Winner of the 2010 COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD
Author : Kishwar Desai
Publishers : HarperCollins Publishers India in a joint venture with India Today Group in India and Beautiful Books in UK.
Year : 2010
Narrative : Fiction
Genre : Crime, Mystery, Social Issues
Pages : 213
About The Author:
Kishwar Desai, wife of eminent economist Meghnad Desai, has worked in the print and broadcast media for more than 30 years. She was also a President of Zee Telefilms. Her first book ‘Darlingji : The True Love Story Of Nargis and Sunil Dutt’ was published by HarperCollins Publishers India in 2007. Now, she is a full time writer, with her first novel ‘Witness The Night’. She also writes a weekly Saturday column in the Asian Age newspaper.
She lives between London, Delhi and Goa.
Set in the year 2007 in Punjab, it is the story of a 45-year-old social worker Simran solving the mystery of a mass murder of a family in Jullundur, where the sole suspect is Durga, the family’s youngest child. The story is very strongly based on social issues of female infanticide and female foeticide. It also touches themes of love, adolescence, drug abuse, corruption and criminal psychology.
"It happens when you lead a reclusive life. You make up things all the time. I wonder now if I made him up, too."
Durga, a 14-year-old girl, from a wealthy and reputed family of Jullundur, is found alive and tied to her bed with signs of physical abuse, on the night of the murder of her 13 family members. With no evidence available against anyone else, she is found to be the sole suspect for the murders and hence taken into police custody. However, Durga is silent ever since she was found. Simran, a social worker and an ‘amateur psychotherapist’ is called in from Delhi by her old friend Amarjit, the Inspector General in Punjab, to try and get Durga talk about what happened on the night of the murder.
The story is told through three narratives: 1.Durga’s narration through her letters that she writes to Simran but never gives her, 2.Simran’s narration and 3.the email conversations between Simran and Durga’s sister-in-law Brinda (Binny) who left for UK just a day before the murders.
Although Simran manages to make Durga talk a little bit, her interactions with other people lead to opening up of the case. As she moves ahead unravelling the mystery, she figures that there are only two people other than her, who believe that Durga is not a murderer, but more of a victim. She realises that the only way to prove Durga's innocence is to find what happened to her elder sister Sharda, who is missing since 5 years.
"I still lover her(mother). But from Sharda, I learnt to temper the love. I removed from it all strands of hypocrisy & when i pared it down to the core, there was very little feeling left."
The three narratives of the book are simultaneous for each chapter, but they all are from the perspective of the girl’s innocence, and hence one would easily figure out, especially from Durga’s letters, what really must have happened on the night of the murder.Durga’s narration is especially chilling, because at a young age, ‘she had experienced far, far too much’. The relationship that she shared with her elder sister Sharda, and the rest of her family, is very well portrayed in her letters.
“most people were too busy to wonder about missing daughters”
The author, through the character of Simran, has tried to bring in a lot of socially disturbing issues like the Samjhauta Express blast, Delhi blast, Ruchika Girhotra case, dowry and women trafficking. At some point these may seem untimely and unnecessary, because they moved away from the storyline.
Through the characters of Durga and Simran, the author has given different angles to the quintessential Indian woman.
Durga is a child deprived of love, who is repeatedly told by her family that girls are only meant for producing a male heir, who even tries to convince her parents that she is no less than a boy by becoming extremely tomboyish, but later, slowly accepts the reality of being an unwanted daughter in a patriarchal family with dirty secrets.
Simran, on the other hand, being born and brought up in the same town as Durga, was subjected to a very different upbringing. She was loved by her parents, particularly her possessive mother. She smokes, and drinks and is very upfront about her personality. She represents the modern woman of India, who can go against the grain, and stand up for what is right.
The story is realistic, and that is why the ending may not seem very satisfying to people who like good endings where the negative characters (and this books has a lot of them) are punished or at least have a guilt trip.
I particularly liked the book for its exposure of the way girls are treated (if they are ever let to live) in patriarchal families. Although Kishwar Desai has tried to put all dark things about India in one book, she has undeniably done justice to at least one theme, of gender discrimination.
She concludes the book with the promise of a sequel.
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