairs of the state) whose lives were not different from that of a dancing girl trapped in a glass, who existed to portray a facade of Gilead’s peace and prosperity. And then there were Marthas, women who have crossed the ‘fertile age’ and can no more reproduce. Their existence did not matter much to the state and the household, only their manual work was something that counted. To many, the basic construct and plot of the novel appeared traumatic. One of the major reasons being the way handmaids were forcefully impregnated by the Commanders (for only the commanders were allowed to pass their genes onto the offspring) without their consent. The brutality was pathetic. But, it all emerged from the signs that society ignored at a point in time. In the plot, when feminists demanded the right to choice and freedom, they were silenced and ignored. And then there were men and women who sympathized with these women fighting relentlessly for their rights but dared not to support them, immersed in the privilege of their lavish lives. The result was a ruthless and cynical state coming into power, raping women and calling it a moral ritual to save the earth, mentally harassing a few women in the name of ‘chastity’ and not recognizing the existence of many women when it was not for their manual labor.

Still, I consider this dystopian situation better than the previous ‘normal’ situation. The oppression is in its outright form and so is resistance. The Handmaids, Marthas, and the Wives unite to resist the tyranny. After resisting enough, they become the resistance. Dystopia brought together women from different classes and contexts. I am sure, the subtle signs of the ‘normal’ would not be able to do it. The women of Atwood are chained by the state but are strangely free. Numerous instances of courage and protest, from the protagonist negotiating with the international governments to reveal the horrors happening in the state to a wife reading a paragraph from a book and thus breaking the law, can be found in the novel.

A famous quote very well explains this: ‘We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.’

Far from this 80s American dystopia, back to the homeland is an example of perhaps the finest dystopian literature ever written: Leila by Prayaag Akbar. I grew fond of this literature especially amidst the recent right-wing suffocation. Attack on journalists, academics, students, and humanitarian activists often made me melancholic. The present had little hope to offer so I turned to this dystopia. When the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act was passed that snatched away from a community everything they held dear by disregarding their presence in their own land, it filled me with rage and desolation at the same time. I felt defenseless against the cynicism of the right-wing state. That’s when Leila came into the picture.

The novel is primarily based on a totalitarian regime called ‘Aryavarta’ led by a supreme leader who believes in the ‘purity of race’. Women who had married men from communities other than Hindu, especially Muslim were supposed to undergo a process of ‘purification’ inside camps. Children born from such marriages were called ‘mixed’ and were treated differently. Images of Gandhi and Ambedkar were banned and every basic resource, even water, was immensely capitalized.

Again, this was way better than oppression and cynicism performed under the veil of propaganda. Certain communities were brutally discriminated, but categorically and not in pretentious forms. Every single soul bears the brunt of authoritarian state actions and not a few ‘woke’ individuals. Even the ones belonging to the ‘preferred’ religious communities were not happy in Leila. Power was controlled by a handful of men. At least injustice was shared equally. Equal injustice paves way for equal justice. What can be more liberating than the mere thinking of this idea?

This is not to disregard the opinions of people who find dystopia disturbing and daunting. But then, one needs to realize that the origins of this ‘daunting’ dystopia lies in the ‘perfect’ present. If you cannot bear the pain of dystopia, shatter your privilege of the present. After all, dystopian literature is meant to generate vigilantism in the minds of readers. Dystopia aims to create a utopia. So, daunting or liberating what one can agree with is that rights must be valued before they get reduced to bogus claims. And as the protagonist of Handmaid’s Tale very rightly reinforces,

No lite de bastardes corborandum

Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

Srushti Sharma

Delhi South '20

Just trying to strike a balance between personal havoc and societal farce in whatever I write :)