Fiction – Kindle edition; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2010.
Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night recently won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award. I was intrigued by the novel’s exploration of the hidden world of female infanticide in India, so downloaded it to my Kindle shortly after the announcement was made.
The story opens with the diary entry of a 14-year-old girl that feels like a candid, if somewhat confused, confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are hazy, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.
The narrative then shifts to the social worker, Simran Singh, who has been assigned the case. It turns out that the girl, Durga, is now in a remand home, charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt.
Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Singh is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved.
What follows is Singh’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the convoluted Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire culture intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that Singh begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.
Singh’s narrative is bookmarked at the beginning and end of each chapter with two others: Durga’s diary entries, which provide an insight into her thought processes and painful family history, and Durga’s London-based sister-in-law, Binny, who corresponds with Singh via email, offering further clues to Durga’s complicated background.
While the story is easy to read and Singh is an intriguing, well-drawn and unconventional character — 45 years old, single and still trying to escape her mother’s emotional blackmail regarding the need to settle down and produce children — the structure of the book doesn’t quite work.
Binny’s emails might give the story a contemporary feel and offer some clues to Durga’s plight, but they come across as forced and interrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. By comparison, Durga’s diary entries lack authenticity on the basis they just seem too well written for a traumatised teenager to have compiled. (They also offer way too many obvious clues as to what happened on the night of the murders.)
In her “Author’s Note” Desai claims that while the characters in her book are fictional, the events are true. I suspect she is referring to infanticide as “events” or perhaps it’s the actual crime? She doesn’t specify. She adds: “There is a complicity of corruption between the police, the judicial system, politicians, media and the uncivil society […] gender issues are still treated with contempt.”
If that is truly the case, then hopefully Desai’s novel may bring this problem to the attention of a wider audience. But despite the worthy aims of Witness the Night, I’m not sure that the story comes up with quite the same impact as, say, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (about the Rwandan genocide), which I read shortly before it.
That said, Witness the Night is a refreshing take on the psychological crime novel. If you can forgive the author’s tendency to editorialise (Desai tends to cram her normally effortless prose with chunky passages of facts and news-like observations), then this new series featuring Simran Singh is one that promises to be worth following.