Monday, 28 March 2011

Witness the Night: a Review

 How does one avoid the tyranny of dreams? The footsteps that keep taking you back to a house full of ghosts, where every window has a face staring from it, each face once beloved and known, now with bloodied eyes and grey lips, their hands drooping, bodies limp, yet yearning. They are all silent.

Of the eight principal rasas that Bharata enumerates in his Natyashastra, the vibhatsa rasa is perhaps the most difficult to render effectively in literature, especially in a text as long as a novel.  But the primary rasa of Kishwar Desai’s powerful novel Witness the Night (HarperCollins 2010) is undoubtedly vibhatsa – roughly translated as ‘the odious’ and traditionally represented by the colour blue and  the deity Mahakala.

The book begins on a chilling, almost surreal, note. Inside a palatial mansion in the posh Company Bagh neighbourhood of Jullundur, an entire family of thirteen has been brutally murdered. Fourteen-year-old Durga, the sole suspect, is found tied to a bed with signs of abuse on her body. Even as the ‘legal’ system tries to pin the murders on Durga, and she, in the aftermath of extreme shock refuses to talk about that night altogether, a social worker, Simran, is summoned from Delhi. Indeed, it is the only concession made for the minor Durga by the Inspector General of Punjab, Amarjit.   

Simran, Amarjit’s old flame, and the rather radical whisky-swigging, chain-smoking ‘khadi-clad NGO-wali’ – as she calls herself – in her early forties, is a misfit of sorts who immediately arrests the reader’s attention with a sharp original voice. Simran is a sparkling character, the likes of who are rather rare in contemporary genre fiction. Her self-deprecating humour and her phone calls – reported and otherwise – with her socialite mother obsessed with marrying her off – offer comic relief in an otherwise dark tale.

Simran has her own difficult history with Jullundur, the now no-longer-very-small town that she had outgrown and left in her early twenties. And while she battles with Durga’s difficult case - where every breakthrough is followed by a wall of complicitous silence and sordid secrets - she finds her own personal angst resurfacing, even as the murky politics of collusion between the police, the media and the judicial system suck her deeper and deeper into a mire of horrifying truths where nothing is what it seems.

The larger cast of characters are well-drawn and ring true – Harpreetsir, the handsome green-eyed tutor who had taught Durga and her sister Sharda (who seems to have disappeared without a trace a year or so ago) with his quasi-mystical influence on all women including Simran; Binny, Durga’s pregnant sister-in-law, a British national and her only other surviving relative, who displays great fondness for Durga and hardly any for her dead husband; Ramnath, the villainous police inspector who seems bent on obstructing Simran at every step. If the last is a bit of a stereotype, it works well as an element in a novel that is structured like a thriller. As Simran begins to probe deeper and ask uncomfortable questions, hoping to understand Durga’s truth better, a reality emerges that is so horrifying in its dimensions that only the vibhatsa rasa can render its searing tale.  A tragedy that is born as a consequence of extreme pain and humiliation that has been inflicted over long generations.

And that is where Witness the Night becomes something else – from well-written genre fiction it becomes a haunting chronicle of the unspoken – gendercide. In a country where girls can go missing at any stage in their life – as foetuses, infants, and young women who might have made the mistake of falling in love with someone of their own choice – and in many cases, when they didn’t go missing, when an extreme death sentence was not pronounced over their heads, but they were made to live their entire lives as the less valuable ones in a society obsessed with male children, Desai’s book fulfils an imminent need – of making the subject of academic books and sporadic news flashes into the theme of a work of popular fiction, and therefore accessible to many more.

Saying that is, however, not to take away from the novel’s craft. Built neatly, it successfully walks the tightrope between crime fiction and psychological novel, with the voices of the three women directing the narrative; principally, Simran’s first-person account, then, Durga’s prison diary and finally, emails from Binny in the UK. This is a clever strategy as the suspense works on two levels – one, the whodunit; two, as the reader has access to Durga’s prison diary long before Simran does, it is very engaging to watch Simran trying to piece the truth – and the reader, always a step ahead, is rooting for her to not falter or give up. 

The backdrop is disturbingly real. Figures indicate that in urban Punjab and Haryana, the sex-ratio at birth is dangerously skewed and Chandigarh, one of the shiniest, newest, best-planned cities of modern India, has a sex ratio of 777:1000. The conclusion is self-evident: it is the rich who often with the help of technological advances are killing their girls far more than the poor. Another angle that Desai weaves into her narrative is the close cousin of gendercide – female trafficking, usually of minor girls from poorer states of India. Thus, the stark image of the rich landlord’s country house on the outskirts of Jullundur with a private harem of underage Bihari girls who are kept in semi-captivity and regularly give birth to illegitimate children. ‘The more I wrote,’ Desai says of her debut novel, ‘the angrier I got!’

In spite of Desai’s strength – and experience of 30 years – as a journalist though, the telling of the tale does not descend into reportage; and that is primarily because Simran is a very engaging protagonist. Her anger, her despair are both finally transformative – and that is how the novel manages to reach a space of comparative calm – from where the strains of  vibhatsa changes colours into karuna rasa. By avoiding a tidy ending and imagining one which offers possibilities for individual redemption Witness the Night, not only draws to our attention some of the deeper cultural malaises that we Indians need to confront and redress, but also creates an exemplary protagonist who offers strange optimism in cynical times.

Desai is currently working on Simran’s next – and one definitely looks forward to it.    

(Published in December in The Bengal Post.)  


  1. A most disturbing and excellently narrated story.
    It really shakes one out of one's complacency.

  2. It does jolt one out of complacency, doesn't it?