Monday, August 6, 2012

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Kishwar Desai's Witness the Night won the Costa First Novel Award two years ago but, somehow, this murder mystery set in India wasn't on my radar until I heard Desai interviewed by Simon Savidge some time ago on The Readers podcast. Desai talked about the real-life unsolved crime that was the inspiration for her novel, as well as her desire to bring attention to the plight of women and girls in India.

All thirteen members of a wealthy and influential Sikh family in a Punjab village have been murdered, except for 14-year-old Durga. The police find her tied to a bed, abused, but alive. Durga is the prime -- and only -- suspect. Social worker Simran Singh has been asked if she can get the traumatized girl to speak.

Forty-five years old and never married, Simran is not a typical Sikh woman. She drinks and smokes. A lot. Her search for justice is fueled by deep anger.

"The headlines on television announced that saplings were being planted in memory of all the 'disappeared daughters.' Punjab is known for murdering its daughters. The sex ratio here is the lowest in the country -- less than 850 girls per 1,000 men -- and despite all sorts of dire warnings from social scientists and demographers, girls are still considered inauspicious. In Chandigarh, the uber urban capital that Punjab shares with Haryana, it is now 777 per thousand males. In some villages of Haryana it is a miserable 370. Delhi is also fast reaching those dismal figures. I thought of trees being planted all over the concrete mass of the city -- and all the cities of the country. The bright life-affirming green against the dead grey of the cityscape. Trees pushing out of windows, bedrooms, school rooms, offices, toy shops, bridal parlours, empty cradles... green leaves left like tiny footprints everywhere the girls would have been had they lived."

The police are obviously concealing evidence regarding the murders, so Simran doesn't trust the justice system to treat Durga fairly. Her own investigation into the web of secrets alternates with Durga's journal entries.

"[My sister and I] had just learnt that next door, the girl who had gone away as a bride had come back as a corpse within a month, she had been burnt because her dowry had been insufficient. We cried to Amla that we did not want to be paraya dhan. Couldn't we become boys? Boys were safe, they got shares, did not have to leave their homes."

Durga loved to wear trousers and a turban when she was young. She has had a sexual relationship with her beloved older sister. Durga is possibly a lesbian, although her psyche has been so warped by her family that it's hard to tell. Simran, meanwhile, has quite a puzzle on her hands.

I'm very glad to have read Witness the Night, and now I want to discuss the ending with someone. Please comment below.

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