This compelling first novel by Kishwar Desai takes the reader to the heart of Punjab, where a world of unexpected horror and deceit and sorrow lies just beneath the veneer of upper-class society.
A grisly series of murder has taken place, in the course of which all of the Atwal family has been wiped out. The Atwals are rich and powerful and well-connected, and so their murders send shock-waves through the town of Jullunder. Even more shocking is the fact that the sole survivor of the murders is their very own teenage daughter Durga. And Durga is the main suspect. Raped, traumatised, orphaned – and yet no-one in Jullunder society has any sympathy for the 14-year old Durga.
Simran Singh, a social worker, is brought from Delhi to try and communicate with the child. 45 years old, unmarried, an energetic drinker and smoker, Simran is the antithesis of a nice respectable Punjabi girl, and she knows it. As does her poor long-suffering mother, who wants only to find her a husband. Simran’s discoveries lead her way beyond the role of social worker and into a world of intrigue, passion, murder, infanticide.
For behind the walls of the lavishly painted and even more lavishly decorated homes of Jullunder, there is a universe of violence. Violence of the worst kind. In a society where boys are prized, the birth of a baby girl is bad news. So the solution is, quite simply, to get rid of the new-born. The descriptions of the murder of new-born babies are horrific, and yet the practice is common. In the Atwal household, we are never quite sure how many baby girls have been killed, but what we do know is that two girls escaped the death envisaged for them – and one of them is missing, and the other is the prime suspect in the murder of her own parents and siblings.
A darkly fascinating read, this novel is well-written, and moves along at an energetic pace, cleverly combining narrative, e-mails and diary excerpts. And welcome to a very likeable heroine, the wryly realistic Simran Singh. She is middle-aged with a drinking problem. And she knows it.
Witness the Night is published by HarperCollins, and the paperback retails for Rs 225 in India.
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