Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub date: 15 April 2010
Source: Personal copy
Thirteen members of a family are found brutally murdered in Jullundar, a small town in Punjab. 14-year-old Durga is the only survivor, found tied to her bed with obvious signs of abuse. She is held in police custody as the only suspect in this terrible murder.
Simran Singh is a social worker who has been asked to look into the case and try and get Durga to talk to the police and tell them what really happened that night.
Partly based on some real events, Witness the Night is a mystery that deals with the plight of women in traditional India – in particular in Punjabi wealthy families.
Like in many cultures (really, most of them) a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to provide heirs. The pressure is likely more when there is a large inheritance involved since girls cannot be considered heirs. They are schooled and groomed to become acceptable wives and daughters-in-law in respectable homes.
Desai weaves the plight of women, female infanticide/feticide and the collusion between the police and these rich families into this dark tale of mass murder and subterfuge.
The story is told via three different narrative threads: the social worker Simran’s narrative, where she tries to understand what happened; from Durga’s diary entries during the time that she was in police custody; and the emails that Durga’s aunt Binny’s sends to Simran.
There is some degree of artifice in this kind of structure. Binny didn’t need to give little dribbles of information once she had established that Simran could be trusted. Durga’s diary entries also don’t smack of realism considering the state of confusion and numbness she was in. But they all serve rather well to let us get to know each of these characters and advance the story.
The author also tends to stuff facts into the story which derail the narrative somewhat. The facts are relevant to the story but their journalistic voice takes away from the characters and their story.
Despite these structural problems, this is a story that works. One reason is simply Simran. A woman who has fought against her traditional role, a social worker who drinks and smokes and has escaped from her small town roots is someone to be admired in that social setup. Her obvious sincerity comes through and her story is a good read.
Another reason that the story works is that is deals with some very complex issues that hit close to home. The issues stem from the idea in most traditional homes that women should be controlled and the Neanderthal notion that boys are simply better than girls.
As Simran uncovers more about the family, what she learns shocks her and the reader. The suspense comes not so much from finding out who the murderer is (as it is quite clear even at the beginning of the book) but in resolving Durga’s plight. The reader is never in any doubt that she deserves a chance at a normal life, to leave behind the trauma she has suffered and try and find some semblance of happiness and normalcy.
Definitely recommended for readers interested in women’s issues especially in India. Those who are looking purely for a mystery might be disappointed.
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