Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Powerful and thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

witness the night2When a family is horrifically murdered, the sole survivor becomes the chief suspect, even though she is a fourteen-year-old girl who had been found tied up at the scene and had herself clearly been assaulted and raped. Durga is now in prison and social worker Simran Singh is called in by her old friend Amarjit, the Inspector General in Punjab, to assess her mental health and decide whether she can be interrogated. But Simran finds it impossible to believe in Durga’s guilt and so sets out to investigate the events that led up to the murders…

This powerful book won the Costa First Novel award in 2010. The murder story itself is hard-hitting, but the real purpose of the book is to take a much more in-depth look at the place of girls and women within Punjabi society, and it doesn’t pull any punches. In a society where male children are treasured, female infanticide is shown as commonplace, while women who fail to produce male children are stigmatised and may be cast aside to face a life of poverty and disgrace. With the advancement of medicine, Desai shows how the ability to determine the gender of a foetus has led to the practice of aborting females, sometimes with the mother’s willing consent, but sometimes forced. At the same time, these very practices mean there is a shortage of females of marriageable age, leading to arranged marriages with girls from Indian families elsewhere. The book also shows the continuing cultural after-effects of Empire and the links with the large Asian community in Britain, specifically Southall, an overwhelmingly Asian-populated suburb of London, where the elders still conform to old traditions while the younger generation are much more anglicised in their outlook.

Simran is independently wealthy, so has escaped the traditional need to marry and breed. She is a modern woman, who smokes and drinks and has boyfriends, all things considered quite shocking here in the town of Jullundur where she grew up, but which she left many years ago. Though she’s now in her forties, Simran’s mother still hasn’t given up hope of marrying her off and getting some grandchildren, and this aspect of the story adds some much-needed humour to lighten the tone in places, while also allowing the author to contrast the more enlightened attitudes of some areas of India to those prevailing in Jullundur.

Kishwar Desai
Kishwar Desai

The story is mainly told by Simran in the first-person (past-tense, thankfully) intercut with sections from Durga’s journal and e-mails between Simran and Durga’s sister-in-law in Southall. The plot is a little too convoluted and sometimes messy – it seems as if Desai has wanted to cover so many issues that she has had to cram too much in for total plausibility. There is an occasional descent into preachiness but not badly enough to destroy the effectiveness of the story. The writing is good rather than excellent, and for my taste there were too many unexplained Indian words that left me floundering for a meaning from time to time. I also wondered if the society and culture could really be quite as bleak as Desai paints it, but perhaps it is.

None of these points, however, take away from the impact of the book. Unlike so many of the crime novels I’ve been disappointed by recently, this one shows what the genre can do when it’s done well – cast some light on aspects of society that are normally hidden, and tell a strong and hard-hitting story without indulging in lengthy descriptions of gratuitous sex and misogynistic violence for the sole purpose of ‘entertainment’. Desai has subsequently written a further two Simran books, and I will be keen to see how she develops the character and what subjects she tackles in those. Meantime, this one is highly recommended.

Thanks to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for the recommendation that led me to this book.

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32 thoughts on “Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

  1. It sounds like it is worthwhile to take time to read it. I used to follow a blog that dealt with those sorts of issues in India. Distressing, it was.

  2. And thanks to you, FictionFan, for the kind mention. I’m so glad you thought it such a good read. I did too. Perhaps it’s not perfect (but what book is?), but it had a deep and lasting impact on me, too. And I do like the character of Simran Singh.

    • Very powerful read, Margot – thanks for highlighting it. Indeed, no book is perfect, but a strong story and something that’s thought-provoking make up for the occasional style flaw. I wondered, have you read the later books? Were they as strong?

      • I haven’t yet, FictionFan. Origins of Love is coming up on my TBR. I’ve heard form someone I trust that it’s quite good without perhaps the gut-level intensity of this one. I’ll let you know when I read it.

        • Thanks, Margot – I’ll be interested to hear what you think! I did wonder if she’d be able to maintain it – this one seemed so heartfelt somehow.

    • Yes, it’s been on my TBR for months since Margot picked it as one of her top books of last year – definitely well worth reading. Hope you enjoy it!

    • Thanks for the like but I think you’re right – this one probably isn’t for you. Though the subject matter would interest you, I’m sure, the format is very typical crime novel.

  3. I’ve had this on my radar for some time now and I think the only way I’m going to get round to reading it is to put it on one of my book group lists. Fortunately, given what you’ve said, I know just the group to give it to.

    • I think it would be great for a book club. Lots to discuss about the writing quality and style and the way it’s structured, as well as about the issues it raises…

  4. The whole gender abortion issue is very alive in my mind at the moment, as I have been part of a group campaigning against it in this country, and we heard yesterday (it’s on the News today) that new advice is to be issued to all clinics that this is in fact illegal – yaay! It’s a growing problem though, so anything that highlights it, and the concomitant denial of women’s rights has to be A Good Thing. So I’ll add this one to the list – sigh.

    • Yes, I think you might ‘enjoy’ this one. The thing that seems craziest is the fact that all these precious sons end up with no wives – you’d think that that little problem had become clear enough after the Chinese one child experiment. But I fear that, no matter what the law says, this practice will still go on for some time yet. Designer babies are becoming the norm in so many sectors of society now – not just the traditional ones.

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