It will be interesting to see if 2013, being my year of whim reading, is the year that I read much more crime. Already, and we are only a few weeks in, I am finding myself drawn to it more than any other genre, especially if it is a book that is about much more than just a murder or two to solve. One such book that illustrates this sort of crime fiction is ‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai which won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award and a book that I picked up at whim. It is one of those books which has murder very much at its heart but is also one that uses crime to look at wider issues, in this case some of the social issues in India.
Social services worker Simran Singh is called, by one of her ex-lovers, to look into the case of a fourteen year old girl who the police believe has just poisoned and stabbed thirteen members of her household before setting fire to it. Despite the fact that when found, Durga
, is barely alive and has been beaten and abused there seems to be no question of her innocence, yet as Simran starts to investigate further she begins to doubt the police and indeed their motives.
It is very hard to say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling the story for anyone who has yet to read the book. I can say that in ‘Witness the Night’ Desai uses this family to highlight many of the awful things that are going on, in particular to women and girls, in Indian society today – most of all infanticide of small girls who families no longer want. There is also a look into India’s ‘asylums for women’, are these women mad or merely unwanted and locked away. What happens when a woman doesn’t meet the demanded dowry into the marriage, or when the husband’s family want more? It is really an eye opening and visceral account of how women in India are pretty much endangered from birth, something which we have seen highlighted in the press of late due to certain shocking events occurring on a public bus. It also looks at what happens to the deemed lucky ones who do survive all of this, but there are still rules to conform to.
“Everything about the Christian faith made us aware of our own heathen upbringing, fed as we were on a diet of Readers Digest and Women’s Weekly. Whilst we had to wear salwar kameez at home, we were allowed to wear skirts and shirts and even ties and blazers to school. Which meant we had to (secretly) shave our legs and make sure that our burgeoning breasts didn’t bounce too obviously in the tight white shirts. To even get razors in a Sikh household was a nightmare. It meant bribing the chowkidaar with extra sweets on every Guru’s martyrdom day (yes, we celebrated the hacking of necks and gouging of eyes with delicious kara parshaad – wheat cooked in syrupy ghee) in the hope he would keep our secrets if we kept him well-fed.”
This could of course be incredibly depressing read, and it is a very emotionally wrought and often shocking book, yet Desai does something very clever with her protagonist Simran, she makes her quite rebellious. Simran is not your stereotypical Indian woman, or what society around her expects of one. Firstly, shock horror, she is not married at forty-five. She smokes and drinks rather a lot. She is opinionated and independent, owner of a large inheritance but living frugally and avoiding the society it would be more proper for her to associate with, in fact she looks down on those who look down on her. She is incredibly blunt and with it incredibly warm, suspicious and funny. I loved her.
“I reach for a cigarette. The pleasures of not sharing a room are many. You can fart in bed, and you can smoke without asking, ‘May I?’ I look across the chintz printed bed sheets and imagine The Last Boyfriend sprawled there. Hairy, fat, rich. Better than bald, thin and poor. But unbearably attached to his ‘Mummyji’.”
To have such a character as Simran at the heart of the book, a woman who survived being born a girl and then rebelled, gives a very interesting opposing angle. The book could veer into being a little bit pious or sanctimonious maybe, yet it never does. With characters like Simran’s despairing mother, we see the women who are lucky and who aren’t the target of Simran (or indeed Kishwar’s) unease and concern, though we do see the ones that are. It feels rounded and also adds a voice to the generations before Simran’s, as well as Durga’s also, who have lived with this for years with no choice as to whether to approve or not. She also uses them to highlight the fact that these people have been living with social inequality, poverty vs. riches and indeed terrorism for years and it has become the norm.
“‘I think I’ll just have a quiet evening at home here. There has been another bomb explosion outside Delhi. Al Qaeda, I believe. Or the Huji. Or the Harkat something or the other. No one really knows. It could be a Bangladeshi group or Pakistani group or a Kashmiri group. No one wants to celebrate. These damn suicide bombers are a complete nuisance.’
My mother is the master of the understatement.”
My only one slight critique was with Durga. The book is very cleverly told from several perspectives. Each chapter starts with Durga’s narrative, though who she is talking to you are not initially sure, in highlights. We then switch to Simran as she investigates before then reading emails from Simran to Durga’s sister in law who survived, Binny. It actually very cleverly builds a picture of the family and what happened from all sides. However occasionally Durga’s narrative didn’t quite ring true for me, only occasionally mind, and she seemed much older than her fourteen years. I knew she had been through a lot and was more worldly wise because of it, but every so often her comments on her life and world were almost too astute. A small thing though all in all.
I think ‘Witness the Night’ is an incredible book, utterly driven by a passion to shed light on some of a country’s darker sides and tell a story too. It is one of those books that I love that manages to straddle (Simran would love me using that word I am sure) both crime and literary fiction. Desai gives you a mystery which as uncovered gives you a story and insight into Indian society and one that I was genuinely shocked still exists. It is a book that brims with a dark underlying atmosphere and has all those page turning qualities, though never at the expense of the prose or characters. I am very much looking forward to Desai’s next book, ‘Origins of Love’, which sees another case for Simran and I had to hold back from pulling straight off the shelves to start as soon as I had finished this one. A sure sign of a very good book!
Has anyone else read ‘Witness the Night’ and what did you think of it? I would, as always, love to know your thoughts. Are there any other crime novels that you can think of which merge a good mystery with a real insight into a society’s underbelly?