Book Review | Witness the Night

While it reads like a crime novel, Rose Lapira discovers that there’s far more than cheap thrills in Kishwar Desai’s expose of India’s dark underbelly.

Having a murder mystery at its centre, Desai’s novel explores the injustices young women still face in India.
Having a murder mystery at its centre, Desai’s novel explores the injustices young women still face in India.

Quoting Elizabeth Hardwick, 'the greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.' I was fortunate to have had this gift from as far as I can remember.

When I was young I liked reading crime stories, or so-called detective stories. With time my reading interests shifted elsewhere, even though the genre changed considerably since Maigret et al. Scandinavian authors in particular have excelled in crime novels, probably reaching a peak with the extraordinary success of Stieg Larsson.

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai could be read as a crime novel. It recounts the story of Durga, a 14-year-old girl who is found tied to a bed, beaten and abused, while 13 members of her family lie dead around her. This takes place in a village in Punjab in India.

The police believe she committed the murders. 45-year-old Simran Singh, a social activist from Delhi, is the only one who believes her to be innocent, and is charged with finding out what really happened on that terrible night.

As a mystery story, the plot does not always flow easily and a more subtle approach is required to get us involved with the characters. But the book is much more than a thriller and is very much worth reading - even if one does not love the genre - because it is an issue-based book.

With this debut novel, Desai won the UK's Costa First Novel Award 2010, the judges noting that 'this is a book that is not afraid to tackle serious themes... and Desai has fearlessly blown the lid on the problems that simmer under the surface of modern day India'.

Desai focuses on a social issue which shows the culture and tradition of prejudice that still exists towards women in India.

The book tackles the difficult subject of female infanticide and female foeticide. The author - who is UK based - is a journalist and TV script writer, and was head of a TV channel in India. While doing research for the book, Desai was horrified by the scale of horrendous practices where almost every state is affected, and by the public's indifference. With this book, she wanted to bring the issue to the attention of mainstream Western world, hoping to create more awareness and provoke debate.

By killing female infants at birth and female foetuses, it has been estimated that in the past 20 years, there are at least 30 million women 'missing' from the population. Three decades ago, a law was passed which made it illegal to undergo pre-natal sex selection tests; however these have gone underground and are still being practiced.

Ironically, increased prosperity and the latest advances in medical services have led to more abuses. Tests are being used to determine the sex of the foetus, with the intention of getting an abortion if it is female, and the mother has no choice but to comply.

A female is seen as a 'bad investment', despite of the great advances made by this country, where the wish for a son is very strong in a society which is still patriarchal and patrilineal.  This is also creating a huge gender imbalance.

Women are suffering a loss of their own sense of identity and are often complicit in this suppression. By complying, they are made to feel accepted within the patriarchal system.  But the author wants us to see the other side of the coin as well.

By creating the character of Simran, a female social worker, Desai wants us to know that there are many independent, unconventional women who do not accept the role of victim and are making a big difference in India.

Simran is in effect the central character of the book, rather than the 14-year-old girl Durga. Desai has created a strong willed, chain-smoking, whisky drinking, liberal and outspoken woman, unconventional in her amorous adventures: a free spirit totally in control of her life. Simran is one of the successes of the book and Desai has been commissioned to write a series with Simran at the centre to address issues that are not usually discussed in the open. 

With this book, Kishwar Desai has helped to increase awareness about the incidence of hidden female repression in India, despite measures taken to try and incentivise female births.

These cannot be truly effective, unless accompanied by the socio-economic empowerment of women and by a change of mind sets. January 24 has been declared the National Girl Child Day. But the survival of the 'girl child' remains at risk.